There are exceptions but most non-believers think the Bible is a backward book, laced with the superstitions and and tribal nonsense we should expect from "primitive" people. But then most non-believers I've encountered down the years don't spend much time trying to hear the biblical witness tell its own story its own way. It's true of course that the Bible records ancient superstitions and nonsense but it never offers it as normative teaching. But there's enough in scripture to offend even those non-believers who aren't pugnacious. For example there's this. "Do not allow a sorceress to live" (Exodus 22:18). "A man or a woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads." (Leviticus 20:27)
Strong medicine! Not the kind of thing the educated ones in our modern society would approve of. For them the idea of punishment of any kind and for any reason has to fight for its very life. Of course not! But then our modern society isn't the biblical theocracy called Israel.
Could witches and warlocks really contact the dead? You couldn't prove they could by the OT scriptures. The incident in 1 Sam 28 seems as much a surprise to the witch as to anybody else. But if they couldn't really do anything, why were they threatened so? The effort was rebellion! Whether they could or couldn't, they tried.
Consulting spirits was the rejection of the Torah and the providence of the God who created the world, elected the patriarchs, rescued, guided, protected and sustained Israel. To proclaim his inadequacy by turning to others to achieve one's purposes was to fly not only in the face of the facts, the gracious facts, it was a violation of the covenant oath these individuals made to Yahweh as part of the People of God. To turn from his revealed and being-revealed purposes was to choose purposes not known to be his. To deliberately choose that which is without God's approval is itself an evil choice. (Even to choose that which you think is an offence to God (even if, in itself, it is not). See Romans 14:23. Some people believed eating meat left over from idol worship was sinful. Under peer pressure they were tempted to eat it anyway. Paul says the heart that would choose what it thinks offends God is a sinning heart. "I believe it offends him but I will do it anyway because others are doing it" is a decision made by someone willing to offend God. That makes the choice sinful.)
Israel was not even allowed to turn to other nations, much less their gods or spirits or the dead. Such turning from the Torah and those appointed by God to teach the Torah was a breaking of one's covenant oath. The word, 'warlock' comes from an old English word which means 'oath breaker'. In theocratic Israel that was quite literally true.
These people were subversives in the deepest sense of the word. They spread discontent throughout the nation, they spread disloyalty toward Yahweh, and they taught and practiced lies as well as fraud. They proclaimed the power of spirits and the dead over the elements and over daily life; they seduced the fearful, the sorrowful and hurting into giving money for what wasn't bread and they weakened their faith in their Lord and Lover. Even modern people, enlightened and tolerant, take treason very seriously and given the right setting they will vote to punish the known traitor very seriously.
In older times passages like these were used by the cruel and stupid to bring torture and death to the old, the ugly and lonely and there are those today who lay the blame for all that at the feet of the Bible. What rubbish. Might as well blame it for the entire lynch law and mob rule that has gone on down the centuries because it urged the execution of murderers.
These people stole faith and not just money! They stole people with their mumbo-jumbo, their potions, veils and magic cloths. See Ezekiel's scathing denunciation of all this (13:17-23). It was heartless lies, it dishonored the people, it was treason against God, and it fed on the pain and loneliness and fear of the vulnerable! Even sophisticated moderns believe that con men that deprive the vulnerable of money and peace of mind should be punished. The punishment in Israel's circumstances was severe because the crime had even deeper ramifications than these humane considerations, which are important in themselves!
And witches knew the punishment! They didn't have to be part of Israel. Had they wanted they could have withdrawn from that Community and lived apart from it as many others did. Israel wasn't called to execute non-Israelite witches. What witches couldn't do was take an oath to obey the King, share in all the benefits of that Community while acting treacherously against both King and Community.
But we see this modern and western reaction against severity in other ways. As we were leaving Singapore and entering Maylasia there were huge signs that told everyone: "If you bring drugs in here and we catch you, we'll take your life." That's the punishment! Westerners smuggle them in anyway, get caught, are sentenced to death and we go wild, screaming about the punishment being too severe. That the drugs produce countless deaths and immeasurable suffering to countless families doesn't seem to matter. We're so humane, don't you understand, so kind and compassionate. Compassionate to whom? Kind to whom? Those who doom and damn countless families! Shouldn't we be kind to the victims? The law up on those big boards against drug smuggling was a law in favor of the vulnerable. The law against witches was a law for the vulnerable!
But most of the religious response against passages like Exodus 22:18 is one of condescension. Some of us smile indulgently and wise as we are we say something like, "They were ignorant, we're advanced. We can understand those poor ignoramuses speaking in those terms, modern society knows better." What rubbish this is too. Modern society buries its millions of noses in "the Stars" columns, millions of them, believing that this vague nonsense, spat out of computers by "astrologers" who do know better, millions of them believing that their lives are guided by the stars. We’re advanced? Moses and his peers would be the ones to smile if they knew what millions are grabbing for each day in the newspapers. And even now, it’s the lonely, the fearful, the bewildered and hurting that these frauds take advantage of. A fair-minded non-believer will attempt to hear the Bible in its own setting before passing judgement.
Here's something for God's people to think about. "I will set my face against the person who turns to mediums and spiritists to prostitute himself by following them, and I will cut him off from his people" (Leviticus 20:6). It wasn't just the mediums God was mad at.