1 Samuel 28:3-25
Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. Saul had expelled the mediums and the wizards from the land. The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams or by Urim or by prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, so that I may go to her and inquire of her.” His servants said to him, “There is a medium at Endor.”
So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothes and went there, he and two men with him. They came to the woman by night. And he said, “Consult a spirit for me, and bring up for me the one whom I name to you.” The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the wizards from the land. Why then are you laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?” But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He answered, “Bring up Samuel for me.” When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice, and the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” The king said to her, “Have no fear; what do you see?” The woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up out of the ground.” He said to her, “What is his appearance?” She said, “An old man is coming up; he is wrapped in a robe.” So Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did obeisance.
Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams, so I have summoned you to tell me what I should do.” Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done to you just as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David.
Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you today. Moreover, the Lord will give Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me; the Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.”
Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground filled with fear because of the words of Samuel, and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. The woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Your servant has listened to you; I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me. Now, therefore, you also listen to your servant; let me set a morsel of bread before you. Eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” He refused and said, “I will not eat.” But his servants, together with the woman, urged him, and he listened to their words. So he got up from the ground and sat on the bed. Now the woman had a fatted calf in the house. She quickly slaughtered it, and she took flour, kneaded it, and baked unleavened cakes. She put them before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.
Tomorrow is Halloween, and tonight we are holding out Trunk or Treat here at the Church. There seems then no better time in the Church’s calendar to address a text like the one we just read. It has so much that it leaves unsaid, and yet tells us plenty that we can use to expand and challenge our viewpoints on life, the supernatural, and even what the afterlife might be like. The overwhelming weight of this scripture has overwhelmed more than a few ministers, and I am going to tread lightly as we try to understand what happened long ago between the King of Israel, a diviner, and a dead prophet.
Samuel was the leader of the people of Israel before the Monarchy began. He served as a moral guide to the many judges that looked over the tribes. He also anointed the first King of Israel when the leaders of the tribes demanded that they be ruled by a single leader rather than remain a loose confederation. Samuel was reluctant to make a king, and Saul, the first king, proved to be more than deserving of those doubts. Saul was slow to listen to the prophet, quick to strike out at potential threats, and generally unwell. When he was reaching the end of his reign he had taken in a young shepherd turned mercenary in as a confidant. His son, Johnathan, was especially fond of this young renaissance man named David.
Saul knew that his reign was in danger, and after a final confrontation with Samuel before his death, Saul suddenly found that he no longer had no access to the word of God. The prophet was dead, and his sycophantic replacements were not giving actual advice. The high priest had nothing to tell, not even with the urim and thummin – soothsaying stones held in the Temple. There was nothing to help Saul make decisions, not even good advisors to tell him what he should or should not do. In his desperation, he decided to go against his own policies and convictions, calling upon the help of a magician in a land we do not know today.
In Endor (not the forest moon of Endor, but some unknown region,) Saul finds a medium who can bring the dead back to life – albeit temporarily. This was forbidden in the Torah, and Saul had outlawed the practice in his kingdom as an act of obedience to that law. However, now that he needed answers he could not get elsewhere, he reaches out to that forbidden source of knowledge, he calls upon the magician, and strange things follow. The magician opens up a channel to the world of the dead, and calls up the prophet Samuel to proclaim Saul’s doom. A prophet of God, coming up from the chthonic realm of the dead, to deliver one last prophecy.
The Church, and alongside it Judaism, has been uncomfortable with this text. The Greek translators of this text chose to translate “אוֹב” as “ἐγγαστρίμυθον,” in simpler terms translating the term “medium,” as “belly-button talker.” In modern language, a ventriloquist. This line of thinking was also taken by many rabbis throughout history. The witch was a charlatan and was simply imitating Samuel speaking against Saul. There was no necessity in the eyes of these readers for the exchange to have any reality, but only for Saul to have been ripped off by a scam artist.
Christians were more willing to play with the text. While many stuck to the idea that Saul was the victim of manipulation, others suggested that he was courting demons. Many Church Fathers saw the witch, or the presumed figure of Samuel, as demons actively working against Saul. While this eliminates the discomfort we have at a dead person being brought back by illicit magic, the text does not claim any demons are involved here. More than that, if the witch was using a demon, or somehow was a demon, then we would not expect the specter to tell the truth, which absolutely does happen.
We are left then having to take this text somehow on its face value. We have talked before about the lack of a coherent belief in the afterlife in ancient Israel. Some believed that the dead slept, others that they lived as shades imitating their earthly life, and still others that they essentially ceased to exist. It was not until the Babylonian Exile that the afterlife becomes a significant interest in the eyes of scripture and of Judean believers. For Saul and Samuel, the expectation was that death was more or less the end of everything, and so Saul was expecting the shade of Samuel to be a lesser form of the prophet, but the prophet nonetheless.
The witch describes Samuel as rising up from the ground, consistent with where the dead were buried and believed to live. Like Hades in Greek myth and the underworld of Sumerian myth, Sheol was the place the dead lived in Israelite teachings. Samuel does not appear as a shade though, but is described as “אֶלֹהִים,” a word used elsewhere for God, that generally means “Godlike,” or “in the power of God.” For Samuel to come from the land of the dead, not diminished, but somehow enhanced, seems to reveal a little more about how we exist between death and the final resurrection.
Later texts describe the dead as existing in two categories, those who are holy live near Abraham and by extension God, while those who are not are pushed to the extremes of the underworld. By the time Jesus was ministering, this view becomes a full-on place of punishment and reward. All the dead reside in Hades until the end of the age, but one part of it is a taste of Heaven and the other a preview of Hell. Adapting these later terms, Samuel comes up from sitting beside Abraham and shines out the holiness that he had in life, unburdened by the corruption of sin and freed from its evils through death. The witch is terrified, as is Saul, at the revelatory nature of this revivified prophet.
I do not think that ghosts are something common, nor that most people who claim to be witches have any power beyond taking on religious trends from the 1960s. No, I do not believe in Ouija boards or divination in its many forms, but I cannot deny either the mysteries of the world. We had a talk in Bible Study recently about the mysterious things we’ve seen in life. Ghostly shadows and footsteps that have no person to produce them, just a taste of the unspeakable things we encounter in life. This is not to mention other spiritual experiences that defy explanation. For every 100 Ghost stories that are easily debunked, one is compelling enough to make you think.
The important thing for us, as people of faith, is to trust that God is more powerful than any force we encounter. Samuel, being raised from the dead somehow, was not darkened by the fell magic around him. Instead, he shone out in Godly light and prophesied as though he was alive. How does that work? I do not know, but God seemed to use this medium to make it happen, to deliver one last message to the King that was now to be deposed. For us, we can feel comfortable that the dead are cared for. They are not roused by magicians, because Christ has conquered all powers in Heaven and Earth, and nothing can wrest the souls of his beloved from his care.
Next week, we observe All Saints Day, and we look to the way that God cares for those gone from us. Yet, here in this strange story, we get a quick look at what that care looks like. God’s sanctifying glory shines out, even beyond death, in those who love and serve him. May we all reflect while alive, even a portion of such glory, testifying the truth of God in the face of kings. Let us also face the unknown with a confidence that God is with us, and a willingness to embrace our questions alongside God’s revelation. – Amen.