Witchcraft is a widespread and grave issue in African culture, and in other countries around the world. African media, including news, entertainment, and even magic programs on satellite TV, describe witchcraft as a dangerous threat that needs to be confronted.
Editor’s Note: The Tidings is commited to sharing information with our readers about our global community. This article, from Bro. Mbuve of Kenya, describes a very real challenge to some ecclesias in Africa. It is clear that each region of the world has its unique complications from the local culture. We certainly have our own in Western society, such as nationalism, patriotism, and materialism.
African ecclesias also face the challenge of witchcraft. In this article we would like to examine the implications of witchcraft on our lives as believers, whether witchcraft really exists, and does it work?
The African View on Witchcraft
Witchcraft is the exercise or invocation of alleged supernatural powers to control people or events using sorcery or magic.1 A witch, sorcerer, or magician attempts to influence the surrounding world through occult means, meaning hidden, as opposed to open and observable.
African Christian tradition believes witches’ malevolent power is derived from a special relationship with an evil spirit with whom they have a “pact.” Or they exercise it through animal or object familiars (assistants or agents) such as hyenas, owls, baboons, dolls or carved images.2
An increasing number of Africans are falsely accused of witchcraft
Some Africans believe that evil deeds can be wrought by using spells, potions, and powerful magic. But in many African cultures, the witch’s power is thought to be based in his or her own body. It can be activated by consciously wishing someone ill, and is thus an unspoken, or implicit curse. Witches are also believed to act unconsciously and are unaware of the ill they cause. Their intense urge for evil merely seeps into those around them. An increasing number of Africans are falsely accused of witchcraft but are not conscious of wishing anyone ill. They are forced to assume they unknowingly did what is attributed to them.1,2
African culture considers witchcraft both valuable and evil. It is valuable in the sense that it provides the necessary power to protect the family. Yet the evil side of witchcraft is viewed as the source of all ills. Witches and sorcerers are regularly credited with causing all sorts of disease and disaster such as sickness, death, and a myriad of lesser misfortunes. They are cited to explain failure in school exams, epidemics, elections, crop failures, infertility, lightning strikes, or even difficulties finding employment. In African culture, there is a cause for everything, and witchcraft is held responsible when rational knowledge fails to explain disasters and loss.1,2,3
The Cost of African-Christian Witchcraft
Today, Christian, and African views on witchcraft are increasingly being merged into a toxic belief system. There is a cost both monetarily and in human life. For a fee, Christian pastors claim the ability to identify witches in a community. For a further fee they will exorcise spirits and powers from alleged witches, profiting from fearful and already poor individuals.3
In a recently disturbing trend, especially in Nigeria, children or young orphans are often accused by pastors of being child witches and then tortured or killed by church family members following the Biblical exhortation “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exod 22:18) Alternatively, parents may abandon them and leave them to survive in the streets.4,5
In Kenya, four older women were recently accused of being witches for bewitching and muting a school student. They were lynched and murdered by an angry, blood-thirsty mob from their community.6 It is also reported that “thousands of elderly Tanzanian women have been strangled, knifed to death and burned alive over the last two decades after being denounced as witches.”7 In many countries, women are still accused of practicing witchcraft each year. “They are persecuted and even killed in organized witch hunts–especially in Africa, but also in Southeast Asia and Latin America.”8
Witchcraft and Christadelphians
To an extent, even some Christadelphians in Africa are caught up believing witchcraft as a supernatural power. The impact on ecclesias can be profoundly serious. Brothers, sisters, and young people can be fearful of being bewitched by fellow believers. They may avoid contact with them, or even negate attendance at the ecclesia to avoid being harmed or harming others if they are perceived as having witch-like powers.
This may also inhibit one from correcting a brother or a sister who has gone astray in their Bible teachings for fear of being the subject of maligned powers or spirits, whether consciously or unconsciously. They may be shunned by local villagers and unable to preach the truth, or worse yet, suffer persecution. Furthermore, believers may feel compelled to spend money they do not have to deal with issues of witchcraft.
As a community in Christ, we know all this false belief is contrary to the Bible. God teaches us clearly that He is in control of all things in this world, whether good or bad. He is all-powerful, all-seeing, and everywhere present. Paul taught the first century believers that “There is no power but of God,” (Rom 13:1), and “An idol has no real existence… there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist.” (1 Cor 8:4-6 ESV). God is in complete control and is the source of all power in this universe.
Simon the Sorcerer illustrates an additional concern that these alleged powers can present to believers. Simon originally practiced witchcraft “saying that he himself was somebody great… [and the people said] this man is the power of God that is called Great.” (Acts 8:9-10 ESV). Simon was more concerned with personal gain, god-making and praise than he was in imputing his powers or those of the apostles and the Holy Spirit to God. The Apostle Peter understood his true intentions and rebuked him for “this wickedness of yours.” (Acts 8:22). When we work in the ecclesia, it is important that we humbly ascribe all talents or abilities we have to the God who has granted them to us.
When brothers and sisters believe or practice in witchcraft, it undermines the ultimate power of a God who created everything in the universe, and His ability to guide and work in our lives, whether through good experiences or bad.
Biblical Definition of Witchcraft
Is witchcraft discussed in the Bible? In the Old Testament, the Hebrew language describes witches as practitioners of magic and jugglers who pretend through skill in occult science to reveal the future and manipulate life events. God condemns Manasseh, the eldest son of King Hezekiah, for promoting and participating in a variety of related practices, such as observing times, using enchantments and witchcraft, dealing with familiar spirits and wizards, and worshiping the power of images and idols (2 Chr 33:6-7). God abhorred these “abominations of the heathen” (v2) and repeatedly declares their power to be nothing.
In the New Testament Paul identifies several “works of the flesh” including “idolatry and witchcraft.” (Gal 5:19). The Greek word for witchcraft is pharmakeia, Strong’s 5331, which is the origin of the English word for pharmacist. In other words, witchcraft was akin to someone who provided first-century drugs, spells or potions and attributed unexplained happenings to something other than God. Metaphorically, it refers to the deception and seduction of idolatry and witchcraft. Paul even equates this practice with other obvious immoral behavior and reveals that “Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5:21 NIV).
In the Revelation, this same Greek word is used to describe the practices of heathen systems that God will destroy in preparation for his Kingdom on earth (Rev 9:21; 18:23; 21:8). Instead of wasting time and money on practices to objects that have no power and are godless, He wants us to follow Him so that He can say, “I will be his God.” (Rev 21:7).
The Law and Witchcraft
God provides several commands about witchcraft shortly after Israel left Egypt. Egypt had been a nation steeped in a culture of mysticism. Moses and Aaron had personally confronted Pharoah’s magicians to contrast their powerlessness with the majesty of God during a protracted appeal to “Let my people go.” (Exod 5:1-3). Through these demonstrations, both Israel and Egypt were to recognize that only God was all-powerful. They could trust in Him to take care of them, control weather and events, and did not need to fear other supposed powers.
Furthermore, the Canaanites were also steeped in the worship of pagan gods and behavior associated with witchcraft. As they prepared to enter and cleanse this land, God issues explicit instructions: “Thou shall not suffer [permit] a witch to live.” (Exod 22:18). This is a strong expression which God repeats in Lev 20:27 and is used to prevent any false sympathy or misplaced tenderness towards a person of such character.
Witchcraft was direct opposition to God.
Instead, these individuals were to be rooted out from among the Israelites because witchcraft was considered a capital offence, and an act of rebellion against God and His authority. It was direct opposition to God. Any form of witchcraft practice was strongly opposed in Israel because it implied a use of the supernatural outside of, and hostile to, the power of God.
Shortly after, God reiterates the same explicit instruction: “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them.” (Lev 19:31 ESV). And later, He commands “Let no one be found among you… who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.” (Deut 18:10-11 NIV). These practices and people were “detestable to the LORD.” (v. 12). Instead, He emphasizes in the context of both verses that He wanted Israel (and us) to appreciate His sovereignty and unrivalled powers: “I am the LORD your God.” (Lev 19:31; 20:24).
What are the principles we can take from the Law of Moses regarding witchcraft? There are four.
- The LORD demands absolute loyalty and does not tolerate any involvement with other gods or spirits.
- Israel’s God was the only all-powerful God.
- Those who use witchcraft, sorcery, familiar spirits, or associated practices are opposing God.
- Practitioners of witchcraft were to be exterminated.
Saul and Jacob–Tempted by Witchcraft
God also demonstrates His abhorrence for witchcraft in the life of King Saul. In 1 Samuel 28, the Philistine army confronts Saul, and his heart is filled with fear. Israel was in grave danger and Saul was in desperate need of military advice. He turns first to the LORD, however, because of his earlier disobedience to God, he did not receive an answer (v. 6).
Desperate for direction, Saul then turns to witchcraft: “Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her.” (v. 7). Saul’s actions cannot be condoned, and they demonstrate how desperation and impatience can lead to similar sins in our own lives. Earlier, Saul had “put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land” (v. 3), upholding God’s laws that stringently opposed their existence. Ironically, he now returns to these very practices, though Samuel had warned Saul that “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.” (1 Sam 15:23). By disobeying God, and consulting a witch, Saul had now sinned in both arenas. Chronicles confirms that he died on both accounts (1 Chr 10:13). If we disobey God and uphold powers other than God’s, we will also distance ourselves from the all-powerful God of this world.
Jacob is another example of someone tempted with the option of witchcraft. But he responded differently than Saul. Genesis suggests that Laban and his daughters were influenced by magic and divination. Leah, his mother, and Rachel both believed that the mandrake plant held special powers of fertility (vv. 14-15), and Leah even imagines they will help her bear children to Jacob (v. 16). Later, Laban confesses his belief in witchcraft when he says, “I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you [Jacob].” (v. 27 ESV). Finally, as Jacob prepares to leave Laban for Canaan, Rachel steals the household idols of her father, which were believed to hold special powers, and presumably would benefit their travels (Gen 31:19 ESV).
However, in stark contrast, Jacob instead attributes the powers working in his life to be from God. He states, “The God of my father has been with me” (v. 5), “God has not allowed him [Laban] to harm me” (v. 7), “God has taken away your father’s livestock and has given them to me” (v. 9), “God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hands.” (v42). Jacob never attributes any of his children, prosperity, or difficulties to the powers of divination, images, witches, or mysticism which influenced Laban and his daughters. He always attributes them to the true God of Israel, as it should also be with us as fellow believers.
If we really believe the records of Israel, Saul, Jacob, and Paul mentioned above, then we will not be able to accept that witches or witchcraft will have any effect upon us or others. Like Jacob, we must have faith that God is with us and will help us with our lives in good times and bad. The examples considered show that witches do not have power over God’s people–which we know we are, by reason of our calling and baptism.
In summary God’s Word teaches us that:
- God’s people must seek counsel from God through prayers and believing.
- Believers need to retain their faith in God, even in the most adverse of circumstances and not only despise witchcraft, but also root it out.
- God deems witchcraft as a human fabrication, employed to cheat others. Witchcraft is powerless.
- Those who believe or practice witchcraft must be rebuked through God’s word, so that they may have hope of the coming Kingdom of God.
- Brethren should not associate themselves with witchcraft of believe in other supernatural powers.
Yatta Ecclesia, Kenya
1 Encyclopedia Britannica. “Witchcraft.” Accessed April 26. britannica.com/topic/witchcraft/Witchcraft-in-Africa-and-the-world
2 Bauer, Bruce L. Cultural foundations for fear of witchcraft in Africa. Journal of Adventist Mission Studies 13, no. 1 (2017):1-12. digitalcommons.andrews.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1353&context=jams
3 La Fontaine, Jean. Witchcraft belief is a curse on Africa. The Guardian. March 1, 2012. theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/mar/01/witchcraft-curse-africa-kristy-bamu
4 Associated Press. African churches denounce children as witches NBC News. October 17, 2009.
5 Dispatches for Channel 4 – All Documentary, Return to Africa’s Witch Children, YouTube video, 48:32. June 10, 2018. youtube.com/watch?v=5Y06sKAg9Do (Note: this is the second of two documentaries produced by Dispatches for Channel 4. The first one is entitled Saving Africa’s Witch Children and is also available on YouTube).
6 Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) et. al. older people in Kenya must be protected from witchcraft accusations. Help Age International. October 22, 2021. helpage.org/newsroom/latestnews/older-people-must-be-protected-from-witchcraft-accusations/
7 Reuters. Tanzania “witch killings” claimed 479 lives from January – June 2017: report. Africanews. August 1, 2017. africanews.com/2017/08/01/tanzania-witch-killings-claimed-479-lives-fromjanuary-june-2017-report/
8 Suuk, Maxwell and Isaac Kaledzi. Witch hunts: a global problem in the 21st century.DW. October 8, 2020. dw.com/en/witch-hunts-a-global-problem-in-the-21st-century/a-54495289.