Difficult Bible Passages: 1 Samuel 28
The episode in the Old Testament about Saul and the witch of Endor raises a number of questions, chief of which is this: Can God use a means which he had expressly forbidden elsewhere? Other questions include: Did Samuel actually return from the dead? Did the witch successfully do this? Was the entire appearance a deception?
Let’s begin with a bit of background. The Philistines had come down to within around five miles of where Saul was staying. This was a serious incursion. As Mary Evans notes, “This was no minor battle to be carried out between the standing armies but a major show down between the two nations.”
By this point Saul had well and truly lost God’s favour. Indeed, God had departed from him. His kingdom was taken away from him and he was rejected as king (1 Sam. 13:14; 15:28). Because of his sin and rebellion, Saul was no longer the brave king he used to be but a fearful man: “When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart” (v. 5).
In the past he had consulted with God before going into battle (eg., 1 Sam. 14:37), and he thinks he can continue to do so. But after being met with only divine silence, he takes matters into his own hands: “He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets. Saul then said to his attendants, ‘Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her’” (vv. 6-7).
Consulting spiritists and mediums, and engaging in necromancy (communicating with the dead), are clearly forbidden in Scripture (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:9-13 – and later on, Isaiah 8:19-20). Saul knows this full well: earlier he had even “expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land” (v. 3).
Indeed, he had been told by Samuel not long ago: “For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king” (1 Sam 15:23). Yet here he is trying to get divine guidance through Samuel by means of divination!
You may well be familiar with the rest of the story. Saul sneaks past the Philistines incognito to consult the diviner at Endor. Samuel does indeed appear, but not to answer his questions about the battle. Instead he further rebukes him, just as he had done when he was alive. Samuel gives Saul some real bad news:
“Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today. The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines” (vv. 16-18).
Sure enough, 24 hours later Saul is dead. Given that those who commit the sin of divination and mess around with the occult are to be sentenced to death (Lev. 20:6, 27), there is some divine justice at work here. Saul’s downward spiral finally comes to a sad and tragic end.
But what about the appearance of Samuel? As Evans notes, “this whole account is, probably intentionally, shrouded in mystery. Was the woman a fraud or did she genuinely have some kind of clairvoyant skill? Was it really the dead Samuel coming back to life, or was it the appearance of an evil spirit or some kind of a trick? Was the woman’s recognition of Saul based on her own insight or did his disguise drop for a second? Did Saul really hear from Samuel or just deceive himself into hearing all the things that he knew and feared?”
So what do we make of all this? Was this a genuine appearance by Samuel? It seems that it indeed was. But it was God calling the shots here, for his own divine purposes. The diviner in this case was merely a foil in the bigger plans of Yahweh.
Walter Kaiser says that there was an authentic appearance of the dead here, but “one that did not result from her witchcraft. Instead, it was God’s final means of bringing a word to a king who insisted on going his own way. . . . Our conclusion is that God allowed Samuel’s spirit to appear to give Saul one more warning about the evil of his ways.”
Norman Geisler also thinks this is the best option: “the witch did not bring up Samuel from the dead, but God Himself intervened in the witch’s tent to rebuke Saul for his sin. . . . The miracle was not performed through the witch, but in spite of her.”
So Saul was fully responsible for making this terrible choice, and he met his just deserts as a result. It is a sober warning about seeking God by unapproved means. Robert Bergen puts it this way: “The Torah prohibits necromancy not because it is a hoax but because it promotes reliance on supernatural guidance from some source other than the Lord.”
Indeed, this entire episode also speaks to us today. Far too many folks are dabbling in the occult and spiritism today. The Bible tells us to avoid all this like the plague. It does not deny that such things can actually work, but that they are harmful and to be avoided at all cost.
As David Firth notes, “the OT only condemns necromancy; it never questions its possible effectiveness.” Or as Bill Arnold comments, “Israel’s ban on magic was a unique characteristic of the nation’s overarching worldview. . . . Significantly, however, the Old Testament ban on magic is not based on the assertion that magic is ineffective. On the contrary, magic is banned precisely because it does work.”
Let me conclude with the timely words of Mary Evans: “Saul’s excursion into forbidden occult territory brought him no joy, no reassurance and indeed no benefit at all but only further despair. There is a warning here which it seems the author intends to stand.”
10 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: 1 Samuel 28”
As Matthew Henry says – Saul seeks for a witch, v. 7. When God answered him not, if he had humbled himself by repentance and persevered in seeking God, who knows but that at length he might have been entreated for him? but, since he can discern no comfort either from heaven or earth (Isa. 8:21, Isa. 8:22 ), he resolves to knock at the gates of hell, and to see if any there will befriend him and give him advice.
He knew the heinousness of the sin of witchcraft, else he would not have cut off those that had familiar spirits; yet now he had recourse to that as an oracle which he had before condemned as an abomination. It is common for men to inveigh severely against those sins which they are in no temptation to, but afterwards to be themselves overcome by them. Had one told Saul, when he was destroying the witches, that he himself would, ere long, consult with one, he would have said, as Hazael did, What? Is thy servant a dog? But who knows what mischiefs those will run into that forsake God and are forsaken of him?
Saul (who, we may suppose, was kept at a distance in the next room) bade her not to be afraid of him, but go on with the operation, and enquired what she saw? v. 13. O, says the woman, I saw gods (that is, a spirit) ascending out of the earth; they called angels gods, because spiritual beings. Poor gods that ascend out of the earth! But she speaks the language of the heathen, who had their infernal deities and had them in veneration. If Saul had thought it necessary to his conversation with Samuel that the body of Samuel should be called out of the grave, he would have taken the witch with him to Ramah, where his sepulchre was; but the design was wholly upon his soul, which yet, if it became visible, was expected to appear in the usual resemblance of the body; and God permitted the devil, to answer the design, to put on Samuel’s shape, that those who would not receive the love of the truth might be given up to strong delusions and believe a lie. That it could not be the soul of Samuel himself they might easily apprehend when it ascended out of the earth, for the spirit of a man, much more of a good man, goes upward, Eccl. 3:21 . But, if people will be deceived, it is just with God to say, “Let them be deceived.’’ That the devil, by the divine permission, should be able to personate Samuel is not strange, since he can transform himself into an angel of light! nor is it strange that he should be permitted to do it upon this occasion, that Saul might be driven to despair, by enquiring of the devil, since he would not, in a right manner, enquire of the Lord, by which he might have had comfort. Saul, being told of gods ascending, was eager to know what was the form of this deity, and in what shape he appeared, so far was he from conceiving any horror at it, his heart being wretchedly hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Saul, it seems, was not permitted to see any manner of similitude himself, but he must take the woman’s word for it, that she saw an old man covered with a mantle, or robe, the habit of a judge, which Samuel had sometimes worn, and some think it was for the sake of that, and the majesty of its aspect, that she called this apparition Elohim, a god or gods; for so magistrates are styled, Ps. 82:1 . Saul, perceiving, by the woman’s description, that it was Samuel, stooped with his face to the ground, either, as it is generally taken, in reverence to Samuel, though he saw him not, or perhaps to listen to that soft and muttering voice which he now expected to hear (for those that had familiar spirits peeped and muttered, Isa. 8:19 ); and it should seem Saul bowed himself (probably by the witch’s direction) that he might hear what was whispered and listen carefully to it; for the voice of one that has a familiar spirit is said to come out of the ground, and whisper out of the dust, Isa. 29:4 . He would stoop to that who would not stoop to the word of God.
One of the interesting things about this, is that it the “witch’s” procedure (she is never called a witch in the Bible) is identical to that of modern spiritualists, although their religion only commenced with the Fox sisters in 1848. In a modern séance, the medium will go into a trance and contact a spirit guide, who will then call up the ghost in question. The ghost then speaks through the medium’s mouth; nobody sees it. It is generally considered that, when the medium is sincere, and not a conscious fake, she is really communing with her own subconscious, in a process known as dissociation.
Now, if you read the Bible, Saul asked the medium to “Divine for me an ôb, and bring up to me whomever I shall name to you.” Various versions will translate ôb as “familiar spirit”, “ghost”, or “spirit”, but it is clearly the same as the modern spirit guide. If you read further, you will find that Saul did not see Samuel; the only one who saw him was the medium.
I would suggest that the medium of Endor was undergoing the same psychological dissociation as modern mediums.
This is not an easy passage to understand. How did God use necromancy when He forbids it? my 13yr old son thinks that because Saul was disobedient and rebellious God allowed him to have this evil happen and the witch did her thing. This hasn’t happened anywhere else in scripture that we know about. I think it makes sense what Jo & Malcolm have said.
Awesome comment! I was just reading this passage and needed clarification. Your comment just did. Thanks again! Great website I discovered yesterday and I’m glad I did. Keep going, I love your blog! Be blessed. Kathleen.
Many thanks Kathleen.
Thank you for explaining this difficult passage. I appreciate your explication based on the purposes of God. I fully agree with your conclusions. Thank you for bringing other commentators in for further support.
I had a lot of questions about the scripture before I read your explanation. Thank you very much. May God bless you.
It was not Samuel that appeared and gave that prophecy. It was simply a familiar spirit or an evil angel that impersonated Samuel and gave that prophecy. First, the Bible says in 1stChronicles10:13-14 that the prophecy was not from GOD. So, it was from the devil. Secondly Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 says that the dead know nothing.Thirdly, Satan has no power to resurrect the dead, but to impersonate them.
Our excellent vicar’s sermon this morning shone light for me on this terrible chapter. It could not have been Samuel himself appearing to Saul (which I had up to now thought to be the case). Matthew Henry, in his lengthy comment on this chapter, explains all this very well. We were told from the pulpit this morning that even at this stage Saul could have made a full and genuine approach to God, acknowledging everything in genuine repentance, and found peace. However far down we think or know we have sunk, forgiveness is always available if we are straight with God.