Today’s blog 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 2
The story in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 opens with a frustrated Saul who refused to accept that God’s will no longer provided him with any guidance, especially concerning his upcoming battle with the Philistines. Saul looked for a mistress of ancestral spirits, a necromancer, one who could raise the spirit of Samuel to assist him in his quest for knowledge. However, Saul, as king, could not approach such a person openly, because he had condemned the very practice that he now desired to use. Therefore, Saul disguised himself so that the medium would not recognize him and flee. Here Saul is depicted as not only violating his own law but, by removing his royal garments to put on a disguise, he is portrayed as symbolically shedding his royal dignity.
It is often mentioned by commentators of the text that, since Saul’s servants found the necromancer with ease, that this could indicate that she may have been well known in the community and that the practice of consulting the dead may have been a popular form of religious practice for many people in Israel.
The actual encounter between the king and the necromancer indicates that the medium was willing to perform the act the king had requested. The narrator gives the woman a voice in the matter to help the reader learn that, although she was willing, she also was suspicious, cautious and fearful. She said to the stranger that the king had “cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land” (1 Samuel 28:9), so she looked to her client for a sign of good faith that he would not reveal her actions to the wrong people. Saul reassured her in Yahweh’s name that she was in no danger. Satisfied with his oath, the woman tends to her job. She summoned the dead, the prophet Samuel was raised and appeared to Saul, although the details concerning how this was accomplished are avoided by the narrator.
The narrator was careful to mention that when the medium saw Samuel, she screamed. The specific interpretation of this response is an important factor in determining her possible state of mind, the author’s intent, and the reader’s response to the text. Therefore, what caused her startling reaction has been studied at length. The traditional interpretation is that her cry was a response to the persecutor-king being revealed. Others believe that the narrator was giving the woman a “spark of clairvoyance or intuition” in her ability to recognize Saul. Others believe that it was Samuel who helped the medium recognize that the visitor was Saul. Either way, when the woman saw the presence of this “elohim,” when she detected a great and awful force in the room, something unexpected happened to her. Whatever it was, the appearance of Samuel helped the medium recognize Saul whom she greatly feared.
In response to the medium’s recognizing Saul, the narrator again gives her a voice, presumably to chastise Saul for deceiving her. Saul reassured the woman and refocused her shattered attention to describing the vision, thus indicating she could see it but he could not. She called Samuel an “elohim,” a word which has been interpreted as meaning a divine or numinous being, indicating a greater spirit. Saul asked for more details about the elohim and the woman described it as wearing a sacred, divine garment which clearly identified the being with the prophet Samuel.
While Samuel and Saul were speaking to each other, the medium departed to the background of the narrative. Some scholars allow for the purposeful backing away of the medium, interpreting her removal as being the action of a good psychotherapist who “gives her client room for his own process,” while others see her absence as being Samuel’s victory over her evil. After Samuel reiterated Saul’s unworthiness, he added the prophecy that Saul and his sons would die on the battlefield the next day. Saul fell flat on the ground in distress, for he trusted Samuel’s words since they could only be truthful and prophetic.
At this point, it becomes important to ask who actually raised Samuel: the medium of Endor or Yahweh? It is possible to agree with those who claim the author intended for the readers to think the necromancer had the ability to do this amazing feat, but being a modern reader, I agree with those scholars who say that it was actually Yahweh who intervened on this unique occasion. It was simply God’s will to speak to and answer Saul again through Samuel. I strongly disagree with any discussion that considers there was an evil force behind the raising of Samuel because the prophet could only work for Yahweh, even in death. Further, Yahweh did not break his own laws against necromancy nor did he condone necromancy by doing this. He just chose to exert his will which cannot be judged or boxed in by laws or human ideas. This event would not be the first time God did something that was contrary to our expectations of him.
After Samuel told Saul of his impending death, the medium returns to the story. Here the narrator allows her to be seen as a compassionate and caring host, and possibly even as a motherly figure. Apparently, after witnessing or sensing that something powerfully unique had happened, she understood Saul’s tremendous distress. She requested the king to listen to her, a woman, who sympathized with his fallen state.
The serving of the meal seems literarily appropriate here. Saul’s kingship began with a meal provided by Samuel (1 Samuel 9:19-24), now it ends with a meal served by “the prophetic mediator of Samuel’s word of doom.” The medium offered Saul food which was initially rejected. By insisting that Saul eat, the woman became the “no-nonsense hostess,” evoking appropriate social protocol that eventually wins him over. She prepared a fattened calf and unleavened bread for him to eat, a banquet which appeared to be fit for a king, a banquet that became the last supper for a condemned man.
The reference to the fattened calf, or stall-fed calf, is unusual in the context of the story; it is possible that it has some symbolism attached to it. Some scholars believe the woman’s meal represents an idolatrous sacrifice used to “outwit and outmaneuver her adversary to save her own life.” From the necromancer’s perspective, the slaughter was indicative of a cultic ritual leading to a blood meal offering to the dead. On the other hand, since the medium was treating Saul with respect and dignity, it is also possible that she was offering a sacrificial meal fit for a dying king. This act depicts the medium of Endor assisting Saul in the death process. The presence of the woman at night tending to a dying man can be seen as an acknowledgment of the natural order of things under God’s control. In the end, the food strengthened him enough so that he could go on his way to face his final day.
From a theological, political, and literary perspective, the interpretation of these designated roles in the Bible make perfect sense. Overall, commentators usually interpret this story as showing Saul in his final days without any spiritual guidance. His consistent disobedience to Yahweh and the loss of his kingship had already occurred back in 1 Samuel 15 when Samuel first informed him of his impending fate. Chapter 28 serves as a rhetorical device to remind the reader that Saul is a pathetic, lost soul, who is disobedient to God and who seeks out a woman necromancer to engage in a practice that he himself supposedly outlawed. The entire story drives home the point of the biblical writer who wanted to depict Saul as a hypocrite and a most desperate man whose defiant behavior against Yahweh proved he was no longer fit to be king. Because of this overriding theme of diminishing Saul, the narrative has been interpreted by scholars as a Deuteronomistic polemic against Saul. However, even though Saul has no hope of living beyond the next day, the author saves Saul’s dignity in 31:11-13 when he declares that after his death, Saul’s body was claimed and returned to Jabesh Gilead for burial. Later, even David gets involved in saving Saul’s dignity by returning Saul’s bones to his father’s ancestral tomb (2 Samuel 21:13-14). Saul may have failed as a king, but he was given some level of respect in death.
Since biblical redactors are responsible for the final outcome of the text, this story served to demonstrate the reason Saul was a failed king. The author’s intent was to provide the reader with a protagonist in the character of the medium, but then he gives her the voice of a conscientious, compassionate person so that she will be contrasted with a disobedient king.
By showing the reader the necromancer’s compassionate acts and by restraining from outright condemnation of her practice, the writer was not trying to convey to the readers that the woman was good. 1 Samuel15:23 equates rebellion with divination. The writer effectively projected necromancy into an older narrative specifically to have it condemned by a powerful prophet of Yahweh. This projection purposely makes necromancy seem like an age-old battle for Israel even though it may have actually been tolerated for a long time.
The redactor’s purpose was to promote David. While he did this, he continued to denigrate Saul and eventually linked him to the illegal practice of necromancy. Most scholars point out that there were other legitimate means of consulting Yahweh, but necromancy totally fell out of favor. Perhaps this is because those who controlled Yahwism’s destiny wanted to silence their competition.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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1. Diana V. Edelman, King Saul in the Historiography of Judah (JSOT Sup, 121: Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 242.
2. J. P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel, Vol II (Assen:Van Gorcum & Company, 1986), 600
3. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry, 597.
4. Athlaya Brenner and Fokkelien Van Dijk-Hemmes, On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible ( Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993), 67.
5. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry, 603.
6. K. Smelik, “The Witch of Endor: 1 Samuel 28 in Rabbinic and Christian Exegesis till 800 A.D.,” Vigiliae Christianae 33 (1979): 169-179.
7. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry, 607.
8. W.A.M. Bueken, “1 Samuel 28: The Prophet as Hammer of Witches.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 6 (1978): 8-9.
9. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry, 608.
10. Bledstein, Adrien Janis, “Tamar and the Coat of Many Colors,” in Samuel and Kings, ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 72-73.
11. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry, 609.
12. W.A.M. Bueken, “1 Samuel 28,” 8-9.
13. David Payne, I & II Samuel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 143-145.
14. Susan Pigott, “1 Samuel 28-Saul and the Not so Wicked Witch of Endor,” Review and Expositor 95 (1998): 440.
15.. Graeme Auld, “1 and 2 Samuel” in Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, ed. John Rogerson (Grand Rapids:Wm Eerdman’s Publishing Co, 2003), 228.
16. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry, 620.
17. Pamela T. Reis, “Eating the Blood: Saul and the Witch of Endor,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 73 (1997): 14.
18. Reis, Eating the Blood, 18.
19. Pigott, “1 Samuel 28-Saul and the Not so Wicked Witch,” 440.
20. Theresa Angert-Quilter and Lynne Wall, “The ‘Spirit Wife’ at Endor,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 92 (2001): 62.
21. Pigott, “1 Samuel 28-Saul and the Not so Wicked Witch,” 441.
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), 127.