Supposing the powers of the witch to be limited, in the time of Moses, to enquiries at some pretended deity or real evil spirit concerning future events, in what respect, may it be said, did such a crime deserve the severe punishment of death ? To answer this question, we must reflect, that the object of the Mosaic dispensation being to preserve the knowledge of the True Deity within the breasts of a selected and separated people, the God of Jacob necessarily showed himself a jealous God to all who, straying from the path of direct worship of Jehovah, had recourse to other deities, whether idols or evil spirits, the gods of the neighbouring Heathen. The swerving from their allegiance to the True Divinity, to the extent of praying to senseless stocks and stones which could return them no answer, was, by the Jewish law, an act of rebellion to their own Lord God, and as such most fit to be punished capitally. Thus the prophets of Baal were deservedly put to death, not on account of any success which they might obtain by their intercessions and invocations, (which, though enhanced with all their vehemence, to the extent of cutting and wounding themselves, proved so utterly unavailing as to incur the ridicule of the prophet,) but because they were guilty of apostasy from the real Deity, while they worshipped, and encouraged others to worship, the false divinity Baal. The Hebrew witch, therefore, or she who communicated, or attempted to communicate, with an evil spirit, was justly punished with death, though her communication with the spiritual world might either not exist at all, or be of a nature much less intimate than has been ascribed to the witches of later days ; nor does the existence of this law against the witches of the Old Testament sanction, in any respect, the severity of similar enactments subsequent to the Christian revelation, against a different class of persons, accused of a very different species of crime.
In another passage, the practices of those persons termed witches in the Holy Scriptures, are again alluded to ; and again it is made manifest that the sorcery or witchcraft of the Old Testament resolves itself into a trafficking with idols, and asking counsel of false deities ; in other words, into idolatry, which, notwithstanding repeated prohibitions, examples, and judgments, was still the prevailing crime of the Israelites.
The passage alluded to is in Deuteronomy, xviii, io, II. " There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a con-suiter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer."* Similar denunciations occur in the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Leviticus. In like manner, it is a charge against Manasses, 2 Chronicles, xxxviii., that he caused his children to pass through the fire, observed times, used enchantments and witchcraft, and dealt with familiar spirits and with wizards. These passages seem to concur with the former, in classing witchcraft among other desertions of the prophets of the Deity, in order to obtain responses by the superstitious practices of the pagan nations around them. To understand the texts otherwise, seems to confound the modern system of witchcraft, with all its unnatural and improbable outrages on common-sense, with the crime of the person who, in classical days, consulted the oracle of Apollo,—a capital offence in a Jew, but surely a venial sin in an ignorant and deluded pagan.
To illustrate the nature of the Hebrew witch and her prohibited criminal traffic, those who have written on this subject have naturally dwelt upon the interview between Saul and the Witch of Endor, the only detailed and particular account of such a transaction which is to be found in the Bible ;—a fact, by the way, which proves that the crime of witchcraft (capitally punished as it was when discovered) was not frequent among the chosen people, who enjoyed such peculiar manifestations of the Almighty's presence. The Scriptures only convey to us the general fact (being what is chiefly edifying) of the interview between the Witch and the King of Israel. They inform us, that Saul, disheartened and discouraged by the general defection of his subjects, and the consciousness of his own unworthy and ungrateful disobedience, despairing of obtaining an answer from the offended Deity, who had previously communicated with him through his prophets, at length resolved, in his desperation, to go to a divining woman, by which course he involved himself in the crime of the person whom he thus consulted, against whom the law denounced death,—a sentence which had been often executed by Saul himself on similar offenders. Scripture proceeds to give us the general information, that the king directed the witch to call up the Spirit of Samuel, and that the female exclaimed, that gods had risen out of the earth—that Saul, more particularly requiring a description of the apparition, (whom consequently, he did not himself see,) she described it as the figure of an old man with a mantle. In this figure the king acknowledges the resemblance of Samuel, and, sinking on his face, hears from the apparition, speaking in the character of the prophet, the melancholy prediction of his own defeat and death.
* The reader will find a note on this text (with which the author has been favoured since these Letters were first published) at the end of the volume.
In this description, though all is told which is necessary to convey to us an awful moral lesson, yet we are left ignorant of the minutiae attending the apparition, which perhaps we ought to accept as a sure sign that there was no utility in our being made acquainted with them. It is impossible, for instance, to know with certainty whether Saul was present when the woman used her conjuration, or whether he himself personally ever saw the appearance which the Pythoness described to him. It is left still more doubtful whether any thing supernatural was actually evoked, or whether the Pythoness and her assistant meant to practise a mere deception, taking their chance to prophesy the defeat and death of the broken-spirited king as an event which the circumstances in which he was placed rendered highly probable, since he was surrounded by a superior army of Philistines, and his character as a soldier rendered it likely that he would not survive a defeat, which must involve the loss of his kingdom. On the other hand, admitting that the apparition had really a supernatural character, it remains equally uncertain what was its nature, or by what power it was compelled to an appearance, unpleasing, as it intimated, since the supposed spirit of Samuel asks wherefore he was disquieted in the grave. Was the power of the witch over the invisible world so great, that, like the Erichtho of the heathen poet, she could disturb the sleep of the just, and especially that of a prophet so important as Samuel; and are we to suppose that he, upon whom the Spirit of the Lord was wont to descend, even while he was clothed with frail mortality, should be subject to be disquieted in his grave, at the voice of a vile witch, and the command of an apostate prince ? Did the True Deity refuse Saul the response of his prophets, and could a witch compel the actual spirit of Samuel to make answer notwithstanding ?