“makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire.” The reference to passing children through the fire is widespread in the Old Testament but is not well understood (cp. Lev. 18:21; 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6; 23:10; Jer. 32:35; Ezek. 16:21; 20:26, 31; 23:37). At least three times it is associated with the god Moloch (Lev. 18:21; 2 Kings 23:10; and Jer. 32:35), and twice it is associated with divination (2 Kings 17:17; 21:6). It is quite possible that the practice varied in different times and cultures.
Passing a child through the fire appears here in Deuteronomy along with other types of divination for guidance or gaining knowledge of the future. That fact argues strongly that at least sometimes the practice was used as part of a ceremony to determine the future. However, it is also possible that it was a sacrifice designed to appease the gods and bring about a favorable future. That certainly seems to be the case in 2 Kings 3:26-27 when the king of Moab sacrificed his son because he was losing the battle. In any case, the scope of Scripture, including verses such as Leviticus 18:21 and Ezekiel 16:21, as well as supporting evidence from archaeology, conclusively support the fact that passing children through the fire was not just some harmless means of prognostication that somehow involved children, it either sometimes or always involved actual child sacrifice.
“who practices divination.” The Hebrew doubles the root word for emphasis, and the phrase in the Hebrew text is qosem qesamim (קֹסֵ֣ם קְסָמִ֔ים). It is difficult to accurately bring that Hebrew phrase into English that reads smoothly because qosem is a participle and qesamim is the noun. A very wooden translation would be “divining divination,” but that is hard to understand in English. The essence of the phrase is picked up in many versions that translate it as one who “practices divination.” That translation reads well in English and catches the sense of the phrase, but it loses the emphasis provided by the doubling of the root word.
Divination is the process of acquiring supernatural knowledge by various means, and there are literally hundreds of different ways of divining, depending on the time and culture. Some are specifically mentioned in the Bible, such as looking at the liver of an animal (Ezek. 21:21), using a stick (Hos. 4:12) or casting lots (Esther 3:7). The Bible allowed for certain ways to cast lots, so we must not consider all lot casting to be ungodly, but some of it certainly is).
“tells fortunes.” Although “tell fortunes” brings to mind pictures of Gypsy palm readers, there are many ways people try to tell the future. The exact Hebrew word in the text is meonen (מְעוֹנֵ֥ן) from the root word anan (#06049 עָנָן). The meaning of meonen is debated, which we can see by the different ways it is translated in the English versions: “augury” (ASV); “soothsayer” (CJB; NAB; NRSV); “tell fortunes” (HCSB; ESV); “observer of times” (KJV); “practices witchcraft” (NASB); “an omen reader” (NET; cp. NIV); and “use sorcery” (NLT).
Merrill Unger wrote about meonen: “But the precise etymology of the Hebrew term is uncertain. Some would derive it from the root anan (‘to cover’), ‘one who practices hidden or occult arts.’ This explanation, though, has no real support from usage. Others would connect the word with anan (‘cloud’), ‘one who observes the clouds with a view of obtaining an oracle.’ Still others would make it a denominative from ayin (‘eye’), ‘one who smites with the evil eye.’ But nothing in the context would suggest any of those views. The most likely explanation is that the expression is from the Semitic root meaning ‘to emit a hoarse nasal sound’ …such a sound as was customary in the reciting magical formulas (Lev. 19:26; 2 Kings 21:6).” (Merrill Unger, Biblical Demonology, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1994. P. 131). Isaiah 8:19 speaks of mediums and people who try to get information from the spirit world who “chirp and mutter” as part of the practices they engage in.
The HALOT Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament has “to interpret signs, soothsayer.” It is likely that in this context meonen refers more generally to those who engage in various magical arts to determine the future rather than those who actively practice magic and other “black arts” with the intent of influencing the future. There are many different ways people attempt to “tell someone’s fortune,” including Ouija boards, Tarot cards, and palm reading; and the list goes on and on. Many of those people do in fact speak or chant as they practice their art, and that could have been ridiculed in Isaiah as “chirp and mutter.”
“interprets omens.” The Hebrew verb is nachash (#05172 נָחַשׁ), and it referred to interpreting omens and divining by means of them. In Genesis 44:5 and 15, Joseph was said to be able to use his cup to divine (which is the same Hebrew word: interpreting omens), but it is also possible that he never did so, but used that as a ruse. There is no biblical record of Joseph actually interpreting omens or using any type of divination except by the revelation he got from God.
“practices sorcery.” The Hebrew verb is kashaph (#03784 כָּשַׁף). For our purpose, a sorcerer is “one who practices magic by using occult formulas, incantations, and mystic mutterings…it is evidently commonly employed to include the whole field of divinatory occultism.” (Merrill Unger, Biblical Demonology, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1994, p. 153). A sorcerer is one who seeks to control things in the natural world by summoning or controlling supernatural forces. Scholars have not been able to exactly pin down the ancient understanding of the difference between a “witch” and a “sorceress,” and the words may in fact have been basically synonymous. There seems to be very little difference between our understanding of a “witch” and a “sorcerer,” and although older versions such as the KJV use “witch,” the modern versions almost universally use “sorcerer,” which might be due to the fact that the word “witch” in our modern times usually, but not always, carries the idea of an old woman who lives alone with black cats, big pots, all kinds of weird ingredients, and who casts spells that turn people into frogs and such. That is not a true image of what witches or sorceresses are like. Actually, the modern definitions of “witchcraft” and “sorcery” given in different sources vary greatly and are often contradictory. For example, some sources say witchcraft usually involves doing good while sorcery involves doing evil, while other sources say witchcraft deals with doing evil too. But call it witchcraft or sorcery, the real problem is that they both deal with demons.
God commanded that sorcerers and sorceresses were to be put to death (Exod. 22:18; cp. Lev. 20:27). That was because of their intimate involvement with demons, which are the avowed enemies of God and righteousness, and are hurtful to all of God’s creation. There are only two ultimate supernatural sources, God and the Devil, and anyone who is working with supernatural powers that are not from God is against God. The idea that there is “good witchcraft” is a falsehood foisted upon people so the Devil can gain a larger foothold on the person and society.
The existence of spiritual forces, both good and evil, has been known since God created humankind. The Devil appeared to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1), and the Devil and his demons have continued to appear to people throughout the ages. In fact, it was demons appearing in various forms that gave rise to the polytheistic theologies and mythologies in the ancient world. Just as demons appear to people today as different spirits and ghosts, the evidence indicates that demons appeared to people in the ancient world as different gods and goddesses of all kinds of shapes and sizes. Furthermore, the gods appeared in different ways that revealed a hierarchy among them (as indeed there was a hierarchy in the demonic world), and also it was clear to the ancients that different gods were at war with each other, which is reflected in the ancient mythologies and is also a part of modern portrayals of spiritual forces such as we see in so many books and movies today.
Given the fact that demons appeared to people in different forms, it would be natural for the ancient people to turn to them for supernatural power and help, and thus the interaction between demons and humans was the driving force behind the widespread practice of divination and magic. So, for example, the list of demonic practices in Deuteronomy 18:9-11 was not some invented list. When Moses penned Deuteronomy, the activities mentioned in chapter 18 were actually being practiced by the peoples who were occupying the Promised Land (Deut. 18:9), and Joshua and his army would be in that land less than three months after Deuteronomy was written. So for Joshua and his army, Deuteronomy 18 was “hot off the press” and extremely important if they wanted God’s help in conquering the Promised Land.
So what we see in Deuteronomy is that when God separated the nation of Israel from the other nations and made them “His people,” He forbade them to deal with the demonic world in any and every form. The Israelites were not to get involved with supernatural power such as divination and sorcery; they were not to deal with demons (even though they did not know the forces were demons). Furthermore, they were to put to death anyone among them who got involved in working with the supernatural other than that which was knowingly from Yahweh.
The necessity to put to death Israelites who dealt with demonic spiritual forces was due to the fact that in the time of the Old Testament the average believer did not have the gift of holy spirit. That gift was poured out upon every believer on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), but before Pentecost the people had to deal with spiritual wickedness in a physical way, by putting the evil person to death. Today every believer has the gift of holy spirit (Eph. 2:13-14) and so we wrestle against evil forces with spiritual weapons (Eph. 6:10-20). Sadly, most Christians are taught little or nothing about demons and about how to wrestle against them, which is like being in a war and having a closet full of guns and grenades, but not knowing what they do or how to use them, or frankly, even being aware that there is a war going on. Christians need to wake up to the spiritual battle, and if any Christian is involved in any of the activities in this list in Deuteronomy, they need to immediately quit, repent, and ask for God’s forgiveness.