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Rebellion and Witchcraft

Who are you to tell me how to live! — Humans after 1950

Ethics, not ritual, is primary in Christian theology.—Gary North, Unholy Spirits (1986)

A Half-Hearted Executioner

God gave king Saul an order.  Through the prophet Samuel, He said, “Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have…” (1 Sam. 15:3).  The words “utterly destroy” translate from the Hebrew word charam or herem:  to consecrate to God; to devote to total destruction.  Three hundred years earlier the Amalekites had attacked Israel as she was coming out of Egypt.  Amalek’s armies had struck at the stragglers—the weak and the feeble (Deut. 25:17-19).  At that time Yahweh had declared perpetual war on Amalek and had promised to wipe out her memory from under heaven (Ex. 17:8-16).

Saul and his men obeyed in part.  They did smite Amalek.  But rather than placing Amalek under the ban (herem), they spared the king and the best sheep and cattle.  Saul and his army returned to Israel in a triumphal parade (1 Sam. 15:8-9).

Samuel came out to meet Saul.  Saul greeted the old prophet with enthusiasm:  “Blessed be thou of the LORD:  I have performed the commandment of the LORD.”  Samuel was unimpressed and answered with irony, “What meaneth then this bleating of the sheep in mine ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?” (v. 14).

Saul said, “They have brought them from Amalekites; for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen, to sacrifice unto the LORD thy God; and the rest we have utterly destroyed” (v. 15).

Samuel rebuked Saul, reminding him of his former humility and humble station, of the divine grace that made him king of Israel, and of the clarity of Yahweh’s command.  “So,” Samuel asked, “why didn’t you obey the voice of the LORD?”

Saul stubbornly claimed that he had obeyed:  “Yea, I have obeyed the voice of the LORD, and have gone the way which the LORD sent me, and brought Agag the king of Amalek, and have utterly destroyed the Amalekites.  But the people took of the spoil, sheep and oxen, the chief of the things which should have been utterly destroyed, to sacrifice to the LORD thy God in Gilgal” (vv. 20-21).

It was then that Samuel uttered a most ominous observation and warning:

Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD?  Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.  For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.  Because thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, he hath also rejected thee from being king. (vv. 22-23)

Witchcraft as Rebellion

“Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.”  The word rendered “witchcraft” is usually translated “divination”—in other words, fortune telling.  The diviner or fortuneteller claims a supernatural ability to see or predict future events, usually significant ones.  He claims a power that bypasses Yahweh and circumvents His revelation.  He may even claim the power to shape the future by his prophecies.  Balaam apparently did (Num. 22:5-7).  God’s law forbids all forms of divination. It treats divination as a sin and a crime (Deut. 18:10; Ex. 22:18).  It is important that we understand why.

The first principle or dimension of covenant life is the “suzerainty” or sovereignty of Yahweh over all of creation.  The second principle involves God’s revelation of Himself, how He represents Himself in history.  Yahweh reveals Himself through His Word.  Through that Word, He authorizes His people to act in His name.  He establishes them as kings and priests within His heavenly empire (Ex. 19:6; Rev. 1:6).  He makes them His representatives.  He grants them positions as stewards.

When God’s people submit in faith to His Word, they find themselves supported and surrounded by God’s blessing (Lev. 26; Deut. 28).  They prosper in their kingdom service.  When they are insubordinate—when they rebel—they see the blessing slip away.  Their kingdom service falters.  For Christianity, stewardship flows from submission to God and a humble recognition of God’s order.  Stewardship is rooted in ethics, in obedience to the Triune God.  That obedience must spring from faith in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the gospel.

The diviner, like the idolater, is at war with this covenant structure.  He claims another means of contact with the supernatural, with ultimate reality or whatever gods there be.  He sets mysticism and magic against God’s sovereignty and self-revelation in Scripture.  The diviner is a rebel against God’s authority and rule.  He’s a traitor against divine sovereignty and against Christian civil order.  And so there can be no room in God’s kingdom for fortunetellers.  There are no sorcerers or diviners in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:8; 22:15).

Anatomy of a Rebel

Like the diviner or witch, the ordinary rebel refuses his place in God’s hierarchy.  He insists on his own autonomy.  He doesn’t want anyone telling him what to do.  He wants to assert his own power on his own terms and rejects any idea of subordination to God’s authority structure.  He’s the center of his universe.

The New Topical Textbook edited by R. A. Torrey (1897) outlines the nature of rebellion with texts directly from Scripture.  Here is a summary of some of that material:

Rebellion provokes God and vexes His Spirit (Num 16:30; Isa. 63:10).  It is exhibited in unbelief (Ps. 106:24-25); in rejecting God’s rule (1 Sam. 8:7); in despising His law and His counsels (Neh. 9:26; Ps. 107:11); in distrusting His power (Ezek. 17:15); in murmuring against Him (Num. 20:3, 10); in refusing to listen to His word (Zec. 7:11); in rejection of God’s appointed rulers (Josh. 1:18); and in departing from the pattern and forms of worship that God has instituted (Ex. 32:8-9).  The rebel follows after his own thoughts, rather than God’s word (Isa. 65:2).  Scripture associates rebellion with stubbornness (Deut. 31:27), injustice and corruption (Isa. 1:23), and contempt for God (Ps. 107:11).

Scripture is also graphic in describing the consequences of rebellion. God says,

  • “I will set my face against you” (Lev. 26:17).
  • “Ye shall be devoured by the sword” (Isa. 1:20).
  • “I will pour out my fury upon them” (Ezek. 20:8).
  • “I will cast thee from off the face of the earth” (Jer. 28:16).
  • “[God] was turned to be their enemy, and He fought against them” (Isa. 63:10).

Clearly, God doesn’t approve of rebellion.

Routine versus Ritual

There is a further connection between run-of-the-mill rebellion and divination or witchcraft.  The true rebel, like the diviner, is interested in power, but he self-willed and hostile to any sort of imposed discipline.  He rejects custom, tradition, and the routines of work and self-government.  He hates schedules.  He wants to do his own thing on his own terms.

The diviner or witch has the same mindset.   Magic by its nature is at odds with the familiar, the rational, and the routine.  The witch deliberately separates himself from reality as others perceive it.   “The sociological premise of sorcery is radical atomism.  The sorcerer is cut off from all social institutions, all sense of history, all sense that one thing is any more important than another—except for the quest for power” (North, 154).

In place of routine, the witch embraces ritual.  Our assumption here is that magic is real—or at least that it can be.  Demons are real, and they can and do meddle in human affairs.  When they do, they insist that their rules be obeyed with absolute precision.  They delight in playing god and terrorizing their own minions.  But the rules and rituals they impose are mumbo-jumbo crazy talk.  They are purely arbitrary and irrational.  The world of the true sorcerer is unreality and madness.

Christianity, on the other hand, embraces the sane and the ordinary.  It exults in discipline and routine.  “Routines are tools of man’s conquest over a recalcitrant nature:  routines of occupation, education, experimentation, all involving the overarching routines of time… The Christian elevates routine over ritual, and the stronger that impulse is… the more thorough the transformation of culture and the advent of ideas of progress and external development” (North, 136).

Routine, self-discipline, and submission to authority capitalize a society.  They make technological growth possible. They trump ritual and rebellion as long-term cultural forces.  Rebellion and magic mark the end of an age. Obedience, thrift, and future-orientation may spark a new beginning.


“Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.”  Before Saul’s life was over, he would visit a real witch (1 Sam. 28).  She couldn’t help him.  By then, no one could.  God had become His enemy (v. 16).  Saul had started so well but ended so badly.  This is the lot of the rebellious.  But the meek inherit the earth (Matt. 5:5).



For Further Reading:

Peter Leithart, A Son to Me, An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel (Moscow, ID:  Canon Press, 2003).

Gary North, Unholy Spirits, Occultism and New Age Humanism (Ft. Worth, TX:  Dominion Press, 1986).

R. A. Torrey, ed., New Topical Textbook (Sword of the Lord, 2000 [1897]).  Available online @ <> (2011).

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