Sunday, 11 August 2013

Necromancy - Saul and the Witch of Endor

Necromancy -
Saul and the Witch of Endor

(from B.H. Carroll's commentary of the Bible
all thoughts are welcome)

There are several theories of interpretation concerning the transaction in 1Samuel 28:11-19, but I will discuss only three of them. Saul himself goes to the witch of Endor and asks her to call up Samuel, making an inquiry of the dead through a medium, wanting information that God had refused to give him. These are the theories:

1. Some hold that there was no appearance of Samuel himself nor an impersonation of him by an evil spirit; that there was nothing supernatural, but only a trick of imposture by the witch, like many modern tricks by mediums and spirit rappers, and that the historian merely records what appeared to be on the surface. That is the first theory. That is the theory of the radical critics, who oppose everything supernatural, and you know without my telling you what my opinion is of that theory. There are indeed many tricks of imposture by pretended fortunetellers, and some of them are marvelous, but such impostures do not account for all the facts.

2. Others hold that there was a real appearance of Samuel, but -the witch didn't bring him up; she was as much if not more startled than Saul when he came; that God himself interfered, permitting Samuel to appear to the discomfiture of the witch, who cried out when she saw him, and to pronounce final judgment on Saul. They quote in favor of this theory Ezekiel 14:3 & 7-8 : "Son of man, these men have taken their idols into their heart, and put the stumbling block of their iniquity before their face: should I be inquired of at all by them? . . . For every one of the house of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, that separateth himself from me, and taketh his idols into his heart, and putteth the stumbling block of his iniquity before his face, and cometh to the prophet to inquire for himself of me; I, Jehovah, will answer him by myself; and I will set my face against that man, and will make him an astonishment, for a sign and a proverb, and I will cut him off from the midst of my people." They interpret this passage to mean that when a man violated God's law, as Saul and this witch did, that God took it upon himself to answer, and answered through Samuel.

That theory is the Jewish view throughout the ages. According to the Septuagint rendering of 1Chronicles 10:13, "Saul asked counsel of her that had a familiar spirit, and Samuel made answer to him." It further appears to be the Jewish view by the apocryphal book Sirach 46:20, which says, "After his death Samuel prophesied and showed the king his end, and lifted up his voice from the earth in prophecy." The Jewish view further appears in Josephus who thinks that Samuel was really there, but that God sent him; not that the witch had brought him up or could do it. This view was adopted by many early Christian writers; for example, Justin Martyr, Origen, and Augustine, all great men, and this view is held more and more by modern commentators, among them, for instance, Edersheim, in his History of Israel, and Kirkpatrick in the "Cambridge Bible," and Blaikie in the "Expositor's Bible," and Taylor in his History of David and His Times. All those books I have recommended; they all take that second view.

3. Now here is the third theory of interpretation. First, there is such a thing as necromancy, in which, through mediums possessed of evil spirits which spirits do impersonate the dead and do communicate with the living. This theory holds that the case of Saul and the witch of Endor is in point – that an evil spirit (for this woman is said to have had a familiar spirit; she was possessed with an evil spirit and the business of these evil spirits in their demoniacal possession is to impersonate dead people;) caused the semblance of Samuel to appear and speak through his mouth. This theory claims that the scripture in Job 3:17, to wit: "When the good man dies he goes where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest," would be violated if this had really been Samuel, who said, "Wherefore hast thou disquieted me?" And whoever this man was that appeared did say that.

If God had sent him he could not very well have used that language. God had a right to do as he pleased, but Saul had no right to try to call back a dead man to get information from him. This theory also claims that the prophecy pronounced by that semblance of Samuel was not true, but it would have been true if Samuel had said it. That prophecy says, "Tomorrow thou and thy sons shall be with me," but Saul didn't die until three days later; on the third day the battle of Gilboa was fought, and that Samuel, neither dead nor alive, would have told a falsehood. Very many early Christian writers adopt this theory, among them Tertullian and Jerome, the author of the Vulgate or Latin version of the Bible, and nearly all of the reformers, Luther, Calvin, and all those mighty minds that wrought out the reformation. They took the position that the evil spirit simulated Samuel. Those who hold to this theory further say that unless this is an exception, nowhere else in the Word of God is any man who died mentioned as coming back with a message to the living except the Lord; that he is the first to bring life and immortality to light through the gospel after he had abolished death. They do not believe that the circumstances in this case warrant an exception to the rule that applies to the whole Bible, and particularly they quote the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man asks that Lazarus might go back to the other world with a message to his brethren, and it was refused on the ground that they have Moses and the prophets, and if a man won't hear Moses and the prophets neither would he hear though one rose from the dead. That makes a strong case.

Certainly the first theory is not true, and the other two theories are advocated with such plausibility and force that I will leave you to take whatever side you please. My own opinion is that Samuel was not there, but on a matter of this kind let us not be dogmatic. Let us do our own thinking and we will be in good company no matter which of these last theories we adopt.


  1. Thank you for sharing. I never really gave the text much thought before. This was very helpful.

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