Ponder Scripture Newsletter
By Larry and June Acheson
Saul, Samuel and the Witch of Endor
By Larry and June Acheson
Bible topic that recently came up during a recent Shabbat meeting is that of whether or not the dead prophet Samuel truly conversed with King Saul in the account known as “Saul and the Witch of Endor” (I Samuel 28:1-19). Was it really Samuel or did the witch conjure up a demonic counterpart? Although I was familiar with the story, I hadn’t really ever considered whether or not it was the “real Samuel,” primarily because I was more interested in the lesson we should learn instead of the means by which the lesson is taught. The lesson we should learn is that once we start down the path of rebellion, the road gets darker and darker and unless we get off that track we will be forever lost. It seems that Saul’s veering onto the wrong path started out very subtly; the first clue we see of his going the wrong way (in I Samuel chapter 15) doesn’t seem all that bad on the surface, especially with the way in which Saul explained his decision to not completely abide by Yahweh’s instruction. Yahweh, through the prophet Samuel, had instructed the king to utterly destroy the Amalekites, leaving nothing alive, not even their flocks and herds. Saul didn’t quite destroy everything, but his explanation seems worthy of consideration. After all, he DID utterly destroy the Amalekites, just as ordered -- with one minor exception: he spared the king. Surely there could be some benefit to sparing the king, right? And Saul DID utterly destroy all the flocks and herds belonging to the Amalekites, just as ordered -- with one seemingly noble exception: he spared the best for sacrificing unto Yahweh.
I can still remember reading this account for the first time, thinking, “This wasn’t so bad, so surely after Samuel’s rebuke Saul will get back on track and everything will be fine.” However, that’s not the way Yahweh saw it and the prophet Samuel was clearly on the same page with Yahweh. Lesson learned: It’s easy for us to subtly deviate from obvious things that Yahweh tells us not to do, such as telling lies, letting out a few inappropriate words, and when these inappropriate actions are brought to our attention we’re often quite adept at justifying them or making excuses, much like Saul did. Maybe we should take Yahweh’s word more seriously than we do!
We read that Saul repented of his sin, but based on later actions it would seem that it wasn’t a sincere repentance and that brings us to his eventual decision to seek out “a woman that hath a familiar spirit” (I Sam. 28:7). Without question, this was an ill-advised decision, especially in view of the fact that it goes not only against the grain of Torah, but even against Saul’s own orders banishing such individuals from his kingdom. By now, the prophet Samuel was dead and awaiting the resurrection of the just. Would Yahweh grant Saul’s wish to consult with the spirit of the dead prophet? Or would a demonic spirit play the role of the now-departed Samuel? Again, I hadn’t given this question much thought, if at all, until recently when it became a topic of conversation -- and controversy. Before I proceed with sharing the results of my earnest research, I would like to emphasize that I continue to maintain that the most important aspect of this story is the lesson learned, not the means by which we learn the lesson. Thus, if you read my commentary and conclude that I’m wrong, then from my perspective that’s fine, so long as we can at least agree that the lesson is the most important part of the story. The lesson summarized: Obey Yahweh and do it with love from your whole heart.
When this topic came up in one of our Bible studies, I initially shared my view that the witch of Endor most likely summoned up a demonic spirit. It just didn’t seem likely that Yahweh would allow any individual who had no regard for Torah to play a role in bringing up the spirit of an actual dead person. The man with whom I shared this view expressed disagreement. I was willing to let it go and just agree to disagree agreeably (which we should always try to do anyway). Nevertheless, when I did a little bit of individual research I found that first-century historian Josephus believed that it was indeed Samuel whom Saul consulted in I Samuel 28. Josephus never hinted at the apparition being a demon. The following is excerpted from Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, Book VI.14.2:
As soon as he [King Saul] had induced her [the witch of Endor] by this oath to fear no harm, he bid her bring up to him the soul of Samuel. She not knowing who Samuel was, called him out of Hades. When he appeared, and the woman saw one that was venerable, and of a divine form, she was in disorder: and being astonished at the sight, she said, “Art not thou King Saul?” for Samuel had informed her who he was. When he had owned that to be true, and had asked her, “Whence her disorder arose?” she said, that “She saw a certain person ascend, who in his form was like to a mighty one.” And when he bid her tell him what he resembled; in what habit he appeared; and of what age he was? she told him, “He was an old man already; and of a glorious personage; and had on a sacerdotal mantle.” So the King discovered by these signs that he was Samuel: and he fell down upon the ground, and saluted, and worshipped him. And when the soul of Samuel asked him why he had disturbed him, and caused him to be brought up, he lamented the necessity he was under: for, he said, that his enemies pressed heavily upon him; that he was in distress what to do in his present circumstances; that he was forsaken of the Almighty, and could obtain no prediction of what was coming, neither by Prophets, nor by dreams. And that these were the reasons why I have recourse to thee, who always tookedst great care of me. But Samuel, seeing that the end of Saul’s life was come, said, “It is in vain for thee to desire to learn of me any thing farther; when the Almighty hath forsaken thee. However, hear what I say; that David is to be King, and to finish this war with good success; and thou art to lose thy dominion, and thy life; because thou didst not obey the Almighty in the war with the Amalekites; and hast not kept his commandments; as I foretold to thee while I was alive. Know therefore, that the people shall be made subject to their enemies; and that thou, with thy sons, shall fall in the battle tomorrow; and thou shalt then be with me [in Hades].”
Upon reading Josephus’ own account of Saul and the witch of Endor, I could tell that his understanding was that Saul really did converse with the soul of the deceased prophet Samuel. In spite of my uncertainty about whether or not Josephus’ understanding was true, I felt I owed it to the man with whom I disagreed to let him know what I had found, adding that the testimony of a first-century Jew lends weight to his view. I was starting to recognize the possibility that, indeed, it may have been the soul of Samuel with whom King Saul conversed and not some demonic counterpart.
Reviewing a Study Favoring the Witch Summoning a “Demonic Spirit”
Later, a dear friend who is of the persuasion that Saul could not have actually communicated with the spirit of Samuel texted me the link to an article authored by a man supportive of her position. The article is titled “The Witch of Endor, a Familiar Spirit, and the State of the Dead,” by Michael Scheifler. The author posted his study on his web site (biblelight dot net). I read the article and decided to post a review and response.
In his introduction, author Michael Scheifler lays down what he feels is the primary reason that some believers maintain the prophet Samuel was called up to converse with King Saul. That reason: If Samuel was called up, then he must not have been truly “dead,” but alive in some other conscious state. He wrote, “When discussing the state of the dead, that the dead are really dead and not in heaven, hell, or purgatory, the case of the Witch of Endor may be presented as proof that people don’t really die, that they continue in some conscious state even after death. So let’s examine what happened regarding King Saul and the Witch of Endor.”
The key word in the above remark is “MAY”: “... the case of the Witch of Endor MAY be presented as proof that people don’t really die, that they continue in some conscious state even after death.” In considering whether or not Samuel was “called up” to converse with King Saul, it had never occurred to me that prior to his having been summoned he was in a conscious state. I assumed that he was asleep just like all who pass away, and that he, like all righteous saints, was awaiting the resurrection of the just. I never thought this story might validate believing that when we die, our soul goes to some other state of consciousness. It appears, then, that the author and I approach this topic from different angles.
The author proceeds to cite I Samuel 15:1-3, 7-11, 13-14, 19-28, 35, I Sam. 16:14, proving that Saul disobeyed the command that Yahweh gave him through the prophet Samuel. As referenced earlier, Saul was commanded to attack the Amalekites and utterly destroy them, leaving nothing behind; however, Saul spared the Amalekite king as well as the best of their flocks and herds. I’m trying to determine what Saul’s disobedience has to do with whether or not he conversed with the soul of Samuel. Are we supposed to believe that if Saul had been righteous and completely obedient to Yahweh, he would then have been able to converse with the “real Samuel”?
Of course, the answer to the above question is NO. Even if Saul had been completely, 100% obedient and faithful to Yahweh prior to Samuel’s death, this one act -- going to the witch of Endor in order to summon up Samuel -- would have completely negated every righteous deed that Saul would have done previously. In other words, author Michael Scheifler wasted considerable space in laying an irrelevant foundation of Saul’s disobedience. Yes, he was disobedient before going to the witch and he was certainly disobedient by consulting her.
Author Michael Scheifler moves on to I Samuel 28, where Saul seeks out the Witch of Endor, an act that clearly violates the directive found in Deuteronomy 18:10-14. Again, even if King Saul had been righteous in Yahweh’s eyes prior to seeking out the witch, this one rebellious act would have negated all his previous righteous deeds. Scheifler adds what he feels is an important point: “Now, consider an important point. Was the witch to summon the spirit of Samuel down from heaven? No. Saul knew the state of the dead, that Samuel was dead in the grave. He was actually asking the witch to call Samuel up from the grave, not down from heaven.”
The author’s above “important point” may be of significance to those who were persuaded that Saul was summoned from heaven instead of the grave. However, for those of my persuasion who understand that Saul was indeed temporarily summoned/awakened from the grave, his comments do not influence me one way or the other.
Did the Witch Thwart the Will of Yahweh by Conjuring Up Samuel?
Scheifler proceeds to make what I feel is his strongest argument: “Note also that God was no longer speaking to Saul, and God’s prophets were not speaking with Saul (1 Sam 28:6). So now, are we to believe that a witch was going to thwart the will of God by conjuring up Samuel from the grave, so that Saul could speak with a prophet of God, against the explicit will of God? No witch could do such a thing.”
Viewed from Scheifler’s perspective, Saul’s prior disobedience cost him his relationship with Yahweh, so was Yahweh NOW going to allow a witch to break down the communication barrier, especially since the very act of consulting with witches was itself a violation of Torah? I can understand this reasoning; nevertheless, I think a more balanced approach recognizes the possibility that Yahweh deliberately gave Saul the “silent treatment” as a further trial. Would Saul repent with his whole heart, even if it meant doing so with sackcloth and ashes, or would he choose to go even further down the road of rebellion? Saul clearly chose the latter. With Saul having taken this final step outside the boundaries of acceptable worship, does this mean it was beyond the scope of Yahweh’s power to rouse Samuel from his slumber in the grave for the express purpose of revealing the impending doom, not only upon Saul, but also upon his entire family -- all wrought by King Saul’s rebellious actions? Scheifler would likely answer something to the effect of, “Yahweh would not issue a prohibition against consulting those with ‘familiar spirits’ only to reward those who do so with an actual visit with the dead.” I would answer that Yahweh has been known to use the most vile acts of sin to suit His own purpose if He so chooses.
Frankly, if I were to follow Scheifler’s approach, I wouldn’t stop with arguing against the possibility that Saul actually visited with the resurrected Samuel. I would also argue that Yeshua cannot possibly be the promised Messiah because, after all, His lineage bears the mark of some very vile sins. Consider this: a man named Yehudah slept with his daughter-in-law and one of the twins born from that union was destined to become a great grandfather of Yeshua the Messiah. Also among Yeshua’s ancestors is Rahab the prostitute. I would also argue further that since Moabites were prohibited from entering into the congregation of Yahweh (Deut 23:3), there is no way Yahweh could have allowed Ruth to be a great grandmother of Yeshua. Or how could Yeshua have descended from the adulterous union of King David and Bathsheba? In the eyes of many, even one of these heinous acts should eliminate any possibility of Yeshua being the promised Messiah, but with so many sinful relationships involved, there should be NO WAY He could be the One. However, the fact is Yahweh acts in mysterious ways that man tries in vain to explain or justify. Why, for example, did He continue to use Samson in spite of his lust for women, including prostitutes? Or why did Yahweh use a nation even more wicked than Judah to destroy their city and the temple? Why did Yahweh choose a man who consented to the death of so many righteous believers to one day be His greatest advocate? We could go insane trying to answer these questions. I think the balanced answer is that how Yahweh chooses to operate is up to Him. The record of history is full of opinions of how Yahweh should have acted or how certain things should have turned out. It seems that sometimes Yahweh intervenes miraculously, but sometimes He works behind the scenes in ways that we will probably never understand in this lifetime; in the end His purposes are accomplished in spite of our often misplaced perceptions about the logistics or the rationale.
So Michael Scheifler’s strongest argument against Samuel literally being summoned from the grave to deliver the message of Saul’s impending doom is that Yahweh forbids consulting with witches; my rebuttal is that Yahweh has used other vile acts of rebellion to suit His purposes, so why not the occasion of Saul’s consulting a witch, especially if that’s the way the Bible says it happened?
Scheifler goes on to write, “Remember also, the witch at Endor was known for having a familiar spirit. What is a familiar spirit anyway? It is not an angel of God, surely, because of God’s strong condemnation against consulting with them. A familiar spirit is a demonic spirit, a fallen angel in league with Satan. This is what the woman at Endor had, communication with a demon, a demon who was quite capable of impersonating Samuel. It was NOT Samuel who appeared at her summons, it was a demon masquerading as Samuel.”
Going With What the Bible Says
The above commentary is merely a continuation of Scheifler’s argument that Yahweh would not and could not have allowed anyone having a familiar spirit to rouse the righteous Samuel from his deathly slumber in order to satisfy Saul’s insatiable desire to know the future. Nevertheless, if we choose to actually go with what the Bible says in I Samuel 28:15, we must reject Scheifler’s conclusion that “it was NOT Samuel who appeared” because the Bible literally says, “And SAMUEL SAID to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?” The text does not say, “The apparition said” or “The spirit said”; it says, “And SAMUEL SAID.” You can’t get any more literal than that, but if you do not wish to believe what the text says because of some preconceived notions, that is entirely your prerogative.
I think it’s also prudent to check out other versions of the Bible, especially the Septuagint (the LXX). Many people ignore the LXX due to various reasons, including the fact that the dating can be proven inaccurate. Nevertheless, a careful examination not only reveals that it corrects obvious errors in the Hebrew Masoretic Text, but this version was also in wide use by the first century CE and is quoted by New Testament writers more frequently than the Hebrew text. I mention all this because according to the LXX translation of I Chronicles 10:13, it was indeed the prophet Samuel who spoke to Saul:
13 So Saul died for his transgressions, wherein he transgressed against the Almighty, against the word of Yahweh, forasmuch as he kept it not, because Saul enquired of a wizard to seek counsel, AND SAMUEL THE PROPHET ANSWERED HIM.
The LXX translation was completed before the 1st century CE. While I for one am willing to give credence to the above translation, even if you are not, the fact of the matter remains that the translator, who carried out his work long before the birth of Yeshua the Messiah, understood that it was Samuel who spoke to King Saul from the grave, not some demonic spirit. If the translator had this understanding, you can be certain there were many others who felt the same way. You don’t have to agree with them; it just turns out that I am persuaded they knew something that today’s theologians do not.
The apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus, written between 200 and 175 BCE, offers the same understanding. The following is taken from Ecclesiasticus 46:13-20:
13 Samuel was the beloved of his Master; prophet of Yahweh, he instituted the kingdom, and anointed rulers over his people.
14 By the Law of Yahweh he judged the assembly, and Yahweh watched over Jacob.
15 By his loyalty he was recognised as a prophet, by his words he was known to be a trustworthy seer.
16 He called on Yahweh, the Mighty One, when his enemies pressed in from all directions, by offering a sucking lamb.
17 And Yahweh thundered from heaven, and made his voice heard in a rolling peal;
18 He massacred the leaders of the enemy, and all the rulers of the Philistines.
19 Before the time of his everlasting rest he bore witness to Yahweh and his anointed, ‘Of no property, not even a pair of sandals, have I ever deprived a soul.’ Nor did anyone accuse him.
20 And, having fallen asleep, he prophesied again, warning the king of his end; he spoke from the depths of the earth in prophecy, to blot out the wickedness of the people.
Many have claimed that the Book of Ecclesiasticus, written by the Jewish scribe Ben Sira, should have been included with the canon of Scripture and as late as 1546 the Roman Catholic Church declared it to be canonical at the fourth session of the Council of Trent. The book is also known by The Wisdom of Sirach. Regardless of whether or not it should be regarded as inspired, the author understood that it was Samuel who prophesied of King Saul’s death, not some demonic spirit.
Why Did the Witch Cry?
I find it amazing that author Michael Scheifler quotes I Samuel 28:12, which is where the witch “cried with a loud voice” when she saw Samuel, but he seems to ignore why she would cry out with a loud voice. Surely, if the witch was “familiar” with familiar spirits, Samuel’s appearance should have been routine -- no need to cry out, right? Here’s the verse in question:
12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.
The only reason I can think of to explain why Yahweh would want Bible readers to know that the witch cried out is to clue us in to the fact that she was taken by surprise by what she saw, which in turn indicates that this was no ordinary apparition. If this was a demonic spirit, it was certainly beyond the realm of the witch’s expectations. C.F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, in their Commentary on the Old Testament, Vol. 2, validate my own understanding of why the witch cried out:
“When the woman saw Samuel, she cried aloud,” sc., at the form which appeared to her so unexpectedly. These words imply most unquestionably that the woman saw an apparition which she did not anticipate, and therefore that she was not really able to conjure up departed spirits or persons who had died, but that she either merely pretended to do so, or if her witchcraft was not mere trickery and delusion, but had a certain demoniacal background, that the appearance of Samuel differed essentially from everything she had experienced and effected before, and therefore filled her with alarm and horror.
In other words, the witch was either a “quack” or Yahweh intervened, much to her surprise.
In his conclusion, Micheal Scheifler continues with his reasoning of how Yahweh could not have allowed the witch of Endor to have called up the real Samuel from the grave:
King Saul was looking for help from the witch of Endor, to contact someone in the grave, a dead Samuel, so that he could know from God how he could gain a victory over the Philistines. But God was not talking to Saul any more. By knowing what the Bible teaches about the state of the dead, and the circumstances regarding Saul’s relationship with God at the time, we can be quite certain that it was not actually Samuel raised from the dead speaking to him, but a fallen angel, a demonic spirit. That Saul even attempted this séance with a spirit medium (witch) was an abomination, a further rebellion against God, and Saul paid for his rebellion with his life.
I agree that Saul paid for his rebellion with his life, but that doesn’t mean Yahweh wouldn’t bring up Samuel from the grave to render His judgment. If we go by what the text says, it was Samuel who conversed with Saul. If this was actually a demonic spirit, I would expect some Biblical narrative to supply this information instead of apparently misleading readers into thinking that it was Samuel. If it fooled me, it also fooled the likes of Josephus, the translators of the LXX and the author of the Book of Ecclesiasticus. There are certainly Scriptural instances in which the dead are actually raised to life; the story of the Shunnamite woman and her son comes to mind, as does the story of Lazarus. We also know that at Yeshua’s death the temple veil was rent and at that same time, “many bodies of saints which slept arose and came out of the graves.” Here’s what we read in Matthew 27:50-53:
50 Yeshua, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
If it was no big challenge or issue for Yahweh to cause dead saints to come back to life at Yeshua’s death, He could certainly have caused the spirit of Samuel to be raised to serve His desired purpose -- that purpose being to let Saul know that his end was near. While I recognize the possibility that a demonic spirit might have known that the lives of Saul and his sons was to end the following day (cf., Deut. 13:1-3), I nevertheless find it unlikely. What I find the most persuasive of all evidence is not the fact that the ancients regarded the apparition as being that of Samuel, nor even the fact that the witch was surprised at what she had summoned up, but rather that Scripture itself (I Samuel 28:20) tells us that the words spoken to Saul were indeed “the words of Samuel”:
20 Then Saul fell straightway all along on the earth, and was sore afraid, because of THE WORDS OF SAMUEL: and there was no strength in him; for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night.
Were the words spoken to Saul the words of a demonic spirit or the words of Samuel? Can we believe what the text says or shall we allow our preconceived notions to determine who said what?
The finishing touch of author Michael Scheifler’s article is to cite I Chronicles 10:13, based on a translation from the Masoretic text. We have already cited the Septuagint translation, which validates believing that Samuel answered Saul from the grave. Here is the conclusion of Scheifler’s article:
1 Chr 10:13 So Saul died for his transgression which he committed against the LORD, even against the word of the LORD, which he kept not, and also for asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit, to inquire of it;
1 Chr 10:14 And inquired not of the LORD: therefore he slew him, and turned the kingdom unto David the son of Jesse.
The words in italics in verse 13 are supplied by the translator, as they are not in the original text. So if you drop those words, it reads:
So Saul died for his transgression which he committed against the LORD, even against the word of the LORD, which he kept not, and also for asking of a familiar spirit, to inquire;
So the passage above clearly states, Saul communicated with a demonic spirit, not Samuel.
In response to the above, I would advise the author to be more concerned with the “original text” and less concerned with the italics as supplied by the translator. Let’s take a look at a literal translation of the text of I Chronicles 10:13 as found in Jay P. Green’s The Interlinear Bible:
13 And Saul died because of his trespass that he trespassed against the word of Jehovah, against the word of Jehovah that he did not keep, and also THE ASKING OF A MEDIUM, to inquire;
The Hebrew word translated “medium” is word #178 in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance (pronounced “ôwb”) and is used in reference to a necromancer. So the passage above clearly states, Saul inquired of a MEDIUM. If we then review this same verse in the Septuagint translation, we find moreover that SAMUEL THE PROPHET ANSWERED HIM -- not a demonic spirit.
This is the name of our Creator, Yahweh, sometimes called the Tetragrammaton. It is given here in (A) the Phoenician script, (B) the Ivrit Kadum (Paleo-Hebrew) script, and (C) the Modern Hebrew script (a stylization of Aramaic).
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