The ghost of Caesar hath appear’d to me
Two several times by night: at Sardis, once;
And, this last night, here in Philippi fields.
I know, my hour is come.
(William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, act 5, scene 5)
It’s several days late, but one of my readers suggested a Halloween-themed article, so I decided to put the other one I was working on aside and take a look at the story of Saul and his visit to the so-called “Witch” of Endor in 1 Samuel 28 in order to summon the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the grave. There is no other story in the Bible like it, and the text poses one or two enigmas that scholars fail to agree on. Let’s take a look.
Setting the Stage for an Otherworldly Encounter
To stay as close to the Hebrew as possible, I will use Graeme Auld’s translation (see bibliography) with a few minor changes, rather than a standard English Bible version. The story in 1 Samuel 28:3 begins with some brief exposition.
3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel mourned him; and they buried him in Ramah in his town. And Saul had removed the bottles and the experts from the land.
First, the text repeats what we were already told in 1 Sam 25:1: Samuel has died and been buried. Then we are told something new: Saul has banished from Israel “the bottles and the experts” (the obot and the yidde’onim) — an odd pair of terms that refers to bottles (obot) that function as a medium’s prop (like a crystal ball), and “experts” (yidde’onim) in secret knowledge. Auld believes this refers to human diviners who gain knowledge by using their “bottles” (Auld 325), while Blenkinsopp believes it refers to spirits themselves who possess the knowledge that the diviner seeks (Blenkinsopp 1995:13). Most English translations paper over the ambiguity and just say that Saul expelled the “mediums and wizards” or something similar.
Leviticus (19:31; 20:6, 27) warns against using the obot and the yidde’onim, and both the deuteronomistic literature and priestly literature of the Old Testament appear to treat death cults as a threat to normative Yahwism (see ABD, “Ancestor Worship”). Our story, however, does not state what Saul’s own reasons for the ban were, nor how recently it was enacted. Most interpreters read it with the prohibitions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy in mind, but we cannot assume that those laws were in place when Samuel-Kings was written. Even within the traditional narrative, the law of Moses is “lost” until its accidental discovery in the time of Josiah. Isaiah 8:19 is critical of those who inquire of ghosts and spirits — which implies it is a common enough practice — but mentions no legal prohibitions.
As Battle Looms, Yahweh Is Silent
4 And the Philistines were gathered, and they came and camped in Shunem, and Saul gathered every man of Israel, and they camped in Gilboa.
5 And Saul saw the Philistine camp; and he was afraid and his heart trembled greatly.
6 And Saul asked of Yahweh; but Yahweh did not answer him: by dreams, by the Urim, by the prophets.
The Philistines are preparing to invade Israel, and Saul needs to know from Yahweh what will happen, so he attempts the acceptable methods of divination: dreams, the Urim (divination tools used by the priests), and prophets. All are silent. Saul will have to resort to less acceptable means if he wants an answer.
Lives at Stake, Mediums Rare
7 And Saul said to his servants, “Seek for me a woman, a bottle-mistress, and let me go to her, and let me inquire by her.” And his servants said to him, “There is in fact a woman, a bottle-mistress, in En-dor.”
8 And Saul disguised himself and dressed in other clothes, and he went and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said to her, “Divine for me, I insist, by the skin-bottle, and raise for me whomever I say to you.”
The story takes a humorous turn. Although Saul has supposedly banished all the mediums from his land, his attendants have no trouble locating one when he asks. They call her a ba’alat-ob, or woman who commands the bottle (i.e. can conjure up ancestral spirits). Though many translations call her a “witch”, some scholars insist that this is a misnomer — particularly Esther Hamori, who has written a very informative book on the subject (see bibliography). The Bible has other labels for sorceresses and witches that are not used here. She is, rather, a “ghost-diviner” — a necromancer who seeks divine knowledge from the spirits of the dead. Furthermore, there is no reason to think she is anything other than an Israelite in this story, despite the biases of some interpreters to view any heterodox practices as Canaanite or foreign.
Although this is the only direct instance of necromancy in the Bible, similar tales were common in Mesopotamian and Greco-Roman literature. The writer seems to be working from a basic story model, as Blenkinsopp shows (Blenkinsopp 2002: 49ff). Saul specifically asks for a woman, and though there is no particular reason a necromancer need be a woman, this seems to have been a stereotypically female occupation. Since ghosts usually don’t appear unbidden, the “mediation of a specialist and the application of certain necromantic techniques” is required to summon them (Ibid. 59). Furthermore, spirit divination almost always takes place at night, as the ghost must apparently depart before dawn (Ibid. 60), and so it is by night that Saul and his two attendants visit the woman.
9 And the woman said to him, “Look, you yourself know what Saul did: how he cut off the ‘bottles’ and the ‘experts’ from the land. And why are you striking at my life, putting me to death?”
10 And Saul swore to her by Yahweh, saying, “as Yahweh lives, guilt will not happen on you in this matter.”
At this point in the story, Saul is still in disguise, and the woman does not know who he is. The fact that he swears by the name of Yahweh to her safety and she accepts it suggests that both are pious Yahweh followers.
11 And the woman said, “Whom shall I raise for you?” And he said, “Samuel you should raise for me.”
12 And the woman saw Samuel, and she cried out with a great voice, and the woman said to Saul: “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.”
Here we encounter our first major difficulty. As the text now reads, events happen in the following sequence: (1) Saul names the person to be raised, (2) the woman sees Samuel, and (3) the woman realizes who Saul is. How could seeing Samuel possibly have made her recognize Saul? Keith Bodner remarks, “I find it utterly baffling how the woman perceives Samuel the prophet, and then immediately is able to identify Saul.” (Bodner 297) A number of explanations that deal with the text as-is have been proposed by scholars, none of them terribly convincing. Others believe the confusion is the result of redactional changes. Furthermore, the story seems to be out of order: the woman sees Samuel before the actual rising of Samuel two verses later.
The best explanation, in my opinion, is that given by Hamori. She suggests slightly different vowel points on a single word, which would result in verse 12 saying “the woman feared Samuel”. We could infer, then, that the woman knows that Saul is the only person who would want to conjure up Samuel. This also clears up the chronological problem. (Hamori 121)
Saul in the Dead Poet’s Society¹
13 And the king said to her, “Do not be afraid; say whom have you seen?” And the woman said to Saul, “I saw gods rising from the earth.”
14 And he said to her, “What was his form?” and the woman said, “an old [LXX: erect] man rising, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel; and he knelt face on the ground and did obeisance to him.
Unfortunately, the story skips over the part many modern readers are most interested in: a description of the ritual itself. It may be that the author himself didn’t know exactly how necromancy was carried out. Whatever her methods, the woman is successful, and there’s plenty to unpack in these two verses.
The mention of “gods” rising is curious. English translations generally obscure the Hebrew phrasing (e.g. the NIV: “I see a ghostly figure”), but the word is elohim and the verb is plural. Isaiah 8:19-20 also, perhaps ironically, refers to the dead as gods: “Should not a people consult their gods, the dead on behalf of the living, for teaching and for instruction?”. Brian Schmidt, on the other hand, suggests that the gods are not the dead themselves, but chthonic deities summoned to assist the retrieval of the ghost, as is attested in Mesopotamian traditions (Schmidt 90).
The fact that the spirits rise from the ground is consistent with the ancient Near Eastern view of the cosmos, according to which the netherworld, where the spirits of the dead rest, is located under the flat earth. The Old Testament frequently speaks of the dead going down to Sheol, where they are forgotten by Yahweh (Psalm 88:10ff, Eccl 2:16). We are not dealing with Samuel’s physical body rising from the gravesite, since that is in Ramah, a location far removed from Endor.
Many commentators (but not Hamori) somehow fail to notice that the spirits are visible only to the woman and not to Saul, though Samuel’s ghost can speak to Saul and presumably anyone else in the room. This might be a common expectation when the dead are summoned, if for no other reason than that all such rituals would have involved some level of fakery by the medium — just like a modern-day seance or psychic reading. Nevertheless, the author appears to believe in necromancy and depicts the event as a real conjuring of a ghost.
Saul’s recognition that the ghost must indeed be Samuel is somewhat contrived. The only description given by the medium is that the figure is an old man wearing a robe. Obviously that’s not very specific. The logic seems to be that this description is consistent with that of Samuel (whose is described as wearing a robe in 1 Samuel 15:27), so there is no reason for Saul or the narrator to doubt that the medium has summoned Samuel as requested (Hamori 122). This detail also reflects the view of ancient Jews and others that one’s ghost was an anthropomorphic mirror-image of the person during his or her life. Samuel was an old man who wore a robe; therefore, his ghost is also an old man who wears a robe.² Similarly, Odysseus is able to recognize the souls of all his comrades when he descends to Hades, because they look the same (Finney 62). The similarities also go beyond the visual. Samuel’s ghost speaks Hebrew and has the same personality (including his hatred of the Amalekites) that the living Samuel had.
It should be obvious, but it bears mentioning that nothing in the story hints even in the slightest that Saul is conversing with anyone other than the real ghost of Samuel. Since the early church fathers, however, Christians have been disturbed enough by the passage to insist that it was really a demon masquerading as Samuel. (Accepting the implications that necromancy really works is out of the question, apparently.) In my experience, this is still the standard explanation trotted out in church and Sunday school. We can safely discard such interpretations as the attempts of fundamentalists and biblical inerrantists to get out of a tight spot.
The Ungrateful Dead
15 And Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you caused me disturbance, raising me up?” And Saul said, “It is very tight for me; and Philistines are making war on me; and God has turned from me and has not answered me still—even by hand of the prophets, even by dreams; and I called to you to let me know what I should do.”
16 And Samuel said: “And why do you ask me, and Yahweh has turned from you and come to be your adversary? 17 And Yahweh has done to you as he spoke by my hand, and Yahweh has torn the kingdom from your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. 18 Just as you did not listen to Yahweh’s voice and did not ‘do’ the heat of his anger on Amalek, accordingly this deed has Yahweh done to you this day. 19 And Yahweh will give Israel with you into Philistine hands, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The camp of Israel too Yahweh will give into Philistine hands.”
The spirit of Samuel is upset at being disturbed. This is apparently in keeping with the convention of literary ghost stories (Blenkinsopp 2002: 56). However, he does not condemn Saul for using a medium to summon him from the grave. For the most part, he simply repeats, rather verbosely, the verdict he made earlier: that Saul will lose his kingdom for not completely destroying the Amalekites as commanded. It is widely believed that verses 17-19a were a later addition to strengthen the connection with chapter 15, where Samuel first declares Yahweh’s punishment on Saul for his failure to obey.
In ancient tales of this type, the dead person usually makes some kind of prediction on behalf of the living. How much do the dead know? It’s not clear if Samuel’s knowledge extends beyond the outcome of the upcoming battle (Ibid. 60).
After this brief pronouncement, the encounter ends. The medium shows great kindness toward Saul, baking bread and butchering her own calf to feed him and restore the strength that he has lost from his fast. The reader may be surprised that contrary to what we might expect from a witch or necromancer according to other Bible passages, this woman is not only competent, but kind and generous. No hint of criticism toward her or her craft can be found in this story.
Similar Stories from Other Sources
As I’ve mentioned, there is no shortage of stories in ancient Near Eastern literature about consulting the spirits of the dead. One example frequently brought up for its similarities to the story of Saul is the play Persai by Aeschylus. In that story, the queen of Persia has her elders entreat the chthonic gods to raise the soul of her deceased husband Darius so that she may seek his counsel. Like Samuel, Darius rises up from the earth, and articles of his clothing are identified. The ghost of Darius delivers the dismaying news that Xerxes will be defeated in battle for his irreligious folly, which also reminds us of Saul. (West 550; Blenkinsopp 2002: 58)
Other tales include one, told by Herodotus (Histories 5.92), of Perlander, the king of Corinth, who by necromancy consults his deceased wife to learn the location of a treasure; and a story from the Odyssey (11.23-43) in which Odysseus conjures up the spirits of his mother and Elpenor with the help of the seer Teiresias. (Blenkinsopp 2002: 59, Wajdenbaum 251-252)
Passing Judgment on the “Witch” of Endor
Modern readers may be inclined to view the necromancer of Endor — usually uncharitably called a witch — as a malevolent practitioner of evil arts and a witting participant in Saul’s crimes. It is sometimes assumed she must be a foreigner, since no true Israelite would dabble in witchcraft. Such views are not to be found in the biblical text, however. As Graeme Auld notes:
Despite warnings about her sort elsewhere in HB, this unnamed medium from En-dor is presented very sympathetically. She is an engaging character, offering hospitality to the king about to die, readily killing an animal of her own to feed an unexpected visitor (quite the opposite of the rich man in Nathan’s parable). (Auld 329)
Similarly, as Graham Harvey explains:
The Bible does not always distinguish between ‘witches’ and socially acceptable magic workers. It is not consistent and leaves us confused as to why Moses, Daniel and company are not punished for their conjuring tricks. […] The witch of En-dor may well have considered herself a good Israelite; after all she did not say to her visitors, ‘No I don’t call up the spirits of prophets like Samuel, I only do non-Israelite loved-ones’. Even those who ‘passed their children through the fire’ probably did so as part of their worship of YHWH and his court (Levenson 1993). The Bible performs a sleight of hand when it outlaws divination as witchcraft but encourages the use of other divinatory systems such as the Urim. What these passages unambiguously tell us is that it was possible for some Israelites to level an accusation against other Israelites. They do not tell us how anyone could judge whether or not to stone or exile the accused. (Harvey 121-122)
Hamori also observes:
The lack of condemnation of necromancy and the necromancer is also evident in the content of the divined message. The ghost of Samuel…does not so much as mention the fact that Saul is in the act of consulting a medium. Samuel’s only complaint in regard to this event is that he did not want to be disturbed. […] It is noteworthy that a story that begins with the information that Saul had removed the mediums from the land, and which includes condemnation of Saul, does not contain any indication that Yahweh or the ghost of his prophet had a problem with this act of necromancy. The medium is never condemned, and Saul’s punishment is overtly for other reasons. (Hamori 127, 128)
The Point of the Story
Contrary perhaps to what many modern readers think, the story is not really about necromancy, and it does not condemn Saul for resorting to such measures, nor the medium for carrying them out. Rather, the story continues a theme found elsewhere in the story of Saul’s reign: that he has lost Yahweh’s favour and can no longer obtain advice from his own deity, even though his rival David does so with ease. The visit to the necromancer adds dramatic irony, as Saul is forced to resort to measures he himself has outlawed. Only the lowly medium, an outcast of mainstream society due to Saul’s own actions, can deliver Yahweh’s message to Saul, and in the end, we see him a broken and powerless man.
- This is Keith Bodner’s pun, so I cannot take credit for it. (Bodner 296)
- I mean, if you think about it, it’s absurd to suppose that when a person dies, their soul is issued ghost-clothes that look exactly like what they were wearing when they died.
- Keith Bodner, 1 Samuel: A Narrative Commentary, 2009.
Graeme Auld, I & II Samuel, 2011.
Philippe Wajdenbaum, Argonauts of the Desert.
M.L. West, The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth, 1997.
- Blenkinsopp, “Deuteronomy and the Politics of Post-Mortem Existence”, VT 45/1, 1995.
Brian B. Schmidt, “Memory as Immortality”, Judaism in Late Antiquity 4: Death, Life-After-Death, Resurrection and the World-to-Come in the Judaisms of Antiquity.
Mark Finney, Resurrection, Hell, and the Afterlife: Body and Soul in Antiquity, Judaism, and Early Christianity, 2016.
Esther J. Hamori, Women’s Divination in Biblical Literature: Prophecy, Necromancy, and Other Arts of Knowledge, Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library, 2015.
Graham Harvey, “The Suffering of Witches and Children: Uses of the Witchcraft Passages in the Bible”, Words Remembered, Texts Renewed, 1995.