“cut themselves.” God made humans in His own image, and we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (or “remarkably and wonderfully made” HCSB; Ps. 139:14). It seems to be both logical and instinctual to protect one’s body and feel good and healthy, yet the Devil has been successful in getting humans to practice self-mutilation under a number of circumstances.
Self-mutilation is an attack on God’s love for people and a person’s relationship with God. It never makes a person more righteous or holy in God’s sight, and it does not bring His grace or favor to bear in any situation. Neither does God want people to somehow punish themselves for being “not good enough” or for any other reason. It is also important to keep in mind that in that culture, cutting oneself not only needlessly harmed the person, and from the Devil’s point of view defaced God’s wonderful creation, but it was a genuine danger because the people had no effective way to fight infection if the wound should become infected. Thus every cut was a very real danger to the person. The custom of cutting oneself for various “religious” reasons was so widespread that there can be little doubt that occasionally someone would get infected and die—a great coup for the Devil who comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10).
Self-mutilation is practiced in a number of religions, just as human sacrifice is, usually in the name of a god or as a demonstration of devotion or piety. Here in 1 Kings 18:28, the pagan priests used self-mutilation to get the attention of Baal and win his favor. Cutting oneself was also a pagan custom that was done as part of mourning for the dead (Jer. 16:6; 41:5; 47:5; 48:37; see commentary on Jer. 41:5), but God never wanted people to mourn that way and forbade it in the Law of Moses: “do not cut yourselves…for the dead” (Deut. 14:1).
The Devil works hard behind the scenes to get to the point that people call good “evil,” and evil “good” (Isa. 5:20). Often he gets “evil” to become embedded in the culture as something “good.” That is clearly the case with many superstitions, which honor him and take glory away from God. The wise Christian studies the Scripture to get to know the character of God and His commands, and thus can avoid participating in the evils the Devil has managed to embed in the culture. For example, Jesus knew the character and commands of God, so he did not keep the cultural dictate not to heal people on the Sabbath—he just ignored it (Luke 13:10-17).
The pagans, worshiping the Devil in disguise, had various religious reasons for cutting themselves. Sadly, the Jews did not understand the character of God and some of those pagan and demonic practices became part of the customs of Israel.