Did Saul See Samuel?

bible_verses

The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?” The woman said, “I see a ghostly figure[a] coming up out of the earth.” 14 “What does he look like?” he asked. “An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said. Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.

1 Samuel 28: 13, 14

Difficulty

  1. This text seems to suggest that the witch of Endor successfully raised Samuel from the dead.

Principle: Let the Bible interpret itself.

Context

In 1 Samuel 28, Saul goes to see a witch, or a woman who was a medium, in order to raise his late adviser Samuel from death, so that he could inquire about his fate in battle. Mediums and other spiritists had been killed by Saul in the past and so she was understandably afraid at firs. However after Saul promised her that she would not be punished, she agreed to perform the rite and bring up the dead Samuel.

In the Ancient Near East, particularly from the records of the ancient Hittites, we have an idea how this rite was performed. It was believed by the pagans that the spirits of the dead lived in an underworld, under the ground. To bring them up they would dig a hole, and place a bowl of food mixed with blood as an offering to entice the spirits. Sometimes they would place a ladder inside it to help the spirit climb up. Other times they would enter the hole by themselves to meet the spirit. Then they would receive the message from the spirit, which was whispered or spoken undertone to the medium, who would then relay the message.

When the witch of Endor performed her rights, she saw a “ghostly figure rise up out of the earth.” This likely refers to the hole she would have dug for the spirit. She exclaimed, and Saul was excited. “What do you see?” He asked. “The woman said, “I see a ghostly figure coming up out of the earth.” “What does he look like?” he asked.

“An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said. At this point the Bible says “Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.” Does this statement mean that Saul objectively perceived the dead Samuel? The Hebrew word used for “knew” is yada, and it means to know, be aware, either by observation or by inference. In this case Saul inferred that it was Samuel from the witch’s description. In other words, he relied on her description to conclude that the old man she was seeing was Samuel. Saul himself never saw the spirit the woman had brought up. He only relied on the words of a witch as truth.

The rest of the conversation that ensue between Saul and the spirit most likely happened through the woman as a medium or mediator. We cannot be sure from the text that Saul heard anything either, even though it reads like a conversation between the two. From the practice of those times, it is most likely the woman was acting as the interpreter or translator between the two.

The content of the conversation is not relevant to our question. What is clear is that God strictly forbade attempts at speaking with the dead (Deuteronomy 18:10). Also, we know that demons often interact and communicate with humans for their own evil purposes. Further we know that when people die, they are really dead, and know nothing under the sun (Ecclesiastes 9:5). This ghostly figure was likely an evil spirit or demon, rather than the ghost of Samuel, who was no doubt resting in peace.

Summary

In summary, we should learn to trust the whole body of Scripture on a particular topic. It is clear from numerous passages that death is a sleep, and the only awakening from it is the promised resurrection, as is described in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is also clear that we cannot find escape from God’s judgment by resorting to the dark powers of witchcraft or any other means. Finally, it is instructive that Saul did not learn anything new from the spirit he consulted. Only God knows our future; He is the Author and Finisher of our faith.

Until next time, as usual, keep studying the word; prove all things, and hold fast what is good!

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Bible texts are from New International Version

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Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.