The Death of the Prophet Samuel
I reread 1 Samuel 25 this week which is about Abigail. This time when I read it, the opening statement caught my attention: “Now Samuel died, and all Israel assembled and mourned for him, and they buried him at his home in Ramah.” What I found interesting was the juxtaposition of this verse announcing Samuel’s death with the following verses that relate Abigail’s story. The prophet who had anointed David as king is dead and, later in the chapter, Abigail confirms that David will be king (1 Sam. 25:30-31).
Even though I thought the juxtaposition was interesting, I didn’t think too much of it. But then I read on and came to 1 Samuel chapter 28. This chapter is about an unnamed woman at Endor described as a witch or, more precisely, a medium. Interestingly, this story begins with an almost identical statement: “Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah” (1 Sam. 28:3). This statement, more obviously than in Abigail’s story, sets the scene for what follows.
The Desperation of King Saul
Samuel the prophet is no longer around and Saul, the current king of Israel, wants advice about the Philistines who are gathering for war. The usual ways that God communicated—through dreams, through the Urim (sacred lots used by priests), and through prophets—weren’t working. God is silent and Saul is scared. In desperation, Saul says to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.”
According to the Torah, being a medium or a sorcerer was a capital crime (Exod. 22:18; Lev. 20:27; Deut. 18:10-12). And Saul had previously banned and expelled mediums and sorcerers. Apart from the brief mention in 1 Samuel 28, there is no record of Saul’s ban in the Bible, and no reason is given for his expulsion and perhaps even the execution of mediums (2 Sam. 28:4, 9). Nevertheless, despite the ban, Saul’s attendants know of one. They tell him there is a medium in Endor.
So Saul takes off his royal robes, disguises his identity, and, under the cover of darkness, goes to Endor with two other men to visit the woman (cf. Lev. 19:31). The whole story can be read in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 here.
The Magic of the Medium of Endor
There are several Bible stories that raise ethical and theological questions. The scene where the woman conjures up an apparition of Samuel raises such questions. Here is a medium performing the dark arts; a necromancer, who seemingly brings up a prophet of God. And Samuel even speaks. Or does he speak through the woman? Is the speech attributed to Samuel coming through her lips?
From the text, it seems only the medium can see Samuel. Perhaps she is also the only one who can hear Samuel. Or is the whole thing a ruse, a delusion crafted by the woman? Is her shriek at the beginning of the séance, with her exclamation that she knows the true identity of Saul, part of the ruse and given for dramatic effect? (See 1 Sam. 28:12.)
As the séance gets underway, Saul asks the medium, “What do you see?” To which she replies, “I see a divine being coming up out of the ground” (1 Sam 28:13 NRSV). Then Saul asks, “What does he look like?” To which she gives a vague description that might describe any old man: “An old man is coming up; he is wrapped in a robe” (1 Sam. 28:14). Saul, desperate for advice, assumes this is Samuel. He is convinced that Samuel is really present.
The narrator seems to want us to accept that the woman, perhaps by her own methods, conjured up Samuel. There is the possibility, however, we are meant to understand that she is putting on a clever act. A more perplexing explanation is that God intervened in this wretched situation and caused Samuel to actually appear. Whether it was a delusion, or whether Samuel did indeed appear and speak, the words attributed to him are accurate and precise. But they are not what Saul wants to hear.
The Medium’s Hospitality
Saul learns that the Israelite army will be defeated and that he and his sons are going to die the very next day, and he is devastated. He falls to the ground. He hasn’t eaten anything all day and is weak. The woman sees that Saul is in a pitiful state.
I like how the Common English Bible translates her words to Saul at this point in the story:
“Listen, your servant has obeyed you. I risked my life and did what you told me to do. Now it’s your turn to listen to me, your servant. Let me give you a bit of food. Eat it, then you’ll have the strength to go on your way.” 1 Samuel 28:21 (CEB)
But it’s more than “a bit of food.” The woman has a fatted calf that she butchers for Saul’s sake. She feeds Saul well. Susan Pigott observes that “the sacrificial meal serves as a fitting marker of the end of Saul’s reign and further defines the woman’s prophetic role.” After the meal, Saul leaves and the story of the witch of Endor ends.
Abigail and the Medium of Endor
On the face of it, Abigail in chapter 25 and the medium in chapter 28 are not at all alike. Abigail is a respectably married woman, even if her husband was a fool. The woman of Endor is a despised medium; she has a forbidden, abhorrent profession and is probably living at the margins of society. But the actions of two have similarities.
~ Both were brave women who risked their lives. There was a real threat they could be killed: Abigail by 400 armed and angry men who had been insulted by her husband, the witch of Endor by Saul (or his men) because she was engaging in an expressively forbidden activity.
~ Both were sensible women who spoke with diplomacy and tact. They were able to positively persuade and help David and Saul, respectively.
~ Both were discerning women who delivered prophetic messages. Abigail spoke true prophetic words, and the woman at Endor was the medium, or agent, of true prophetic words. (The medium may have even been speaking her own words based on her own prophetic insights.)
~ Both were generous women who offered food and hospitality.
Is it simply a coincidence that the stories of Abigail and of the witch of Endor are both prefaced with similar statements about Samuel’s death? Or are we meant to understand that these women picked up the slack left in Samuel’s absence and effectively helped the future king of Israel and the soon-to-be former king of Israel? I don’t know the answers to these questions. What I do know is that the woman of Endor is presented in a surprisingly sympathetic light considering her evil profession.
It is remarkable that the medium was the avenue of prophecy when other avenues had failed. And it is remarkable that she offered support and compassion to Saul who had driven out other mediums. The story of the witch of Endor is baffling and troubling, but it is surely designed to paint Saul as a pathetic and tragic figure. He is portrayed as cowardly and weak, and he sinks to new depths by visiting the medium (1 Chron. 10:13-14). The Torah tells us that mediums must be put to death (Exod. 22:18; Lev. 20:27). But in this story, the medium lives and it is Saul who will die.
 The episode of Samuel prophesying after his death is mentioned in the Jewish Apocrypha: “Even after he had fallen asleep, he prophesied and made known to the king his death, and lifted up his voice from the ground in prophecy, to blot out the wickedness of the people.” Sirach 46:20 (NRSV)
Josephus retells the 1 Samuel 28 story in his Antiquities of the Jews 6.14.2-4.
 The Hebrew word elohim is variously translated as “god” (CEB) “ghostly figure” (NIV) “divine being” (NRSV), etc, in 1 Samuel 28:13.
 It is also possible that the slaughter of the calf was a ritual act and the meal was a sacrifice to the dead.
 Susan Pigott, “1 Samuel 28: Saul and the Not so Wicked Witch of Endor,” Review and Expositor 95 (1998): 440.
© Margaret Mowczko 2018
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Excerpt of The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul (1857) painted by Nikiforovich Dmitry Martynov (Wikimedia)