Exodus 22:18 simply reads "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." However, the issues brought up are far from simple. There are two terms here that need to be explored: "witch" and "live". The latter turns out to be the most simple. It may be that the command here is not to kill a witch so much as to cast her out of the community in some manner. The Hebrew verb here may actually have to do with prosperity rather than physical life, implying that if there is a woman offering some sort of service termed as "witchcraft", then you should not solicit her. (While the term is not used there specifically, King Saul solicits a woman who "hath a familiar spirit" to help him in 1Sam. 28. It seems pretty clear that this was a bad idea.) While the possibility exists, (and note that the way in which she should be killed is not specified) it is likely that the intention here is that witchcraft be a capital crime. Either way, be it "kill witches" or "ensure witches do not prosper", there's clearly a command here to be prejudiced sharply against them.
Having already discussed capital punishment, I therefore turn to a discussion of the term "witch". Even in modern English, the term is rather vague. Judging by the pop culture phenomena of "Harry Potter", "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" and "The Wizard of Oz", witches are human-like (but somehow not quite human) individuals that have the ability to change reality around them by waving sticks at things. While this particular idea of what witches are like is probably not, nor has ever been, realized in the non-fictitious world, the truth is that witches do exist.
While the term "witch" is used informally by many as an epithet for a woman who is ugly and/or spiteful, in a more technical sense, the term still refers more specifically to a person (more commonly female, but not always) who either practices magic in some unspecified manner, or more likely a practitioner of the religion known as Wicca. For those not familiar, Wicca is:
A polytheistic Neo-Pagan nature religion inspired by various pre-Christian western European beliefs, whose central deity is a mother goddess and which includes the use of herbal magic and benign witchcraft. (American Heritage Dictionary)So which of these witches is the sort that is supposedly to be killed? While I think we can rule out the sort that is simply fitting of the epithet, it's worthwhile to note that the supposition that many have is that many of those who were killed in the Salem witch trials were of this type. (I don't like the way she looks/acts, so I'll call her a witch and let the authorities handle it.) I am going to assume the Bible however is not referring to this sort of person.
So this leaves two possibilities which are not necessarily distinct. Although Wicca as we know it today did not exist in those days, there no doubt were similar pagan religions, and magic, be it of the showy, supernatural sort or simply some sort of "herbal magic" could easily have existed at pretty much any time in history. What would make either of these wrong?
Well, the pagan one is easy. If I have talked about religious intolerance in the Bible before now, I don't recall, but this is as good a place as any to address it. As I've said in my other blog, here in America, we have a nation that promises by its Constitution certain freedoms, including freedom of speech and religion. I'm all for it. Despite being a "fundie" who will be among the first to tell you that I believe Jesus offers the one and only path to the salvation of your soul, I am glad to share this nation with atheists, pagans, Muslims and even Scientologists. But that's not what ancient Israel was all about. While we here are trying to build a society from a variety of cultures that will strengthen each other through diversity, God's aims in creating Israel was to have a nation that would be uniformly existing for the sole purpose of glorifying Him. Now that brings up other philosophical issues that libraries of books no doubt have been written about, this is the Bible, and this is God speaking to His people, and within that context, God is free to say essentially "My way or the highway!"
As I said in the post on capital punishment, there are essentially three things you could be killed for in Israel: murder, sexual impurity, and improper religious practice. The third category exists because especially in this case, God is trying to create a new religion more or less from scratch. His people have lived in the midst of pagan nations, well, since forever. Abraham lived among pagans in Ur, and he moved to Canaan where he lived among other pagans. His great-grandchildren, the sons of Jacob, moved to Egypt and spent 400-odd years there among yet another pagan society. Now that they are finally big enough to be their own nation and they are (supposedly) about to have their own land, God is demanding a cleansing. Many Biblical scholars have noted that there is a parallel in these stories to the concept of Baptism, a Jewish ritual that of course was taken up in a big way by Christians. This is a fresh start for the nation, and God has them pass through the waters of the Red Sea, drowning the Egyptians. God is washing the pagan-ness out of these people, and He wants them to stay clean.
As for magic, God simply doesn't want people to depend on any power other than Him. This may also be related in a more direct way to paganism, of course, but there is certainly a sense in which God is warning them away from anything supernatural that is not God Himself, because it is very likely something evil.
I hope this is coming across clearly enough. I've been stalling on this one not because it's a difficult one per se (in the way that the abortion and capital punishment posts were), but in such a small verse, there are some big issues to deal with, and I've spent far too much time mulling it over in my mind, and probably overcomplicated it in the end. I hope that's not entirely the case.