Throughout the Bible, there is a bit of a harrowing phrase that seems quite menacing. The Bible warns that, given specific circumstances, an individual, a family, or a nation will be cut off. But what exactly does it mean to be cut off? There have been at least five major theories as to what it means to be cut off.
- childlessness and premature death
- premature death caused by God
- capital punishment administered by a human court
- cessation of existence after death so as not to enjoy eternal life
- proclamation of God’s judgment
A brief survey of the different contexts where the phrase “cut off” occurs is helpful in evaluating what this phrase means. The following list is borrowed from Stuart’s excellent commentary in the New American Commentary series (Exodus, 284). The Old Testament law stipulates the cut off penalty in the following instances:
- failure to practice circumcision (Gen 17:14)
- failure to eat unleavened bread during Passover (Exod 12:15, 19)
- illegally manufacturing or using the sacred anointing oil (Exod 30:32–33, 38)
- violating the Sabbath (Exod 31:14)
- eating sacrificed food while ritually impure (Lev 7:20–21)
- eating the fat or blood of a sacrifice (Lev 7:25, 27)
- slaughter/sacrifice outside the tabernacle (Lev 17:4, 9)
- forbidden sexual practices (Lev 18:29; 20:17–18)
- child sacrifice (Lev 20:2–5)
- necromancy (trying to divine the future by contact with the dead; (Lev 20:6)
- worship function by a defiled priest (Lev 22:3)
- failure to observe the Day of Atonement (Lev 23:29–30)
- failure to commemorate Passover (Num 9:13)
- defiant, intentional sin (Num 15:30–31)
- failure to purify oneself after contact with the dead (Num 19:13, 20).
When examining these passages we can make a couple of helpful observations. First, the nature of many of these offenses indicates that they could take place without others knowing about them. Second, in some of these passages, God himself says He will be the one who cuts off the individual guilty of certain offenses (cf. Lev 20:3).
These observations seem to indicate that the penalty of being cut off is not something a human court enforces. Rather, some of the contexts seem to indicate God himself taking the main role of enforcing judgment. Numbers 15:31 gives insight into why individuals are cut off from the people: “Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt will be on him.” This text specifies two reasons why an individual is cut off. First, he despised the Word of God. Second, he flagrantly broke God’s commands. This individual knew God’s Word, yet he blatantly chose not to obey and thus merited God’s judgment.
In working through issues like this, one of the questions we need to ask is whether one meaning for cut off can apply to all the situations or not. In some interpretive scenarios, it is wise to allow more than one nuance or meaning because of the different contexts. However, in the above scenarios, each context works with the idea of divine judgment present in passages like Numbers 15:31.
In putting all of this together, it seems best then to understand the cut off formula to be something like a divine curse. In other words, the individuals who rebel against God’s gracious covenant are put under the divine judgment which inherently belongs to covenant breakers. This doesn’t mean the individual will die immediately, but his rebellion and disobedience have sown God’s covenant curses which will include eventual death. The cut off formula could perhaps be rephrased like this: “Because you are rebellious against your God and have broken His covenant, now then the curse which disobedience brings will belong to you [and usually the family as well].”