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?


Zombies and the Bible

As it is almost Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve as it is properly said, which leaves many of us thinking of creepy and undead things. Well, perhaps more than usual. Over the past two years we’ve seen a pretty startling rise in the number of television shows and movies that showcase zombies, or zombie killing, as central to their plot. This has been along the same line as “teen paranormal romance” novels which are, perhaps, a telling sign that we are nearing the end of days.

So, as we look towards that spooky evening tomorrow night, I wonder how we might encounter zombies in the Bible. And I’m not talking about Zombie Jesus, because that’s a heresy.

The Bible is a varied text that ranges in genre, age, and personality from book to book. In this premodern book of books, there are any number of scenes that are odd or just downright creepy. For most of us, when we look to the Bible zombies aren’t the primary reason we read Scripture. However, there are some scenes that should remind us the undead are a topic of interest occasionally in the Christian Scriptures.

Few accounts match the description of a plague from Zechariah 14:12,

This will be the plague the LORD strikes all the peoples with, who have warred against Jerusalem: their flesh will rot while they stand on their feet, their eyes will rot in their sockets, and their tongues will rot in their mouths. 

Sounds pretty much like zombie-esque activities. Maybe a little too much like World War Z or I Am Legend. Zombies aren’t always the undead, but living people who become zombified.

One of the first descriptive accounts, and perhaps most notable, is the scene in Matthew 27:52f following the death of Jesus on the Cross. Here’s Matthew’s account: (HCSB)

52 The tombs were also openeda and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.  53 And they came out of the tombs after His resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.

For many, perhaps most, Bible scholars this passage is viewed as apocryphal and an unnecessary elaboration by Matthew. Obviously after the recent dust-up between Mike Licona and Norm Geisler, this topic has been readily handled. For our purposes, let’s just note the passage and move on after pointing out, that imagine being in the streets of Jerusalem and seeing this horde of zombies pouring out of graves and staggering through the streets. Then you’re realizing, “Oh, that’s just Zephaniah…let’s see how’s he’s been.”

Another possible zombie passage is found in John’s Gospel, where Jesus raises Lazarus from the Dead. The scene given in John 11:38-44 shows Jesus, going to the tomb of Lazarus and calling him out from the grave. Most folks don’t think that Lazarus would have been a zombie since the account seems to reflect that Lazarus, though still shrouded in grave clothes, had a restored body. But still, you got to say that someone who was resuscitated (I think it is different than resurrection) who is walking around for another couple of years is pretty creepy. It becomes important, then to note there are differences between those who are resuscitated and those who might be actual zombies. Yet I’m compelled to think what the difference is, since zombies could be people who have been dead for a while. Perhaps its a matter of degree.

Other examples of Jesus resuscitating someone exist, specifically in the miracle stories of Luke 7:11-17, the widow’s son, and later in Luke 8:40-56, Jairus’ daughter. Perhaps this kind of miracle was attested to in Jesus’ ministry since he is thought of as a raiser of the dead in Matthew 10:8. However, I don’t think we need to label Jesus a necromancer, since he doesn’t have the clothes in all the pictures we see of him from that era…just kidding, about the clothes.

Revelation also depicts some possible zombie scenes with dead people springing to life-like existences. The Two Witnesses in Revelation 11:9-12 are raised from the dead and are cause people around them to be afraid. Also, in Revelation 20:5 there is talk of the dead being raised. It is unlikely these are zombie like states, though the Two Witnesses, given how they die might be zombies and that would surely explain their reception by others. Of course, this all means you need to read Revelation in a futurist frame of reference.

Hebrews 11:35 also speaks about women receiving dead loved ones, though this is by resurrection. It seems that resurrection talk is different than zombies for some New Testament authors. In Acts 9:40 there is a scene where Peter is thought to be dead but isn’t. Clearly this isn’t a zombie text, but more of a “not quite dead yet” scene.

The Old Testament has many scenes of people brought back from the dead. Though I will deal with 1 Samuel 28:3-25 tomorrow, the ghostly appearance of Samuel is unsettling to say the least (and perhaps the greatest ghost-story ever told.)

Outside of Samuel, we see in 1 Kings 17:17-24 a scene were Elijah resuscitates a boy from the dead and this also happens with Elisha in 2 Kings 4:32-37 when he resuscitates the Shunamite’s son. One intriguing scene is found in 2 Kings 13:26f where, after having died and, it seems, decomposed, Elisha’s bones have restorative powers. A group of men were burying a friend when they spied a band of marauding Moabites. They cast the body into Elisha’s the tomb (which was apparently open) and ran off, but the dead friend came into contact with Elisha’s bones and he sprang back to life. Now that’s a creepy story. Think about it, you run home to evade the Moabites and a couple minutes later Jeff comes walking in scratching his head and wondering why he just woken up in a crypt. Jeff died three days ago. And hopefully he isn’t hungry for brains…but it is possible.

So, I think this brief tour of zombies in the Bible we see that there are a couple of key passages worth investigating. Many will disregard these things as being outlandish or simply unreasonable. As we’ll talk about tomorrow, with Samuel, maybe a lot of this is because we’ve already made up our minds that once someone dies they immediately go into the presence of the other side never to return. I believe this kind of presupposed theology (or necro-ology) doesn’t automatically cohere with the biblical record.

Nevertheless, as you sit and ponder creepy and erie things over the next day, maybe one or two of these passages will help guide your thinking. Ultimately, those of us who are redeemed should be thankful that we have a greater Savior than anything which goes bump in the night.


Resource Review: Faith Lessons Curriculum

Resource Review: Faith Lessons with Ray Vanderlaan

Resource Name: Faith Lessons

URL:  or the site

In a Sentence: Through live presentations filmed in archeological sites, this series takes the viewer into the places where biblical events occurred, tells the story, and draws applications.

Cost: $35/DVD or $320 for the entire set depending on where you shop

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars…an outstanding series


Perhaps I’m biased, but Faith Lessons videos were some of the first video curriculum options I encountered and began using in college and young adult group studies while in college. They were high quality then and continue to provide a tremendous group study experience.

Developed and hosted by Ray Vanderlaan, the Faith Lessons series has grown to 12 lessons sets with two holiday DVD sets that cover Easter and Christmas. As the ministry describes these videos they are:

In-depth video tours of the buried, distant, or otherwise forgotten places where the stories of the Bible actually happened. By weaving together fascinating historical, cultural, religious and geographical contexts, teacher and historian Ray Vander Laan reveals keen insights into the Scriptures significance for believers in this day and age.

What makes these videos unique is that Vanderlaan, as the host, takes a group of learners into an archeological place and films his talks. During these presentations Vanderlaan recounts the biblical story about that specific place, pointing out locations, buildings, and other relevant information that would have informed those who experienced those events in the biblical times. He then talks over how we read the story, begins drawing points, and comes to application for each of the videos. The entire method is very effective and it draws groups into the location with meaningful teaching content.

Click Here for a Video Demonstration

I first used the curriculum while leading a college aged small group where we covered the lesson series The Early Church. Already studying this era for my classes, the videos drew me in and our group participants who might otherwise have gotten bored with traditionally presented material. Being able to walk through the archeological sites and have a great teacher (Vanderlaan, not me) showing how the sites relate to New Testament texts made the biblical picture become more vibrant for these students.

One of the better parts of the video series is that I’ve now used this series with groups from college aged, young adults, middle aged adults, and even through senior adults. Each group is captured by the presentation and the discussions following are almost always full of life. This is a well researched and well done piece. It recently has gotten a make over from the older covers but the content remains the same. Though it might be a bit dated with regard to some of the fashions that appear on screen, this is easily overlooked as the content drives home important points.

Though you might well disagree with some of the thoughts, this is usually on some nettlesome issue that doesn’t effect the final, fuller application.

I really grew to enjoy these video curriculum options and have used them in every church which I have served in since my seminary days. As we can put high level, high quality content in front of our often distracted people we should find much treasure in these kinds of video curriculum options.

Lessons include:

  • Promised Land
  • Prophets & Kings
  • Life & Ministry of the Messiah
  • Death & Resurrection of the Messiah
  • Early Church
  • In the Dust of the Rabbi
  • Walk as Jesus Walked
  • God Heard their Cry
  • Fire on the Mountain
  • With All Your Heart
  • Walking with God in the Desert

So, my recommendation is to check out this series for yourself. You will certainly be benefitted. Also check out the YouTube channel above, it has many of the videos available from Zondervan.

As a final note: I have received no compensation nor preview copies of this curriculum in my review. This is an entirely objective review from a small groups leader in a local church.

Have you heard of this curriculum? How have you used it? What did you think?