This is the first entry in a series on odd and interesting passages of the Bible that are sure to raise eyebrows. But while they pique our interest, they also communicate important lessons about life and faith.
Today: Saul & the Witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:4-27)
Here’s the cliff notes background of the story: Saul was the first king of Israel, circa 1000 BC, but he was in some trouble. He had disobeyed God by offering a sacrifice before a battle instead of waiting for the high priest and prophet, Samuel, to arrive. Furthermore, he didn’t obey God when it came to the treatment of an enemy king. So God rejected Saul as king and anointed David, a teenager, as king in Bethlehem. After a few years Samuel died and David grew in favor with the people while Saul suffered a series of setbacks. God wasn’t talking to the king anymore and Samuel was dead, so on the eve of battle what does a troubled monarch do?
Saul said to his servants, “Seek for me a woman who is a medium (spiritist, witch), that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a woman who is a medium at Endor.” Then Saul disguised himself by putting on other clothes, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night. He said, “Conjure up for me, please, and bring up for me whom I shall name to you.” But the woman said to him, “Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who are mediums and spiritists from the land. Why are you then laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?” Saul vowed to her by the LORD, saying, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.”
PAUSE — OK, now this is interesting, isn’t it? Saul’s No. 2 choice for divine instruction is a form of religious practice that he had banned. Desperation causes a person to do mighty strange things, doesn’t it? So he asks his servants who — interestingly — know of a woman who practices the “dark arts” in the small village of Endor. She may be retired as a medium (thanks to Saul) or is practicing in secret. But if you want to talk to the dead, she’s your gal. So Saul disguises himself (he’s the Sheriff of Nottingham, after all) and goes to consult her. RESUME —
Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.” The king said to her, “Do not be afraid; but what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being (spirit) coming up out of the earth.” He said to her, “What is his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage.
PAUSE — OK, I don’t know about you but calling up dead people ain’t something I’ve ever witnessed before. Is it like a Star Wars hologram? “Obi Sam Kenobi, you are my only hope.” Or maybe like Sirius Black appearing in Harry Potter’s fireplace? Samuel was coming up in his spirit elevator, rising above the rocky ground, and the medium shrieked when she saw him. I always wondered why she reacted this way. After all, she was a medium. This is what she does! Or is it? Maybe her gig is a sham, a “tell them what they want to hear,” smoke-and-mirrors kind of racket. The fact that it worked may have floored her. Or maybe no one asked for Samuel before. The fact that the prophet — the man of God — came up gave away that King Saul was also in her presence. In either explanation, she turned to Saul and pointed her bony finger (my imagination). Saul knew something was up but he couldn’t see Samuel. Only the woman. Creepy factor nine here. X-Files on call. The woman saw a spirit — called here elohim, a “divine being” — that looked like an old man wearing a robe. When she told the king, he immediately bowed to the ground for he knew it was Samuel. Jedis, I mean, prophets, always wore robes. Or so I figure. RESUME —
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” And Saul answered, “I am greatly distressed; for the Philistines are waging war against me, and God has departed from me and no longer answers me, either through prophets or by dreams; therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I should do.” Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the LORD has departed from you and has become your adversary? The LORD has done accordingly as He spoke through me; for the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. As you did not obey the LORD and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the LORD has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the LORD will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Indeed the LORD will give over the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines!”
PAUSE and BREATHE — Where was Samuel all this time? He was dead and buried in Ramah. Where was his spirit? Ironically, Samuel’s mother, Hannah, had long ago foreshadowed this incident— intentionally or not — when she sang, ““The LORD kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up (2:6).” Sheol is the place of the dead. It was, according to Jewish belief, where both righteous and wicked souls went when they died, the good ones to God’s place of blessing and the bad ones to a place of damnation. So Samuel was coming from the good half of Sheol. Later Jewish tradition would call this place, “Abraham’s Bosom,” but at this time you were either dead on earth — your spirit alive in Sheol — or fully alive on earth. In Samuel’s case, he was mighty ticked that Saul had brought his spirit back to the surface. He was probably right in the middle of a big meal. One second he was about to sink his teeth into a smoked turkey leg and the next he was rising towards the surface. Don’t you hate it when people call you during dinner? Saul tells the prophet of his troubles, including the silence of God, and of his need for divine guidance. Samuel gives the king a reality check. God has left Saul, David is the king-in-waiting, Israel will fall in battle and — creepy factor 10 — Saul and his sons will be joining Samuel in Sheol tomorrow. I’m not sure how I would’ve reacted if a ghost just told me I’d also become a ghost tomorrow — that this night was my last on earth and that my legacy, my own sons, would join me. I’d likely be pale and lifeless. Saul ended up that way as the story ends. RESUME —
Then Saul immediately fell full length upon the ground and was very afraid because of the words of Samuel; also there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no food all day and all night.
THE END — So what lessons can be drawn from this bizarre story? First, it is clear that there is more than the physical world around us. There is a spiritual realm that frequently intersects with the physical realm and those moments of interaction are awesome. Think angelic visits and Jesus’ transfiguration and His resurrected appearances. Think dead people coming back to life and crippled people being made whole.
Second, it is clear that life continues after death. Samuel wasn’t in a bad place, either, for if he was he’d be more like the Rich Man in the Lazarus story — get me outta here (Luke 16:20-23)! No, Samuel was in a place of blessing. In our day that place of blessing is heaven, where Jesus Christ has prepared room for all who believe in Him (Jn 14:2-3). Can we communicate with people on earth, ala Samuel? No clue. I guess that’s up to God to decide. I have no answer. But the personal blessing of heaven remains for us.
Third, God’s word is the final authority. When the Almighty speaks, His will happens. God told Saul years before that his disobedience lost him the kingdom and that decision still stood. “The LORD has done accordingly as He spoke through me,” Samuel said. Another prophet, Isaiah, beautifully wrote that the flowers and grass may wither but the word of the Lord stands forever (Isa 40:8). This same truth applies to the promises of God. When He says He will never leave us or forsake us, He means it (Heb 13:5-6). Count on it. Even in tough circumstances.
Quite a story, eh? Israelite king consults a medium who brings up from the grave an old prophet who tells said king that he’s down to his last night on earth. And there are more bizarre Bible stories yet to come…