The Witch of Endor: A Biblical Ghost Story in 1 Samuel 28

Ghost stories have a unique place in folklore from almost all ages. The more we uncover from ancient and old societies, the more we tend to find out about their ghost stories. Particularly around the Halloween festivities in the western world, we often hear more ghost stories and legendary tales of ghosts and goblins.

For readers of the Old Testament, there is a story that arises in the conflict between King Saul and (soon to be King) David that is a good, old-fashioned ghost story. In 1 Samuel 28:3-25, a strange scene unfolds where the leader of historical Israel goes in secret to a pagan necromancer to learn unworldly truths about his future and his nemesis.

The story of 1 Samuel 28 is a good read, so go read it first.

So what actually happens in 1 Samuel 28? Does the witch actually conjure Samuel’s spirit from the afterlife? Does the spirit of Samuel appear to these two and haunt Saul with a prophetic word? Is this the resuscitated body of Samuel that returns to the grave (i.e. zombie)? Or, is it all a dream that Saul had after eating bad matzo?

In the history of interpretation of this passage there are, unsurprisingly many different takes on the scene. Not the least of which attempts to explain it away. For Christian interpretation,

I. Samuel was resuscitated by the woman. (Justin Martyr, Zeno of Verona, Ambrose, Augustine, Sulpicius Severus, Dracontius, and Anastasius Sinaita.

II. Either Samuel or a daemon in his shape appeared at God’s command. (John Crysostom, Theodoret of Cryrrhus, Pseudo-Justin, Theodore bar Koni, and Isho’dad of Merv.)

III. A daemon deceived Saul and gave him a forged prophecy. (Tertullian, Pseudo-Hippolytus, “Pionius,” Eustathius of Antioch, Ephraem, Gregory of Nyssa, Evagrius Ponticus, Pseudo-Basil, Jerome, Phiastrius, Ambrosiaster, and Pseudo-Augustine.)

These appear as a consolidated list in KAD Smelik’s 1978 Vigiliae Christianae piece “I Samuel 28 in Rabbinic and Christian Exegesis.” The article goes on to point out some issues with each of these interpretations and the larger issue that remains: how is a pagan witch able to raise a God glorifying prophet from the dead? Is this ability still available in the world?

The entire scene is an odd one. Saul, the King of Israel, fears for his future and desires to get spiritual insight as to what might unfold. The Chronicler points out that two things have already happened  that 1) Samuel had been dead by now (referring to 1 Samuel 25), and that 2) King Saul had rid the land of pagan spiritualists and mystics. Yet this pagan witch still remains. With the sudden invasion of the Philistines into the land, there was another challenge to his throne.

Saul asks his servants that he wished to find a medium, or witch (the terminology used is specific to a female necromancer)  to help him discern what lies ahead. They tell him of the Witch of Endor (not the one with warrior carebears,) a town that (supposedly) lies about 5 miles northeast of Shunem where the Philistines had camped. So Saul gets into a costume…oh wait, disguise…and travels around the Philistine army to the other side to find this witch. He then commands her to “practice divination” and consult a spirit for him. The type of command used only exists in the Old Testament for a pagan cultic practice (HALOT.) Saul is asking for a pagan ritual to be performed. Not only is this a violation of his own decrees and actions, but also of violation of Deuteronomy 18:10-14.

After some haggling, Saul’s identity is revealed. (The text says she immediately sees Samuel and ackbar traprecognizes the man before her is Saul, but there is a textual issue which might be best resolved by her seeing Saul since only a mem differentiates the two names in Hebrew.) Then the witch can see Samuel coming up, presumably from the grave, and Saul asks her who it is. Samuel is known by his robe (cf. 1 Samuel 2:19; 15:27) and that is the identifying mark. Now it appears, given the textual data, that only the woman can see Samuel in some kind of diviner trance. Saul can hear, perhaps through the woman’s communicating Samuel’s words, and respond but cannot see Samuel. At this point, vs. 16-19, Samuel gives the prophetic curse of what will happen to Saul, the kingdom being taken from him and given to David, and that his sons and he will die at the hands of the Philistines.

The scene ends with the witch being concerned for Saul, who hadn’t eaten for the entire day while traveling (perhaps by foot since horses would have drawn attention of the Philistines.) She makes him some food and we are left the erie scene of a pagan witch feeding the powerless Saul who is quietly pondering his looming fate.

However, the same question remains: did Samuel actually come back from the dead?

I’m not so certain this is a good conclusion. Perhaps our best option is understanding from the scene that Samuel was not physically present but only seen via a vision. Some textual clues give us the idea that the witch entered a kind of trance though the explicit narrative never states this. When she asks Saul whom she might summon, probably a better word than “bring up” (vs. 11.) Just a moment later, after the revealing of Saul’s true identity, the witch notes that she can see “a divine being coming up from the earth” (vs. 13.) The Hebrew here is elohim. Saul cannot see this, as the text reflect, as a result perhaps this is that trance like state the witch has entered.

As the scene then unfolds the conversation takes place between Saul and Samuel and the witch disappears until after Samuel has gone and Saul collapses in exhaustion. In reading this text as a narrative developed by the Chronicler, perhaps it is reasonable to note that Samuel’s spirit is brought up from beyond the grave in a scene similar to Luke 16:27-28. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Rich Man expects that some kind of being can pass from Heaven to his relatives to warn them. The text in 1 Samuel 28 does not leave us with only conclusion that Samuel’s body was physically present before Saul and the Witch. Instead, it is reasonable to assert that the Witch summoned Samuel’s spirit which was brought through the providence of God to condemn Saul for his actions.

While these details are intriguing to discuss, the larger point of this narrative (even though it is oddly placed in 1 Samuel) is how far King Saul had fallen from being a godly leader. He had violated God’s ways before and it led him down a path of destruction. Sin always takes us farther than we expect. The larger point of the story, in spite of the details, is that pagan rituals are often a final mark of disqualification from God’s blessing. This was the event that Saul would be known for by Israel as reflected in 1 Chronicles 10:13.

It also should remind us that God’s plan is greater than the sins of our leaders. God will bring to pass what He desires and seeks out willing people to partner with Him. Those who disqualify themselves can, and might, receive a terrible end. Quite a bit like Saul.

So that is the grand ghost story from the Bible. It has all the good things a ghost story should contain, a witch, a king, a spirit, and a curse. 

What do you think about the story? Who shows up? Is it Samuel or a demon, or something else? What role does the witch play? What is the ultimate truth?