Why Would God Order the Execution of a Sorcerer?

ballA good friend recently offered this question.  It comes out of Exodus 22:18.  In that verse, God plainly said, You shall not permit a sorceress to live.

Old Testament passages like this have disturbed a lot of people. They see Jesus of the New Testament as the kind of person who would stop a stoning, not start one (John 8).  Jesus encouraged love and forgiveness for one another.  The thought of dragging a witch out of town and stoning her makes God seem so… well, un-Christlike.  Some read a passage like this and feel that the Old Testament God is too harsh.  He seems unfair. Or, they suspect that the God of the Old Testament is so unlike the God of the New that the two cannot be seen as the same.  I suspect that these are the types of questions raised by these kinds of passages.

These can be valid questions.  Understanding the Old and New Testaments can be a challenging thing.  Trying to harmonize their apparent differences is not always easy.  However, I believe that if we approach these questions with an open mind, then we can generally find some good answers.

As with any Bible passage, context is extremely important.  Therefore, we need to examine the overall context of Exodus 22.  In so doing, we will discover that the verse in question is part of a larger list of rules, or laws, given by God to the Hebrew people.  These laws immediately follow a covenant – or contract – that God made with the nation of Israel.  In the covenant, God promised to bless the nation and be their God, while the Hebrew people agreed to obey Him and be known as the people of God.

The laws that God gave covered a wide variety of topics; from being kind to strangers (Ex 22:21), to avoid charging interest on loans to the poor (Ex 22:25), and to return an enemy’s donkey if it has wandered off (Ex 23:4).  Some offenses for breaking God’s laws were worthy of only minor punishments, while others – like being a sorcerer – were more severe.

What is very important to keep in mind about these laws is the common thread that runs through them. That is, they were made between God and the Hebrew people who were to be called by God’s name.  These rules did not apply to anyone else.  The Philistines were not required to keep the Sabbath laws.  The Amorities were not expected to avoid eating pork, and the Perezites were not under any command to love their enemies.  All of the laws that God gave were for the Hebrews.  And, the Hebrews were not called by God to go out and enforce God’s rules on the people who did not belong to God.  In other words, the Jews were not told to hunt down witches in other lands.  These other people were not in a covenant with God, and, therefore, could not be accused of violating that covenant.

If a foreigner wanted to become part of the nation of Israel, he or she would be required to accept and abide by these national laws.  If so, then they were accepted into national Israel.

It’s not really different in our world today.  If you are an American citizen, then you are expected to pay an income tax to the IRS.  If you don’t pay the tax, the IRS has the power to have you punished.  However, if you are a British citizen living in England, the IRS has no power over you.  You would be free to live without restriction by the IRS because you fall outside of their jurisdiction.

God had the right to give His people certain laws that they would be expected to keep. However, if you were a Jew in Moses’ time, and wanted to eat pork and open a business as a fortune teller, you would have to leave national Israel and renounce your citizenship.  You could not violate the laws of God and at the same time be considered part of God’s community.

But, someone might say, isn’t the execution of sorcerer a bit severe?  Well, as I’ve already pointed out, if you wanted to be a witch you could renounce your citizenship and move.  No Israelite was forced against their will to remain in fellowship with God.  Furthermore, the severity of the punishment was completely up to God.  I believe that God knew that dabbling in witchcraft would be unhealthy for the nation as a whole.  Therefore, God outlawed it and made it a capital offense.  That was His perogative.

So, why don’t Christians execute sorcerers today?  Don’t Christians worship the same God that the Jews worshiped?  Has God changed?

I don’t believe that God has changed.  However, the covenant – or contract – by which He engages with people is different.  When the law was given through Moses, God was dealing with an ethnic nation.  I believe His overarching interest with Israel was to fulfill His promise to Abraham by bringing Jesus to the world through them.  When this was completed, God entered into a new Covenant with people.  This new Covenant was not made with an ethnic nation as before.  Instead, God made it with anyone who would place their faith in Jesus.

Unlike Israel of old, Christians do not have a land to defend or borders to protect.  We are scattered throughout the world and come from every ethnic group and race.  Therefore, we cannot be governed by the same type of rules.  This does not mean, however, that we have no rules.  We do.  We are called to love one another.  And, just as with the Old Covenant, no one can claim to be a follower of Jesus while at the same time rebel against Him.  If you want to hate your brother and live wickedly, then you are free to make that choice.  However, you cannot call yourself a Christian at the same time.  Just as in Moses’ day, you are free to follow Jesus, or break His rules – but you can’t do both.

Christians should have no desire to execute sorcerers today.  A sorcerer is not part of the Christian community and is not under the same “rules” as a Christian.  Should a person claim to be a Christian and also claim to be involved in the occult, then the church should move quickly to help bring that person to repentance.  If they do not repent, then they should be ex-communicated from the church – because they are not part of it.

Christians are called to bring God’s redemption to the world, not condemnation.  Sorcerers have no part in the Kingdom (Gal. 5:19-21), and already have fallen into condemnation.  Therefore, Christians are called to show them the love of Jesus in a way that might bring about a change in their allegiances.

Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.

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