One of our goals at ESN is to support Christian scholars in pursuing their study and articulating their thoughts about an issue over time. Today we have the pleasure of featuring further reflection from one of our writers in the Lent Justice series. Drawing on her experience as lecturer and head of the Mission department at West Africa Theological Seminary in Lagos, Nigeria, Chinyere Priest contributed to our Lent series with a reflection on pursuing justice for those falsely accused of witchcraft within Nigerian society. You can read her first post on God as the defender of the accused here, and her second one on re-interpreting our explanation systems here. Here she provides more detail on the theological grounding of her post.
Examining the Scriptural Bases for Witch Accusation
My first blog post, Navigating Justice: Defender of the Accused, raised comments via Facebook and other social networks. Ex. 22:18 was used as a scriptural basis to support belief in witchcraft and its heavy consequences for the accused. Two of the commentators claimed to have been involved in exorcising the spirit of witchcraft out of the witches. I do not dispute this claim but I would suggest we investigate such cases with all the explanation systems available to determine the true causes of the problem and not just conclude it must be witchcraft when other factors may frequently explain what is happening.
In traditional African societies, a witch is someone considered to possess power to kill, as well as cause misfortunes, sickness, accidents, tragedies, unemployment, infertility, sorrows, dangers and confusing mysteries they bring about through secret, evil means. Such persons are feared, avoided, condemned, punished or even killed.
People use the Bible to support their actions toward suspected witches (suffer not a witch to live Ex. 22:18), but what exactly does the Scripture teach about witches? The English word ‘witch’ appeared literally twice in two Old Testament passages: (Ex. 22:18 and Deut. 18:10), using the King James Version. In other English versions of the Bible variations on the words ‘sorcerer’ and ‘divination’ are used. The Hebrew word used in both passages is Kinshap which means to practice magical arts. In 1 Sam. 28 reference is made to a woman often described in commentary as the ‘witch of Endor.’ In the Hebrew rendition, the language there means “a woman who is mistress of ghost” i.e. one able to compel the departed spirit to return and to answer certain questions. The ‘witch of Endor’ was simply a medium. “Witch” in the Old Testament is obviously associated with sorcery and divination which implies “witches” are practitioners in magic and incantations or jugglers who pretend, through skill in occult science, to reveal the future.
In the NT the verb ‘bewitch’ appears twice in Acts 8:9,11 (about Simon Magus bewitching people) and Galatians 3:1 (“O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you”). This rendition is found in the King James Version and few other versions. In the Greek text this verb connotes amazement in the Acts 8:9, 11 contexts as observed in other translations: ‘thrilled the people’ (ISV); ‘astonished the people’ (NKJV); ‘amazed all the people’ (NIV). In the Galatians 3:1 context it connotes occult power used in casting spells on people: “who has cast an evil spell on you?” (NLT); “who put you under a spell?” (ISV). Therefore, the bewitchers of Galatians and Simon the magus have public social identities as diviners and are not harming others through secret evil means. Witches according to these Scriptures are people with clear social identities claiming to possess power to heal, diagnose, and reveal hidden truth – a role very different from the role of working secret evil assigned to witches in traditional African belief systems. So it is a misinterpretation of Scripture to base the maltreatment of the accused witches in African society on the Bible, because the biblical explanation of the witch is quite different from the traditional African explanation.
So those referred to in some English translations of the Bible as “witches” or “sorcerers” have social identities through their public claim and capabilities in divination as well as power display. They are not hidden entities but public figures like traditional healer/diviners, native doctors, and shamans who publicly claim to discover hidden truths, diagnose, and heal through skill in occult science and they are never harming others through secret diabolical means. There is no biblical reference to witches causing misfortune, death, infertility, sickness, tragedies, accident, and barrenness, etc via evil supernatural power. Moreover, I am still searching the Scripture for a case where such an individual exists causing accident, tragedies, misfortunes, infertility, sickness, etc to another via secret evil means.
Kunhiyop rightly asserts that “the Bible is often used merely as a source of proof texts to support our traditional opinions and beliefs. However, when properly interpreted, the Bible does not support the kinds of doctrines of demons, evil spirits and witchcraft that are supported, nursed and propagated in Africa. Though African experiences and stories are relevant and should be interacted with, the truths we believe should be based solely on Scripture.” Are you using the scripture to justify your action against the vulnerable? Are you interpreting the Scriptures exegetically or eisegetically?
Prayer: Father, May you grant us the light and the understanding that the entrance of your Word gives so that we may be able to apply it appropriately in all situations. Amen.
Kunhiyop, Samuel Waje. 2008. African Christian Ethics. Zondervan.
Nyirongo, Lenard. 1997. “The Gods of Africa or the God of the Bible.” The Snares of African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective.
Semenya, David K., and Rantoa Letsosa. 2012. “Biblical Principles as an Answer to the African Peoples Questioning of Witchcraft.” Verbum et Ecclesia 33 (1).
Witchcraft,” Study Dictionary. http://classic.net.bible.org/dictionary.php?word=witchcraft.
Chinyere holds double master’s degrees in Missions and Biblical Studies from West Africa Theological Seminary (An Affiliate of the University of Nigeria Nsukka) Lagos, Nigeria. She is presently a PhD student at the department of Missions of the Africa International University, Nairobi, Kenya. Her field of research is in the Conversion of Christians to Islam within sub-Sahara Africa. Apart from serving as a missionary in Sudan, she was once the head of department and for many years lecturer in the Mission Department of the West Africa Theological Seminary (WATS) Lagos, Nigeria. She is equally involved in children’s ministry, concerned about the persecuted church, and concerned for the accused.