Today’s post was written by Maggie Cole, one of my students at Northern Baptist Seminary. This article is the introduction to a larger paper, “The Medium of Endor: Hope for the Hopeless,” which Maggie wrote for my class OT 450 “Women in the Old Testament.” Maggie describes herself as a person with an insatiable curiosity focused on science and theology. Seeing no conflicts between the two, she enjoys a professional career as an applied ecologist who has worked in the natural resources management field for more than 20 years and has been a part-time student at Northern Baptist Seminary since 2005. Maggie is fascinated with the role of oral tradition in religion. At the present she is working on the Gilgamesh Epic. Maggie is married, has two teenage sons, and lives in the Chicago area.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
1 Samuel 28: The Medium of Endor – Part 1
Over the centuries the woman from Endor in 1 Samuel 28 has been called a medium, necromancer, spiritist, a raiser of spirits,, ghost wife, a mistress of ghosts, a witch,  and other names that depict the practitioner of a ritual that has become unacceptable in Judaism and Christianity. It is often assumed that she had to have been a law breaker, evil, a self preservationist, and a demon communicator who “borrowed her resources not from herself, nor from the Lord her God, but from demons and from the mysterious forces of nature.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum stand several more complimentary descriptions of this same woman such as the perfect hostess, a wise woman, a spirit wife, a wifely character,  a compassionate, loyal, and even motherly character. One has to wonder why this secondary character in 1 Samuel 28, the medium of Endor, demands so much attention from its scholarly and not-so scholarly readers. The purpose of this paper is to study some of the interpretations that address the medium’s literary function and purpose in 1 Samuel 28.
The book of Samuel is devoted to the rise of the Israelite monarchy beginning with Saul and David. It is at the end of Saul’s life that the Medium of Endor appears (1 Samuel 28). Essentially, the medium makes a brief appearance in the narrative about Saul’s kingship the night before the end of his life. Her role at this junction in the story is critical in demonstrating Saul’s total failure as a king.
Consistently, interpretations of 1 Samuel 28:3-25 focus on the events surrounding the death of Saul by the hands of the Philistines on Mount Gilboa. Indeed, when exploring this text, most readers are drawn more closely to the dilemma faced by Saul as he dealt with the Philistine threat and with David’s ambitions. Readers find it difficult to remain focused on the woman, the medium of Endor, because the biblical writers only intended for her to provide a window into the mind of Saul, which she does so beautifully. So well did the biblical writers accomplish their task that even the modern reader cannot help but view King Saul and the prophet Samuel as the primary focus of this story while the woman from Endor slips into a secondary character role whose entire existence is seen only in light of Saul’s story, especially his failure and demise.
To reach beyond the traditional interpretation of the text, a holistic exegesis requires that different perspectives be assumed when examining this story. Therefore, the interpretation of the text will begin by looking at the historical and cultural significance of the dreaded necromancer and address several questions raised by the text. These questions include whether the necromancer was a real person or a literary component simply added to enhance the story and how the answer to this question might affect what one thinks of her, and what crucial role this narrative played in explaining the circumstances surrounding the end of Saul’s life.
In order to fully appreciate the interaction between Saul, Samuel, and the medium of Endor, the woman who practiced necromancy, it is essential to understand not only what necromancy was, but why it was considered so evil in Israel. Necromancy, communicating with the dead, was presumably a popular way in Israel for people to consult with the spirits of the dead. Necromancy is linked to ancestor worship and the cult of the dead. The understanding of these practices among the people of Israel provides the proper background for understanding the issues raised in 1 Samuel 28.
A study of ancient cults of the dead shows that the practice of consulting the dead existed in a legitimate way in the ancient Near East and in early Israel. The possible origins and preservation of the practices associated with the cult of the dead are discussed in length by both Lewis and Bloch-Smith. Some scholars believe that necromantic practices were a part of Israel’s early religion. The marked graves mentioned in Genesis 35:20 may have served as places for cultic activities, including consulting the dead. Jacob is portrayed as pouring oil on spots where his ancestors’ deity appeared (Genesis 28:15-18; Genesis 35:13-14). Some texts demonstrate earlier traditions of caring for the dead, such as when Moses denied post-mortem care to the Korahites (Numbers 16:31-40). Ancestor sacrifice is even accepted by David (1 Samuel 20:6).
The dead were thought to have more power and knowledge than the living, and if someone could raise the dead to foretell the future, one could manipulate this power for one’s own benefit. The conjuring up of Samuel is a good example of the practice of consulting the dead and this practice may have been accepted in Israel until the Deuteronomist and Priestly writers rejected the practice. From a Deuteronomistic perspective, it is possible to understand that as the worship of Yahweh evolved, necromancy may have been eventually rejected because it interfered with the people’s effort to seek Yahweh’s will. It is also likely that necromancy became linked to the unacceptable Canaanite religion or to practices found in Mesopotamia  As necromancy became associated more and more with foreign practices and as it was perceived as interfering with seeking God, then the practice of consulting the dead became synonymous with the magical practices of “outsiders.”
Magicians were considered to be “outsiders.” Magical actions themselves were not the focus of the biblical authors, but rather their focus lies on the conformity of the “outsider” to the Israelite religion. Those whose “magical” practices deviated from the normally accepted Israelite practices were thought of as powered by something other than Yahweh, a practice which undermined the religious foundations of Israelite religion. The understanding of this concept is crucial in the proper understanding of the medium and her work and how she was portrayed by the authors whose motives may have been related to the failures of Saul as king. The medium’s mere presence in an oracle of doom against Saul demonstrates her popular status in the community and provides a hint at the popularity of necromancy in Israel.
Scholars see this section of the book as “deuteronomistic narrative material.” Some scholars favor the view that this narrative is “a literary construct of the mid-first millennium” linked to 1 Samuel 15 and thus to the Deuteronomist and his redaction of the book. According to this view, total rejection of necromancy in Israel is thought to have reached a pinnacle about the time the practice became connected with Israel’s worst king, Manasseh. After the Book of the Law was discovered in the Temple during Josiah’s reform, attempts to discredit the practice of necromancy may have resulted in the redaction of many earlier writings. The Deuteronomic reform introduced legislation condemning the practice and purposely introduced necromancy into the narrative so that Saul and the practice of consulting the dead would be condemned by Samuel.
There is, however, evidence of older laws against black magic found as early as the Covenant Code: “You shall not permit a female sorcerer to live” (Exodus 22:18). The Priestly law condemned those who practiced necromancy in Israel: “A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death” (Leviticus 20:27).
In addition, a medium’s presence among the Israelites becomes a source of defilement: “Do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists, for you will be defiled by them” (Leviticus 19:31). Since the work of mediums and sorcerers was considered an opposition to God’s work, warnings to those who would seek out band listen to them are found in Deuteronomy 18:10-11; Micah 5:12; and Jeremiah 27:9. For instance, Deuteronomy 18:10-11 says: “Let no one be found among you who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.” The Chronicler, however, makes a special point of linking Saul’s death with his consultation of a necromancer (Chronicle 10:13-14).
There is evidence in the Old Testament to suggest that necromancy may have been an old popular religious practice in Israel. The practice of consulting the dead was tolerated in Israel in the same way the worship of foreign deities was tolerated. This practice, however, found strong opposition from the Deuteronomic historian who used the practice to diminish Saul’s kingship by associating him with the practice of necromancy. The rejection of the practice of consulting the dead by Samuel may be an indication that the story of the medium of Endor probably was a literary addition to Saul’s narrative for apologetic purposes. Also, since the case of the medium of Endor is the only biblical example of the practice of necromancy that is seen as “uncontested” by the narrator, this has lent further credence to the conclusion that the medium was only used as a rhetorical device by the redactor to characterize Saul’s doom.
Read Part 2: 1 Samuel 28: The Medium of Endor – Part 2
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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1. Bill Arnold, “Necromancy and Cleromancy in 1 and 2 Samuel,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 66 (2004): 200.
2. Athlaya Brenner and Fokkelien Van Dijk-Hemmes, On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible ( Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993), 68.
3. Tony Cartledge, 1 and 2 Samuel (Macon: Smyth & Helwys Publishers, 2001), 320.
4. J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, Vol II (Assen:Van Gorcum & Company, 1986), 607.
5. Pamela T. Reis, “Eating the Blood: Saul and the Witch of Endor,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 73 (1997): 3.
6. Reis, Eating the Blood, 4.
7. Abraham Kuyper, Women of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zandervan, 1936), 100.
8. Cheryl Brown, No Longer Be Silent: First Century Jewish Portraits of Biblical Women (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), 201.
9. Brenner and Van Dijk-Hemmes, On Gendering Texts, 69.
10. Theresa Angert-Quilter and Lynne Wall, “The ‘Spirit Wife’ at Endor,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 92 (2001): 60.
11. Alice Bach, Woman, Seduction, and Betrayal in Biblical Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 176.
12. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry, 620.
13. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry, 597.
14. Arnold, Necromancy and Cleromancy, 203.
15. Theodore J. Lewis, Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).
16. Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs About the Dead (JSOT Sup, 123; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992).
17. Arnold, Necromancy and Cleromancy, 201.
18. Bloch-Smith, Judahite Burial Practices, 113.
19. Lewis, Cults of the Dead, 102.
20. Bloch-Smith, Judahite Burial Practices, 127.
21. Lewis, Cults of the Dead, 102.
22. Brian B. Schmidt, “The “Witch of Endor, 1 Samuel 28, and Ancient Near Eastern Necromancy,” in Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, ed. Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki (Brill: Leiden, 1995), 118.
23. Stephen D. Ricks, “The Magician as Outsider in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.” in Ancient Magic and Ritual Power, ed. Marvin Meyer and Paul Mirecki (Brill: Leiden, 1995), 131-132.
24. Ricks, The Magician as Outsider, 132, 134.
25. Ricks, The Magician as Outsider, 138.
26. Lewis, Cults of the Dead, 104.
27. Schmidt, The Witch of Endor, 112-114.
28. Graaeme Auld, “1 and 2 Samuel,” Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, ed. John Rogerson (Grand Rapids:Wm Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 2003), 228.
29. Schmidt, The Witch of Endor, 127.
30. Lewis, Cults of the Dead, 99.
31. Arnold, Necromancy and Cleromancy, 199.