1 Samuel 28

1 SAMUEL CHAPTER 28

Saul and the Medium at Endor

      • In those days the Philistines assembled their forces to fight against Israel. Achish told David, “Understand that you and your men are expected to go out into battle with me.” David replied, “Very well, you will see what your servant can do.” Achish said, “Very well, I will make you my bodyguard from now on.”

        • ESV Study Bible writes, “After Achish has been with David for over a year, the Philistines decide on a major attack on Israel involving the forces of all five of their cities. The aim is apparently to gain control over the northern Jezreel Valley, a wide, agriculturally rich plain that goes as far east as the Jordan River. David, as a vassal of Achish, is naturally expected to participate in the attack…”

            • On Achish making David his personal bodyguard for life, the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes, “Shows how supremely successful was David’s deception of Achish. This Hebrew word [bodyguard] is not the same as that used elsewhere in Samuel (cf 22:14; 2 Sa 23:23) or anywhere else in the Bible. The phrase literally reads ‘keeper/guard of my head’ and may have carried a sense similar to the colloquial expression in English ‘you’ve got my back.’ The irony of this choice of words by Achish of Gath- given the fact that David has already collected the head of Goliath, another citizen of Gath- is only heightened by the complaint of the Philistine commanders in 29:4 that David might turn in battle and ‘regain his master’s favor…by taking the heads of our own men’!”

      • Now Samuel had died and all of Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own city, Ramah. Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land. The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem. Saul gathered all of Israel and they set up camp at Gilboa. When Saul saw the Philistine army he was terrified and his heart trembled. Saul inquired of Yahweh, but Yahweh didn’t answer him, either by dreams, or by the Urim, or by prophets. So Saul told his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium so that I can go to her and inquire of her.” His attendants replied, “There is a woman in Endor who is a medium.”

            • ESV Study Bible explains, “Verse 3 gives the information necessary to understand the rest of this chapter, reminding the reader that Samuel was dead (cf 25:1) and stating that Saul had driven out mediums (cf 28:9). Verse 4 jumps chronologically to a point following ch. 29; here, the Philistines are already at Shunem, a city on the opposite (north) side of the Jezreel Valley from Mount Gilboa. The Mosaic laws forbade as abominations mediums and necromancers [spiritists], who consult the spirits of the dead, as well as other forms of divination (Lev. 19:31; 20:6, 27; Deut 18:10-12; see also 1 Sam 15:23). Necromancy and other forms of divination were common throughout the ancient Near East, and many divination texts have been discovered; biblical religion is the only one known to forbid it. Such religious practices were widespread in ancient Canaan (Deut 18:10-12), and they continued to be a problem throughout the Israelite monarchy (e.g., 2 Kings 21:6; 23:24; Isa 8:19). By driving out the mediums, Saul was certainly trying to be faithful to the Lord, in his own way. The Hebrew word rendered ‘medium’ in 1 Sam 28:3, 9 (‘ob) can mean: (1) ‘the spirit of a dead person’ in general (as in v. 8); (2) ‘necromancy,’ i.e., divining by an ‘ob; or (3) ‘a medium,’ i.e., one who practices necromancy. In v. 7, ‘a woman who is a medium’ is literally ‘a woman who has an ‘ob.’ The term necromancers (yidde ‘oni), which always appears with ‘mediums,’ is literally ‘(all-) knowing’; it refers to the practice of necromancy or to its practitioner, but not to the spirit of the dead.”

        • So, “medium” can have a range of meanings depending on the context. What does the commentary above mean when it notes that, “In v. 7, ‘a woman who is a medium’ is literally ‘a woman who has an ‘ob.’”?

          • NET Bible’s text critical notes explains, “The Hebrew term translated ‘mediums’ actually refers to a pit used by a magician to conjure up underworld spirits (see 2 Kgs 21:6). In v. 7 the witch of Endor is called the owner of a ritual pit. See H. Hoffner, ‘Second Millennium Antecedents to the Hebrew ʾÔḆ,’ JBL 86 (1967): 385-401. Here the term refers by metonymy to the owner of such a pit (see H. A. Hoffner, TDOT 1:133).”

        • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible provides some additional information which becomes particularly relevant when we get to verse 13:

            • The word Saul uses for ‘spirit’ in 1 Sa 28:8 refers to the ‘ghost’ or ‘spirit’ of one who has died…The etymological origin of this term is much debated, but one attractive proposal in light of the present context (note, e.g., the ‘ghostly figure coming up out of the earth’ in 1 Sa 28:13) is that the word derives from a non-Semitic loanword meaning ‘sacrificial pit’ on the basis of the occurrence of a cognate word in Hittite religious texts. Scholars have identified additional cognates in Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Ugaritic. The Hebrew term, like its Hittite cognate, should then be understood as designating a pit dug in the ground, which served as a means of access between infernal spirits of gods or deceased persons and the upper world. Among the Hittites rituals were carried out which involved the opening up of such pits in places selected by oracle, the lowering of offerings into the pits and luring up spirits out of the pits to eat the sacrifices and drink the blood libations and show their favor and superior knowledge to the sacrificers.”

          • Among the offerings lowered into the pits were foodstuffs, often including a black sacrificial animal (a hog or a dog), and silver objects such as a model of a human ear (symbolizing the practitioner’s desire to hear from the underworld) and a ladder or staircase (to encourage the spirit to ascend). Sumerian and Akkadian versions of the Gilgamesh epic also attest the use of pits or holes in the ground as portals through which the dead could ascend from the underworld; Gilgamesh used such a pit to summon his departed companion Enkidu.”

        • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible adds the following, “Cultures throughout the ancient Near East evidenced a desire to make contact with the spirit world, and a complex array of rites and practitioners arose in an effort to satisfy this desire. For Israel, however, the participation in the kinds of rites practiced by its polytheistic neighbors in Canaan was condemned in the strongest possible terms and strictly forbidden…The basis of this proscription of occult practices may in part have had to do with a distinction between magic and religion, i.e., between the occult magical arts, on the one hand, which seek to harness knowledge and power for selfish ends, and religious observance, on the other, which seeks to bring the worshiper into communion with the deity. But the distinction between magic and religion is not always always easy to maintain, and the OT itself reports without censure certain acts that might be considered magic (a staff becoming a snake, the casting of lots, causing an axhead to float, etc.) The more fundamental reason for banning occult practices in Israel was that they involved engaging false gods or demonic powers rather than the one true God, Yahweh…”

      • Guzik writes, “Saul was in a terrible place. The Philistines threatened, Saul’s courage failed, and now God was silent when Saul sought Him. Saul hoped God would speak to him through dreams, but God was silent. He hoped God would speak to him through the Urim, but God was silent. He wanted to hear from God through the prophets, but God would not talk to Saul.”

        • HCSB answers a common question that arises, “Why didn’t the Lord answer Saul’s plea for help? The Bible teaches that people who consistently reject God’s leadership in their lives, and refuse to follow the guidance He has already provided, should not expect Him to deliver them from trouble resulting from their poor choices (Jb 27:9; 35:12; Pr 1:23-28; Is 1:15; Jr 11:11; 14:12; Ezk 8:18; Mc 3:4; Zch 7:13; Jms 4:3). Saul had consistently disobeyed God (1 Sm 13:13-14; 15:11-23)…He had created vast problems for himself and his nation. The Lord was not going to promise supernatural deliverance from those problems, even though Saul earnestly sought His help. Instead, God would use the Philistines as the instrument of judgment against Saul.”

      • So Saul disguised himself by putting on other clothes, and he and two men left and came to the woman by night. Saul said, “Consult a spirit for me through the ritual pit and bring up for me the one whom I name to you.” But the woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off all the mediums and the spiritists from the land. Why are you setting a trap for me to get me killed?” But Saul swore to her by Yahweh saying, “As surely as Yahweh lives, you will not be punished for this.”

        • On the mediums and spiritists being “cut off,” the NLT Illustrated Study Bible notes, “…suggesting that Saul might have had most of the mediums executed.”

        • Guzik writes, “As Saul sought the medium he brought upon himself a curse. God said in Leviticus 20:6: And the person who turns after mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people. Saul will ask the medium to channel the deceased prophet Samuel. He did this because he wanted to know what God might say to him. Saul is like a man going to a palm reader to hear the will of God. This shows the depth of Saul’s fall from God, and how it affected his mind. He obviously isn’t thinking clearly here. Once Saul rejected the truth, he was likely to fall for even the most foolish deception.”

        • Guzik continues, “The medium wondered if this was a government ‘sting’ operation; but Saul assured her – swearing in the name of the LORD, no less – that she would not be punished. Saul’s oath in the name of the LORD reminds us that spiritual jargon means nothing. As certainly as the LORD lives Saul was in complete disobedience and darkness. This is the last time Saul used the name of the LORD in the book of 1 Samuel and he used it to swear to a medium that she will not be punished.”

      • Then the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He replied, “Bring up Samuel for me.” When the woman saw Samuel she screamed aloud and asked Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” But the king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?” The woman answered, “I see a god coming up out of the ground.” Saul asked, “What does he look like?” And she replied, “An old man wrapped in a robe is coming up.” Then Saul knew that it was Samuel and he bowed with his face to the ground in homage.

Saul and the Witch of Endor in a 15th century manuscript. ( Public Domain )

        • So many questions arise from these passages. Why did the woman scream? Why did seeing Samuel cause her to realize that she was with Saul? Why does the Hebrew use the word “elohim” (god(s)) to describe who the medium conjured up? The following commentaries make some valuable notes:

          • ESV Study Bible:

          • Perhaps Samuel’s appearance surprised the woman and she thought something was happening outside her control. Another possibility is that her previous activities had called up only deceptive demonic imitations of a dead person’s spirit, but this time she suddenly realized that something much more real was happening. Readers are not told how the woman realized who Saul was. Perhaps the spirit called his name as he came up.”

          • On the use of “elohim”(which will not be difficult for anyone familiar with the Deuteronomy 32 worldview), “Literally ‘gods’ with a plural form, so not ‘God,’ which is a plural noun but takes a singular verb. This term is used of the spirits of the dead in ancient Near Eastern texts. The ancient Moabite ‘gods’ may also have been the spirits of the dead (see Num 25:2; Ps 106:28). Saul, however, is interested in Samuel as a person and asks about his (singular) appearance. The robe was Samuel’s characteristic garment (1 Sam 15:27).”

        • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible:

          • Background information cannot resolve the many questions swirling around this event….From a literary standpoint, there is no question that we should understand this as truly the spirit of Samuel, however phenomenologically [Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.] problematic that conclusion might be. That in this instance Yahweh should deign to return Samuel from the grave- to the surprise of the woman and the dismay of Saul- in no way represents a validation either of the efficacy or the acceptability of necromancy. Furthermore, it cannot be used to deduce revealed theology concerning the state of the dead or the nature of the soul since it may be an excepted situation.”

        • HCSB, “Did the medium of Endor really conjure up the dead prophet Samuel?…The law of Moses sternly forbids consultation of mediums… but never says that communicating with dead people is impossible. Saul was seemingly able to speak with a figure that not only accurately repeated key themes from Samuel’s previous private conversations with Saul, but also correctly predicts the deaths of Saul and his sons. This suggests that the king was indeed speaking with Samuel.”

          • Saul replied, ‘Bring me up Samuel,’ sc., from the region of the dead, or Sheol, which was thought to be under the ground. This idea arose from the fact that the dead were buried in the earth, and was connected with the thought of heaven as being above the earth. Just as heaven, regarded as the abode of God and the holy angels and blessed spirits, is above the earth; so, on the other hand, the region of death and the dead is beneath the ground. And with our modes of thought, which are so bound up with time and space, it is impossible to represent to ourselves in any other way the difference and contrast between blessedness with God and the shade-life in death.”

          • The woman then commenced her conjuring arts. This must be supplied from the context, as 1 Samuel 28:12 merely states what immediately ensued. ‘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. The very fact, whoever, that she recognised Saul as soon as Samuel appeared, precludes us from declaring her art to have been nothing more than jugglery and deception; for she said to him, ‘Why hast thou cheated me, as thou art certainly Saul?’ i.e., why hast thou deceived me as to thy person? why didst thou not tell me that thou wast king Saul? Her recognition of Saul when Samuel appeared may be easily explained, if we assume that the woman had fallen into a state of clairvoyance, in which she recognised persons who, like Saul in his disguise, were unknown to her by face.”

          • The king quieted her fear, and then asked her what she had seen; whereupon she gave him a fuller description of the apparition: ‘I saw a celestial being come up from the earth.’ Elohim does not signify gods here, nor yet God; still less an angel or a ghost, or even a person of superior rank, but a celestial (super-terrestrial), heavenly, or spiritual being.”

          • Upon Saul’s further inquiry as to his form, she replied, ‘An old man is ascending, and he is wrapped in a mantle.’…Saul recognised from this that the person who had been called up was Samuel, and he fell upon his face to the ground, to give expression to his reverence. Saul does not appear to have seen the apparition itself. But it does not follow from this that there was no such apparition at all, and the whole was an invention on the part of the witch. It needs an opened eye, such as all do not possess, to see a departed spirit or celestial being. The eyes of the body are not enough for this.”

      • Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” And Saul answered, “I am in great distress! The Philistines are fighting against me and God has turned away from me. He does not answer me anymore, either by prophets or by dreams, so I have summoned you to tell me what I should do.” Then Samuel said, “Why are you asking me since Yahweh has turned away from you and become your enemy? Yahweh has done exactly what He said through me. Yahweh has torn the kingdom from your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. Yahweh has done this thing to you today because you did not obey Yahweh and you did not carry out His fierce wrath against the Amalekites. Yahweh will deliver both you and Israel into the hands of the Philistines and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Yahweh will also hand over the Israelite army to the Philistines.”

        • You can see why this passage is theologically disturbing for many. Throughout church history, from early church fathers to latter day theologians, debate has swirled around the various implications of these passages. The one thing that I believe we should not do when considering this Biblical event is make dogmatic assertions based on our theological presuppositions. Coming from a sect that rejected the possibility that this could have been a post-death appearance of Samuel outright, merely on the basis of their theological assumption that there is no potential form of consciousness in the intermediate state between death and resurrection, this method of Scriptural interpretation is my pet peeve.

        • There are a few additional sources outside of 1 Samuel that reference this event. One is in the universally agreed upon as canonical passage of 1 Chronicles 10:13, though there is disagreement between the MT and the LXX. Another is the Apocryphal book of Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 46:20 which is a Jewish work dating to the period known by Protestants as the “intertestamental period” between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament. A third is the first century Jewish historian Josephus’ reference in his Antiquities of the Jews. I’ll list these below:

          • The Septuagint rendering of 1 Chronicles 10:13 reads: “So Saul died for his transgressions, wherein he transgressed against God, against the word of the Lord, forasmuch as he kept it not, because Saul enquired of a wizard to seek counsel, and Samuel the prophet answered him.”

          • As you can see, the narrator here indicates that indeed Samuel is the one who answered Saul.

      • Sirach 46:20 reads: “Even after he [Samuel] had fallen asleep [died], he prophesied and made known to the king his death, and lifted up his voice from the ground in prophecy, to blot out the wickedness of the people.”

          • Undoubtedly, some Protestants will object to referencing an Apocryphal work here. However, at the very least, this is valuable for understanding who Jews living sometime between 190 and 175 BC (when Sirach is estimated to have been written) understood the entity in question to be. Some Protestants may also find it interesting that the Apocryphal books were in the King James Version of the Bible up until they were removed in 1885. In fact, the rendering I have cited above is from the KJV.

            • The interested reader who would like to know why these books were included in the KJV may refer to the article Apocrypha by King James Bible.org.

            • It is not in the canonical list of Melito of Sardes (c. 280AD) or Origen (321. AD) of the Council of Laodicea ( 360AD). But it is in the list of the Apostolic Constitution (middle of 3rd century) of Gelasius (382AD) and the African Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397AD). But doubts about its canonicity lasted into the Middle Ages, especially under the influence of St. Jerome, who preferred the Palestinian Canon…”

            • Yet is was used for devout reading, and was considered as inspired not only by those Fathers who adopted the longer Alexandrian Canon, but also by those who held only the shorter Palestinian. They include even St. Jerome (In Epist. ad Jul. PL 22. 961 and On Is 3. 13:PL 24. 67, and against Pelagians 2. 5, PL 23. 541. It was also accepted as inspired by Clement of Alexandria, in Paidagogos 1. 1 and Stromata 10. 3; by Origen Peri archon 2. 8; Against Celsus 6. 7. 12; On John 32. 14; by St. Athanasius Paschal Letter 39, and Against Arians 2. 79; by St. Cyril of Jerusalem 6. 3; by St. Epiphanius, Against Heresies 3. 1. 76;and by St. Cyprian, Epistle 5. 45. 60; by Tertullian, Against Marcion 1. 16, and by St. Augustine, Speculum de Scriptura sacra, PL 34. 948ss.”

        • Picking up after Saul has assured the medium that she will not be punished for her actions, and after Saul has asked her to conjure Samuel, Josephus writes:

          • 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 God.” 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 God, 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 God 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 God 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 battel to morrow; and thou shalt then be with me [in Hades].”

        • Keil and Delitzsch have quite a lot to say on the topic as well for anyone interested in pursuing the topic further.

        • What does Samuel mean when he tells Saul that he and his sons will be “here with” me?

          • HCSB notes his general meaning, “Samuel’s words to Saul here merely indicate that within a day’s time Saul and three of his sons would be dead.”

          • NLT Illustrated gives a more specific answer, “In Sheol, the abode of the dead (cp 2:6, ‘the grave’; see also Num 16:30-33; Job 17:1-16; Ps 49:11; Rev 1:18).”

        • Guzik adds, “You and your sons will be with me does not mean that Saul was going to heaven and be with the believing dead. In the story Jesus told in Luke 16:19-31, the blessed dead and the cursed dead were both in the same general area. The believing dead were in the place of comfort knows as Abraham’s bosom but the cursed were in a place of torment. Saul would be in the same general area as Samuel, but not the same specific place.”

      • Immediately Saul fell full length onto the ground. He was terrified because of what Samuel had said and he was also completely drained of strength because he hadn’t eaten anything all that day and night. The woman came to Saul and when she saw that he was terrified she said, “Look, your servant has obeyed you. I took my life into my own hands and did what you told me to do. Now therefore, you obey your servant. Let me set a little bread before you so that you can eat and regain your strength when you go on your way.”

        • It’s certainly worth noting that, here, the narrator of 1 Samuel identifies the entity that Saul spoke with as Samuel.

      • He refused, saying, “I will not eat.” But his men and the woman urged him to eat and he listened to them. He got up from the ground and sat on the bed. Now the woman had a fattened calf at the house which she butchered right away. She took flour, kneaded it, and baked unleavened bread. She set it before Saul and his men and they ate. Then, they got up and left that night.

        • ESV Study Bible writes, “A fattened calf is a stall-fed calf that was being prepared for eating, rather than a pasture-fed calf. Saul went away, back to Gilboa. Saul apparently accepted that his death was the unalterable word of the Lord; he does not try to escape the battle on the next day.”