Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

The Witch of Endor, the Dead Prophet, the Doomed King

witch endor medium samuel 28 saul

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.[1] 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).[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.

Conclusion

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.


Footnotes

[1] 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.

[2] The Hebrew word elohim is variously translated as “god” (CEB) “ghostly figure” (NIV) “divine being” (NRSV), etc, in 1 Samuel 28:13.

[3] It is also possible that the slaughter of the calf was a ritual act and the meal was a sacrifice to the dead.

[4] Susan Pigott, “1 Samuel 28-Saul and the Not so Wicked Witch of Endor,” Review and Expositor 95 (1998): 440.

Image Credit

Excerpt of The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul (1857) painted by Nikiforovich Dmitry Martynov (Wikimedia)

You can support my work for as little as $3 a month.
Become a Patron!


Further Reading

1 Samuel 28: The Medium at Endor by Maggie Cole
Saul and the Witch at En-dor by Shaul Bar
Abigail: A Bible Woman with Beauty and Brains

Here are just some of my articles that discuss concepts regarding the equality, or mutuality, of men and women in Christian marriage and ministry.
Articles on 1 Timothy 2:12
Articles on gender in Genesis 1-3
Articles on various Bible women

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

23 thoughts on “The Witch of Endor, the Dead Prophet, the Doomed King

  1. Hi Marg,

    Similar to your conclusion, I wonder if the “witch of Endor” wasn’t actually of true prophetess of God. It reminds me of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, where Abraham comforts Lazarus while speaking to the rich man in Hades. We presume there should be no communication between the living and the dead, nor between heaven and hell. Luke 16 and 1 Samuel 28 seem to say otherwise, at least for special servants like Abraham and Samuel. That doesn’t really ring true.

    Matthew Henry’s interpretation notwithstanding, I lean towards the idea that the initial “conjuring” was an inspired act of deception by the prophetess, to set the stage for the harsh word of judgment – along the lines of the unnamed ‘old prophet’ deceiving the (also unnamed) ‘man of God’ in 1 Kings 13. She is unnamed, even defamed by allowing herself to be called a medium, but she delivers a true word from God.

    1. Thanks for your interesting comment, Bob. Some quick thoughts:

      I’m pretty sure we can’t call the medium a prophetess of God. Nevertheless, we can’t rule out that God did use her on this occasion.

      I’m also reluctant to think people can communicate between different realms on the basis of a parable. It may be that the parable draws on ideas from Jewish lore rather than a reality.

      I’m personally not a fan of Matthew Henry. But I very much like how you’ve worded your interpretation!

      Also, many respectable women are not named in the Hebrew Bible but are identified by a male relative or by a town. Being unnamed is not significant, being called a medium, on the other hand, is highly significant.

  2. Fascinating comparison of Abigail and the woman of Endor. Thanks, Marg.

    1. Thanks, Estelle.

  3. You know Mam… you bring Gods Word Alive to our situations yes are tempted just like Saul .. thanks it remind us which direction i choose .. thank you for making it so meaningful.. i enjoy your insightful artices
    God bless

    1. Thanks, Vilbert. 🙂

  4. I wonder too if the similarity in the introductory statement is meant to convey that the events were simultaneous (or near to it).

    1. That’s interesting. I think they did occur fairly close to each other time-wise. But maybe they were happening at pretty much the same time.

      1. The apparition that appeared to Saul was NOT Samuel’s ghost. It was a demon called up by the witch of Endor. Also, in Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, it states that the dead know nothing. So, it was a demon that appeared and looked like Samuel

        1. Hello Okoye,

          There are many Bible stories that raise ethical and theological questions. The story of Saul and the witch of Endor is one of them.

          There’s nothing in the story to suggest that a demon appeared. But if we assume it was a demon, it was a demon who spoke the truth and prophecied correctly.

          In the story, it is the woman who speaks, so it seems more likely that God (not a demon) used her to communicate to Saul.

          Perhaps we are meant to take the story at face value and, despite our difficulties, accept what the author wrote.

  5. God’s word states “Suffer a witch not to live.” There are no good witches.

    1. I agree. In the article, I cite Exodus 22:18 twice, as well as other Bible verses that condemn sorcery and witchcraft. This is why the story is so remarkable. As I say, “. . . the woman of Endor is presented in a surprisingly sympathetic light, considering her evil profession.

  6. Saul had backed himself into a corner. While he was trying to be a good king, he had officially expelled all the mediums and spiritists. It was okay, because God communicated with Saul via His prophets, the Urim and Thummim, and Saul had the Spirit of God upon him. But then, when he was being a bad king, God’s Spirit departed from him, he killed quite a few priests, and evidently the Urim and Thummim fell silent as well (makes sense, since they were to be read by a priest).

    So, what were the people to do? With no spiritists and no priests, Saul had basically turned Israel into a spiritual wasteland. It’s so interesting this woman remained in her home at Ramah. Did she have a day job? How did she make a living?

    Anyway, the more I sat with her story, the more I saw this was about the kind of person she was in her character, one who honored her king as best she could, who seemed to be generous, warm, kindhearted, practical minded, truth loving, and other-centered person. Honestly, she had better character than Saul, hands down. There’s no indication she was an Israelite, only that she lived in Ramah. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was actually a Canaanite of some kind. If that be the case, then she may have been sympathetic towards YHWH and His people, without fully embracing God’s Law, similar to many 1st century gentile God-fearers. There is also no indication she still practiced her dark arts, only that she knew how, and had done so, so effectively she was the first person who came to mind.

    So, it seems to me, the story juxtaposes a kind-hearted (possibly gentile) (possibly reformed) spiritist who risked her life to strengthen and nourish God’s king, with the king himself, who though ostensibly God’s man, had lost God’s Spirit and murdered God’s servants, to whom God no longer spoke, and whose paucity of character was revealed in all its lacking.

    It’s still a timely story for us today. Who we say we are, who others say we are, has to be proven out by who we really are, which is revealed in how we live.

    1. Hi JoAnne, I appreciate your thoughts on this interesting story.

  7. She fed him to keep herself safe. Back then rules of hospitality dictated you not harm someone who you ate with.

    1. Yes, and she fed Saul very well.

      1. Fattened for slaughter.

  8. The reason I said it was a demon because in verse 6 and 15 of 1 Samuel 28 it says that GOD did not speak to Saul neither by dreams, Urim and prophets( Samuel was a prophet). If one can really contact the spirits of the dead, then GOD would not condemn necromancy. GOD condemned it because it is actually contact with demons. In verse 12 , the woman only screamed because the demon impersonating Samuel exposed Saul to her. Thanks .

    1. Hello, yes, I did understand you.

      While your idea is possible, the biblical text doesn’t say it was a demon impersonating Samuel. It simply says that the woman “saw Samuel” (1 Samuel 28:12).

      And in 1 Samuel 28:15 and 28:16ff Samuel speaks. The text reads, “Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?’” And “Samuel said, ‘Since the Lord has turned away from you …'”

      The biblical author indicates it was Samuel the woman saw, and it was Samuel who spoke, despite all the theological difficulties this raises. The author says nothing about a demon. I prefer to stick with what the author says, despite the difficulties.

  9. There are still reasons for my comment:
    1. The message Saul got from this apparition was completely hopeless. When GOD gives us messages, he mingles hope with them, but this message is completely hopeless, thereby making Saul to faint.
    2. The witch said that she saw a spirit ascending up out of the earth. The Hebrew word translated spirit or gods is Elohim, meaning she saw an evil spirit.
    3. 1 Chronicles 10:13-14 said that Saul DID NOT inquire of the LORD. Therefore, he inquired of Satan.
    4. If it was really Samuel, he would have been in rebellion against GOD, because GOD would not raise Samuel to honour the incantations of the witch, or to scare her.
    5. When GOD cast Lucifer (Satan) out of heaven with the rebellious angels, they still retained their powers. He DID NOT collect their powers. That was why Satan could transform himself into an angel of light (see 2 Corinthians 11:13-14), and his angels can correctly impersonate the dead. That is what happened here.

    1. I understand your reasons. My reasons are different from yours, though.

      1. There are plenty of messages, or prophecies, from God in the Hebrew Bible that are judgements of doom and gloom (e.g., 1 Samuel 3:11-14).

      2. The word elohim is used in a variety of ways in the Hebrew Bible. It often refers to God but it is used differently in 1 Samuel 28:13. There is no reason to interpret elohim as an “evil spirit.”

      3. Saul is clearly not inquiring of the Lord. He had tried inquiring of the Lord in various sanctioned ways and failed. In desperation, he wanted to speak to Samuel through a medium. This was a bad thing, but 1 Chronicles 10:13-14 does not say Saul inquired of Satan.

      4. God has forbidden us to consult mediums, but that doesn’t mean God can’t raise a spirit if he wants to.

      5. There are a few ideas in your 5th point that I don’t necessarily see the same way. Though I don’t doubt that demons can impersonate others

      When it’s all said and done, the text says the spirit, or the elohim, was Samuel. It doesn’t say it was a demon.

      I’ve said all I want to say on this. But I will add that I do not take the occult lightly. Witchcraft is evil.

  10. Interesting! David comes into his blessing through an honorable woman, and Saul loses his through a dishonerable woman. This looks like a picture of Proverbs 9.

    It is a picture of the Slave Woman and the Free Woman. Two women from Genesis to Revelation (Hannah and Peninnah; Queen Vashti and Queen Esther; Ruth and Orpah..etc.) . The Woman Folly and the Woman Wisdom in Proverbs. The whore of babylon and the mystery woman of Revelation (who is being revealed in these end times) who gives birth to God’s offspring (Revelation 12:17).

    1. Interesting, Amber!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Marg's Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

 

Loading

Join Marg's Patreon

Would you like to support my ministry of encouraging mutuality and equality between men and women in the church and in marriage?

Archives