I Samuel 28 – Saul and the Witch (corrected)

I Samuel 28 – Saul and the Witch of Endor

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Nov. 9, 2008

Craig D. Atwood


Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class broadcast live from the chapel of Home Moravian Church in Old Salem. This week we are continuing our study of I Samuel, but before we turn to the Bible, I think it is important that we take a moment to ponder the events of the past week. Tuesday night was historic, and it may be years before we understand the full significance of the election of Barak Obama. Many tears were shed Tuesday night and there was dancing in the streets across America and abroad. Senator McCain’s concession speech was noble and inspiring. He called for us all to rally behind our new president, and I hope we will. Barak Obama will not only be the first African-American President, he is the first from Hawaii, our youngest states. He is not the youngest person to be chosen for this office, but it is the first time in my life that the president is roughly my own age. I am just six months older than him.


I could not go to sleep after the election, and so I got out of bed to work on this lesson. It occurred to me that Senator Obama and I were both born at the very beginning of the space age, when humans first left Earth’s atmosphere. But this was also shortly after the creation of the hydrogen bomb. For our whole lives, we have lived under the threat of nuclear weapons. The Civil Rights movement had already begun when Senator Obama and I were born, and we were both children when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Throughout my childhood, America was involved in the Vietnam War, and George Wallace ran in the first presidential campaign I can remember. I was only seven years old in 1968 when the country was convulsed by riots, but I remember the deployment of the National Guard in several states.


Just think how much things have changed in forty years. Not only did Germans rise up and tear down the Berlin Wall, South Africans tore down the wall of apartheid. We watched one American president broker peace between Israel and Egypt, and another president encourage democracy in the former Soviet Socialist republics. The past 48 years of my life have been filled with conflict and pain, but we made great progress as well. Along with millions of Americans, I was inspired by the words of our President-elect on Tuesday night when he reminded of us of the promise of America and the ideals that make us great.


We have often failed to live up to those ideals as individuals and as a nation, but that is no reason to doubt those ideals. In the Moravian Church, as in most Christian churches, we regularly confess in worship that we have fallen short of the standards set by our Lord and are often unworthy servants. We know that as individuals and as churches, we are poor stewards of God’s grace, just as we Americans have sometimes been poor stewards of the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” The reason we confess our failures in church is so that we may change our ways, so that our lives may more perfectly reflect our ideals.

The Christian Church, which started as a small, persecuted group of disciples dedicated to the extraordinary propositions of the Sermon on the Mount, now includes believers who speak over a thousand different languages and whose skin is a thousand different hues. The United States, which began with the extraordinary proposition that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights,” now includes people from nearly every nation on earth. We will soon have a president whose ancestors came from Europe and Africa, who was educated in a university founded by the Puritans, and who chose a life of public service over the pursuit of personal wealth. This week he challenged us all to turn away from cynicism and selfishness so that together we may live into the hope and promise of our ideals as Americans and as people of faith. I hope we will heed that call and that repentance will be matched by deeds of justice and mercy.


Our lesson for this week strikes a somber note after the excitement of Election Day. We are continuing our story about politics and religion in ancient Israel, and this week we have a story about necromancy and despair. It is a very weird story that writers have copied for centuries, but remarkably this is the only story of its kind in the Bible. Ancient literature abounds with stories of heroes speaking with the shades of the dead, but this is the only such tale in Scripture. Chapter 28 contains a story that may be more appropriate for Halloween than the Sunday after Election Day, but I think we will find a useful message in it for our lives today. I will read the entire story.

Read chapter 28           

Placement in I Samuel                        One of the first things we notice about this story as we are reading through I Samuel is that it interrupts the flow of the narrative. In fact, it is a rather jarring change of scene. We have seen that I Samuel was assembled from many pieces of ancient literature, including royal documents. Some of the sections of the book, like chapter 28, appear to be stories or legends passed down for generations before being incorporated in this grand history of the origin of the Israelite monarchy. In its current location the story interrupts the story of David serving the Philistines. In the previous chapter David became a liege of the Philistine king, and chapters 29 and 30 continue the chronicle of David’s wars on behalf of King Achish.

Chapter 28 abruptly shifts the scene to King Saul who is preparing to battle the Philistines. This is beautiful stagecraft similar to a good movie. David is not the only character in this drama. We now return to the two men who figured most prominently in the first part of the book: Saul and Samuel. By placing this chapter where it is, the author shows us the contrast between David who has responded creatively and boldly to his dire situation and Saul who is slipping further and further into impotence and despair.

The author inserted a few verses in the original story so that it connects with the larger narrative of the book. We are reminded yet again that Samuel was dead and that all Israel mourned for him. It is like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, which says that Marley was dead, to begin with it. Like Marley, Samuel was as dead as a doornail, or perhaps a coffin nail. Everyone in Israel knew he was dead, and that his wisdom was lost.

A Small Medium at Large:                        We are also told that Saul had gotten rid of the mediums and wizards, which was consistent with biblical law (Lev. 19:31, 20:6, Deut. 18:11). There is no reason to doubt that the king had indeed tried to stamp out ancient magical practices. Many of the later kings of Israel did similar things, often with brutal efficiency. The author of I Samuel probably approved of this, but this chapter is remarkably non-judgmental. By beginning the story with the statement that it was Saul who had abolished necromancy, the author emphasizes Saul’s desperation in seeking out a medium. It is similar to the situation today when a legislator who passes a law condemning certain activities is caught doing those same things. Saul banished mediums and witches, but when he was distressed he found one.

There are several translation issues in this passage. Scholars disagree over what to call the woman Saul visits. The King James Version calls her a “witch” because she is a woman doing illicit magic. By the way, Samantha’s mother in the TV show Bewitched was named Endora because of this story. Until the 20th century, the word “witch” has almost always been pejorative. Most tribal cultures have a concept of witchcraft, and it is almost always someone who uses supernatural powers to harm people. Those who use occult powers to help people are generally referred as wise women, oracles, herb women, shamans or healers. Such women and men often work on the fringes of society, practicing ancient forms of medicine and divination.

Since the woman in chapter 28 is helping Saul rather than using her power to harm someone, modern translators tend to avoid the word “witch” when describing her. All we know about her is that she is a type of seer or oracle. In the days of King Saul, there was probably less difference between a prophet or seer and the woman in Endor than we might assume, but she is using necromancy, which has often been condemned as dark magic in Christianity. In the 19th century, spiritualism became popular in America and Europe, and some people claimed to be “mediums” who could contact the spirits of the dead. Some translators call the woman in Endor a medium or even a spiritualist, but it is unlikely that Saul was having a séance. Since she is hiding from the authorities, we might say that she is a small medium at large. I will follow tradition and call her the witch of Endor, but keep in mind that she is not like the witches we see on Halloween.

Saul and the Witch                        Even though he is the king of Israel, Saul recognizes that he is losing control of his destiny. In earlier stories we have seen that Saul’s religion was based on superstition and shallow religiosity rather than faith. He depended more on prophecy, oracles, and religious vows than justice and wise administration. Now he is coming to the end of his reign, and is desperately looking for help. He realizes that the Philistines are massing an imposing force against him, and he has alienated one of his best warriors. He wants someone to tell him what he should he do, but none of his old methods of seeking religious confirmation are working. The prophets turned against him and endorsed his rival. The Urim and Thummin stones aren’t working because he had killed the priests.  The Lord has turned against him. What can he do?

Rather than ask himself what he must do to return to God, he asks one of his retainers to find a medium, even though he knows he has driven them all from the land. His war on the witches appears to have been no more successful than our government’s war on drugs. Saul thinks he has gotten rid of the witches, but one of his men knew right away where to find a witch. There is a witch in Endor.  King Saul has to hide his identity and go to her seeking advice. We can feel her fear when the strange man comes to her. She thinks it is a trap, but she is torn by compassion for this suffering man and she agrees to help him. When she hears who Saul wants her to summon, she becomes more frightened. Only someone powerful would dare to wake Samuel from the grave. Moreover, we can assume that it was the prophet Samuel who had instructed Saul to get rid of the witches in the first place. She realizes that the hated king is in her home asking her to break the law. He insists and she relents.

Witchcraft?                        Modern feminists view this woman with more sympathy than male biblical scholars through the centuries. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Protestant and Catholics alike used this story as justification for burning tens of thousands of women on the charge of witchcraft. Many of them were simply midwives who were unfortunate enough to help deliver babies with birth defects. Many of them were probably women like the witch of Endor who were confined to the fringes of society, and yet people still wanted their help in times of crisis.

One of the big debates in Christian theology through the years was whether the woman actually had the power to raise the spirit of Samuel. Many theologians were reluctant to say that a human could do this without demonic help, but surely Satan would not raise Samuel from the dead. Some have argued that God performed a special miracle in bringing Samuel back from the dead for a brief time. Others have argued that this was simply a vision, and that it was really God speaking to Saul.

A careful reading of the text indicates that Saul himself did not see Samuel; it was the witch who saw him. It is possible that the witch of Endor was like modern mediums who claim to have contact with other side while actually telling customers what they want to hear. It is interesting that it is Saul who tells her that the old man with a robe is Samuel.

This description of Saul confirming that the spirit she has contacting is Samuel is very similar to what happens in modern séances or with psychics. It is the customer who provides the interpretation of the experience and creates the message he or she wanted to hear. In other words, chapter 28 may be a surprisingly accurate account of a real event, but that does not necessarily mean that the spirit of Samuel was physically raised from the dead. It sounds like Saul himself did not see Samuel even though he talked to him.

The Ghost of Samuel                        It is interesting that Saul learns nothing new from the necromancer. The ghost of Samuel tells him that the kingdom has been torn from him and that David will be the next king. The ghost confirms Saul’s worst fear; that there is no hope for him and Jonathan. I keep saying “ghost,” which is the traditional translation for the Hebrew here, but it is not clear that this is correct. The woman says that she could see one of elohim rising, but elohim is the Hebrew word for God or gods. This is one reason some ancient scholars speculated that this was actually a vision of God in the form of Samuel. Modern translators generally say that the witch saw a “spirit” capturing the ambiguity of the Hebrew word.

From a literary perspective, the word ghost is helpful, so long as we do not picture someone in a white sheet moaning “boo.” There are many ghosts in world literature, such as the ghost of Hamlet’s father who tells the young prince something he already suspected was true. A ghost is basically an echo of the past speaking in the present; it is a memory that takes shape in our consciousness. But ghosts rarely bring comfort. They haunt us with memories of wrongs unatoned, regrets, and the fear that the past has determined our future. This story brilliantly dramatizes Saul being haunted by his own past and his sense of hopelessness.

Saul’s Collapse                        Saul bows before the spirit as if he were still the judge of Israel. He pours out his lament to the ghost of the man who had made him king. He gets no more sympathy from the dead Samuel than he had from the live Samuel. Just like many of us, Samuel’s ghost reproaches Saul for his failures and sins. The ghosts of remorse and regret are merciless. His past robs Saul of his last remnants of hope and strength. He will go into battle expecting that he will soon join Samuel in Sheol.

Rather than eating and building up his strength, Saul has been fasting all day. Rather than preparing his troops for battle and planning strategy with his generals, Saul has been consulting the dead. He is left shaken and powerless. The witch who had been so frightened of him now shows him kindness. She cooks the fatted calf for the broken king and insists he eat.

Conclusion                        In our lesson for next week, we’ll return to David who represents a new hope for Israel. As we look forward to a new era in American history, we should contemplate the fate of Saul. In the end, Saul was overwhelmed by fear, and he failed to recognize that David was the hope for the future. As his kingdom crumbled, Saul turned to the ghosts of the past instead of meeting the challenges of the present or greeting the dawn. 

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