Witchcraft and divination in the Hebrew Bible

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William Blake: Saul, the shade of Samuel and the witch of Endor; one example of witchcraft in the Bible which is not apparently condemned.

Various forms of witchcraft and divination are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh or Old Testament), generally (but not always) in a disapproving tone.

Hebrew Bible[edit]

The Torah assigns the death penalty to practitioners of certain forms of witchcraft and divination; the Holiness Code of Leviticus ascribes the death penalty for two of the three necromantic practices, namely Ba'al ob and Yidde'oni,[1] while the Covenant Code of Exodus ascribes it for kashaph.[2]

According to Ann Jeffers, necromancy was practiced throughout Israel's history, as evidenced by the presence of laws forbidding it.[3]

The Masoretic Text forbids:

  • nahash;[4][5] as a noun, nahash translates as snake, and as a verb it literally translates as hissing. The verb form can be extended to mean whispering.
  • onan;[4][5] onan literally translates as clouds, possibly referring to nephomancy.
  • kashaph;[5][2] kashaph is of ambiguous meaning, being either from a root meaning mutter,[6] or from a compound of the words kash (herb) and hapalah (using) - hence meaning herb user.[7] The Septuagint renders the same phrase as pharmakia (poison).[8]
  • being a ba'al ob;[1][9] ba'al ob literally means master of spirits. The corresponding parts of the Septuagint refer to eggastrimuthos. (gastromancy).[10] This term is also used to describe the Witch of Endor, whom Saul enlists to summon the shade of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28
  • being a yidde'oni;[1][9] yidde'oni literally means gainer of information from ghosts
  • being a doresh el ha-metim;[9] doresh el ha-metim literally means (one who) questions corpses
  • qasam qesem;[5] qasam qesem literally means distributes distributions.
  • khabar kheber;[5] khabar kheber literally means join joinings.

Specific verses[edit]

  • Micah 5:12 expresses that witchcraft, as specified, will be eliminated among those of Israel.
  • Deuteronomy 33:8-10 refers to the Levites' use of the Urim and Thummim and various forms of sacrifice as instruments of divination to determine guilt and innocence in law cases.[11]
  • The silver chalice that is placed in Benjamin's sack when he leaves Egypt is described as being used by Joseph for divination, which is often taken as a reference to its use for scrying.[12][13]
  • Numbers 5;11-31 describes a practice of making a wife who has been accused of adultery drink a mixture of water and dust from the floor of the Tabernacle in order to prove her guilt or innocence.[14]
  • 1 Samuel 28: Saul enlists a woman to summon the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel


Many of these condemnations come from Deuteronomy 18:9-14 which is the only part of the Hebrew Bible referring to legal precepts which portrays these forms of divination as of foreign origin. Leviticus makes no such claim.[15]

The exact difference between the three forbidden forms of necromancy is a matter of uncertainty; yidde'oni is always used together with ob,[16] and its semantic similarity to doresh el ha-metim raises the question of why all three are mentioned in the same verse of Deuteronomy.[17] Rashi describes the doresh el ha-metim as a person who would sleep in cemeteries, after having starved themselves, in order to become possessed.

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Leviticus 20:27
  2. ^ a b Exodus 22:18
  3. ^ Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria, Ann Jeffers, BRILL, 1996, pg 181
  4. ^ a b Leviticus 19:26
  5. ^ a b c d e Deuteronomy 18:10-11
  6. ^ Strong's concordance
  7. ^ Webster's New World Hebrew Dictionary
  8. ^ Exodus 22:17 (LXX);
  9. ^ a b c Deuteronomy 18:11
  10. ^ Leviticus 20:27 (LXX)
  11. ^ Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria, Ann Jeffers, BRILL, 1996, pg 62
  12. ^ http://www.religioustolerance.org/divin_bibl.htm
  13. ^ Crystal-Gazing, Theodore Besterman, Cosimo, Inc., 1 Jan 2005, pg 73
  14. ^ The Lost Art of Enochian Magic: Angels, Invocations, and the Secrets Revealed to Dr. John Dee, John DeSalvo, Inner Traditions / Bear & Co, 14 May 2010, pg 24
  15. ^ Divination in Ancient Israel and its Near Eastern Environment: A Socio-Historical Investigation, Frederick H. Cryer, A&C Black, 1 May 1994, pg 231, 232
  16. ^ Magic and Divination in Ancient Palestine and Syria, Ann Jeffers, BRILL, 1996, pg 172
  17. ^ specifically, Deuteronomy 18:11