Thursday, March 12, 2015

She's a Witch!

In an earlier post I quoted someone who used the phrase "bronze age foolishness" with regard to Christian morality. Most Christians are gentiles, held to two over-arching commandments, to love God and to love their neighbor. Most Christians are not Jews; and the strictures of laws upon them are not those of the Old Testament.

Having pointed this obvious thing out, I managed to "offend" someone who chooses not to listen fairly. Or more accurately, they have chosen to be offended after expending quite a bit of effort to mentally substitute their own reasoning for my statements. Apparently, the source of this offense is that I have failed to mention that I secretly want to persecute them.

I think it only fair that they be offended for the right reasons, and I herewith set out to cause such offense right now. And lest you be kept in suspense, I'll tell you in advance that the person is a witch.

First Things First

First of all, let me re-iterate that it is not an insignificant point that the Torah (the Law of the "old testament") is for Jews. Pious Jews are not one bit concerned with what other nations do any more than the normal concern that any thinking, feeling person has for another. The Torah was given by God to the Jews who are bound by the Covenant. Everybody else... well, less is expected of them. And to be perfectly honest, that includes Christians. This was an important point of the discussions between Paul and James in the New Testament. Jews do not proselytize. They have been surrounded for all of their history by neighbors who do things that warrant death if done by a Jew; yet there have been no Jewish Crusades. Since the original conquest of Canaan, Jews do not gird themselves with armor and visit death upon their neighbors for their iniquities. And even that is historically debatable; a popular theory is that most of the people who became the Jews were originally Canaanites, such that the "conquest" was figurative. Since that time Jews have have mostly girded themselves with armor to defend their lives and land.

So the obvious and easy way to avoid the obligations and proscriptions of Old Testament law is to simply not be Jewish.

This applies even to the Sabbath, and it's not just Christians who interpret it this way. Naturally, you're still subject to the civil and criminal laws of wherever it is you live. Since a good deal of these are universal among human societies, there is quite a bit of overlap. So if you're not actually living in Israel, stop fretting over the Torah.

It's not mere interpretation. Jews have had thousands of years to think it out. Though a Jew can't work on the Sabbath, they can hire goyim who may do work for them (within strict limits). Jews can't even own chometz (leavened foods) on Passover, but they can be "sold" to gentiles and bought back later. In short, I'm not making this up... that's the way it actually works.


Secondly... and this whole section is an aside... it's worth looking to see whether this "bronze age foolishness" is actually foolish. So let's pretend for a moment that we're all party to the Covenant.

We'll begin by looking at the "lex talionis" (the principle of "an eye for an eye"), which is often held up as some draconian barbaric practice.  In fact, it's exactly the opposite. Look at the alternative; the oft-praised Code of Hammurabi. In this code, punishments were not proportional to the crime. For instance, false accusation was punishable by death, with your assets forfeited to the accused and not your heirs (law #2). However, according to the Torah, the punishment must be appropriate to the crime... and no more.  An eye for an eye; not your head for my eye.

The Torah applies to pauper and king alike (Num 15:16). Contrast this with the code of Hammurabi, which prescribes unequal sentencing based on social class.

Furthermore, in the Torah, punishment is met upon the perpetrator. In Hammurabi's code, if you are a builder whose sub-standard construction kills the owner's son, then your own child is put to death. (law 230); whereas the Torah states that if a man's ox kills someone it is the ox that dies... unless the owner had previously been warned it was a danger, in which case it is he that is at fault. (Ex 21:28-29)

In the Torah, punishments are obviously figurative, intended to illustrate the principle of equal justice, and Exodus makes this clear. In every case where Exodus says that a case will be "brought before God", this means before a judge (judging is part of a priest's job description). The judge may choose to offer to impose a fine, even in the stead of the death penalty (Ex 21:30), and this was commonly done.

Slavery was a fact of life in the Middle East: but in Exodus 21 there are laws to limit the term of slavery to seven years; and to punish owners and to free slaves in the event of grievous mistreatment. The fact that there was slavery at the time might bother you less when you realize that there is no imprisonment as a punishment in the Torah. In practice, a poor man might sell himself as a slave to provide restitution or avoid death (Ex. 22:2-3); or it might be a sentence imposed by the court. But it was, as mentioned, limited in scope, the purpose of which is to provide restitution. I would readily submit that Jewish slavery was a much better alternative than the system of glutted prisons and recidivism that our modern "progressive" system has produced... which really isn't that progressive. It hasn't been missed by some people that prison is in fact institutionalized, government-sanctioned slavery.

There are a lot of restrictions and laws in the Torah; but typically, those who most heavily criticise them for "bronze age foolishness" haven't actually read them and placed them in context.

And then there's this:

"Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." (Ex. 22:18 KJV

Well, that's not exactly what it says. Just as "thou shalt not kill" actually reads "thou shalt not murder" in Hebrew, this one reads,

"Thou shalt not permit a sorceress to live." (Ex. 22:18 RSV)

This is Lucrezia Borgia.
Guess what she wasn't?
(via Wikipedia)
At least one witch believes both of these to be mistranslated, pointing out that the word in the Septuagint is pharmakos, which they take to mean "poisoner". And they take exception to the "to live" portion, preferring to translate the whole verse as "You shall not sustain (do business with) a poisoner."

As translations-of-translations go, this sucketh the large egg[1]. It ignores that pharmakos is homonym which also carries a meaning close to Hebrew. And not only does the original Hebrew use a word meaning "to live", but it also describes the person to be left in not-living-condition as kashaph (transliterations vary) which describes "one who whispers magic" in the sense of actually practicing magic... a sorceress. This is consistent with related languages, and also with other Hebrew words using the same roots. So the protestations of modern-day revisionists who claim it says other than what it says should be discarded. But what it doesn't say is "witch". There wasn't really a word for that. It's certainly intended to mean someone who practices sorcery. So it's exactly what it looks like... an admonition to kill sorcerers.

This is a mutant, not a witch.
(via Flickr)
Does that describe my friend the witch?

No, not really. Most modern "witches" are more properly "Wiccans", and while this is certainly a religion, there's no Biblical proscription against other religions. You can worship as you like so long as you're not Jewish. The Bible's level of tolerance for that is well-established and legendary. Even though Christians are called upon to proselytize, they're forewarned that not everybody is going to listen (Matt 13). Christians are also called upon to love even their enemies (Matt 5:43-48) and there's no qualifier that says, "if they belong to your church".  So whether read by Jew or Christian, the verse certainly doesn't call people out just because they call themselves witches or because they practice some other religion.  The real question is, "Do you practice magic?" (And not sleight of hand, either)

This is a witch.
(Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
I don't really care about your belief. You can believe yourself to be a witch all day long. You have all the freedom in the world to follow whatever points of theology you can, with whoever among your craft you can find to agree with you. Or by yourself. Actually, nobody cares, for the same reason as above. The question is still, "Do you practice magic?"

Likewise, nobody cares about your delusions, misapprehensions, aborted attempts, selective memory, and ontological biases. For the last time, "Do you practice magic?"

Obviously, taking somebody's life is a pretty Big Deal. Surely, if someone were to accuse you, I'd want to see some real proof before I go off sentencing you to oblivion. If anyone of any or no religion were to make the claim that you were a kashaph, I'd want them to produce that evidence.

Now, if you were to persist in insisting that you're exactly what the Bible is talking about when uses the word translated in the KJV as "witch" or "sorcerer", then show me some objectively verifiable demonstration of the awesome witchly powers which you would necessarily claim to have. Quite frankly, I have yet to see anything of the sort, despite the fact that it would be an astonishing and wondrous demonstration that I would be most eager to witness. So give me the same evidence that I would demand of any person who accused you. Just step right on up and toss a few enchantments at the camera for us. Demonstrate not mere ritual, but the effects of said ritual. Prove that you're an actual card-carrying, spell-wielding, effective practitioner of actual honest-to-Murgatroyd MAGIC. Then -- and only then -- let's talk about whether you should be suffered to live.

Otherwise, I have no interest in imposing the death penalty on some harmless nut who's at best delusional and at worst a mere petty fraud. Nor am I obligated to meet your expectations and persecute you simply because you chose a religion for which you seem to feel as though you deserve some measure of persecution. I'm perfectly content to let you fantasize in peace. At the same time, I feel no need to mollycoddle you simply because you have the right to believe whatever you like. Your right to believe does not obligate me to treat the subject as though I believe. Nor am I obligated to curb my writing or my speech to avoid bruising the feelings of someone who goes to great effort to be as offended as possible no matter the provocation... particularly not when I'm writing with no thought of you whatsoever. You'll just have to just have to enchant yourself a thicker skin.

via the Open Library
[1] For those who are still thinking that "pharmakos = poisoner" is a reasonable conclusion based on what you know of modern English and what you think you know about the ancient Greeks despite the revelation that's it's a poor translation of the Hebrew word, I refer you to Jane Ellison Harrison's Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion for further information. Despite the name, it's a fairly comprehensive look at the religious practices of the Greeks... not only the Olympian worship that you know about, but the Cthonic practices that you probably don't.


  1. Brilliantly stated and well thought out, as usual. Interesting about the translations and re-translations and revisions to the original meanings of the words for witch and live; I suspect that reading it in contret with the rest of the section might help us to know what was really meant.

    1. Thanks. Added a link to Jane Harrison's excellent book on the subject of ancient Greek religion.