Laurence Turner: Revisiting the Strange, Controversial Witch of Endor
7 July 2021 |
An Invitation to Visit the Witch of Endor
Few biblical passages are more controversial than 1 Samuel 28:3-25. Here, Saul goes to the village of Endor and asks a medium (traditionally translated as “witch”) to raise Samuel from the dead so he can converse with him. And that is what the medium appears to do.
The passage is unique. Nowhere else in Scripture do we read of a medium or necromancer successfully communicating with the dead. Further, the raising of Samuel is a significant challenge to the traditional Adventist view concerning the state of the dead. The dead, as we know, rest in their graves until the resurrection day. But here, apparently, Samuel awakes and is brought up to the realm of the living by the medium. This is a problem not only for Adventists but for Jews and Christians in general, for attempts to communicate with the dead are condemned throughout the Old Testament. Historically, there have been three main understandings of this passage.
- First, that the medium genuinely raised Samuel from the dead.
- Second, it was God who did so in a unique act, and being sovereign he is free to do so.
- Third, and the most popular solution, the raising of Samuel was a delusion perpetrated by the powers of darkness.
This last position is the one taken by Ellen White, but she was far from being the first to suggest it. Typically, Adventist engagement with the passage has started with the assumption that the event must have been a delusion because otherwise it would contradict our fundamental belief about the state of the dead. The downside to this approach is that most of the time there is little engagement with the narrative itself. Rather, so the argument frequently goes, since the dead know nothing, the medium could not have raised Samuel, so she didn’t.
In the Adventist Today Sabbath Seminar I would like to explore the issue from a particular point of view. That is, 1 Samuel 28 is a Hebrew narrative and therefore its interpretation should proceed by foregrounding the characteristics of biblical narrative rather than simply arguing from dogmatic theological presuppositions. Such a literary approach might yield helpful theological conclusions. The approach is also in keeping with the nature of the books of Samuel which are generally accepted as the high point of biblical narrative art. So, our study has two purposes: to demonstrate the literary nature of biblical narrative generally and of 1 Samuel 28 in particular.
The literary conventions used in biblical narratives are in many ways different from those utilised in contemporary western literature. For our present purposes, it is helpful to be aware of three characteristics. First, the purposeful use of repetition within a narrative, sometimes with deviation. Repetition is often used subtly by biblical narrators to underline significance, and modern readers should resist the temptation of skipping over what appears to be redundant duplication. A second and related matter is repetition between one narrative and another in the same book, where one narrative seems to be told deliberately to recall another. Third, biblical narrative is reticent to divulge the thoughts and motives of characters. Typically, it reveals what characters say and do but rarely what they are thinking. Consequently, the reader must construct a character’s motives from the indirect evidence of their speech and actions.
Before we apply these principles to interpreting the raising of Samuel, consider how the convention of repetition between narratives in the same book operates in 1 Samuel 24 and 26.
1 Sam 24 and 26 Compared
|1 Sam 24||1 Sam 26|
|Saul and 3,000 men pursue David (v. 2)||Saul and 3,000 men pursue David (v. 2)|
|David is told the LORD has delivered his enemies into his hand (v. 4)||David is told the LORD has delivered his enemies into his hand (v. 8)|
|David spares Saul because he is the LORD’s anointed (v. 7)||David spares Saul because he is the LORD’s anointed (vv. 9, 11, 16, 23)|
|“Is this your voice, my son David” (v. 16)||“Is this your voice, my son David” (v. 17)|
|David uses the metaphor of “a flea” (v. 14)||David uses the metaphor of “a flea” (v. 20)|
|Saul acknowledges his guilt and David’s innocence (v. 17)||Saul acknowledges his guilt and David’s innocence (v. 21)|
It is impossible to read these two chapters and not be struck by their shared repeated elements. That repetition invites us to read the two chapters in light of one another. When we do that, we notice not only similarities but several significant differences. For example, ch. 26 intensifies what ch. 24 presented. In ch. 24, the human characters believe the LORD delivered Saul into David’s hands (vv. 4, 10, 18), while in ch. 26 not only the human characters (vv. 8, 23), but also the omniscient narrator (v. 12) believes it. Likewise, in ch. 24 Saul acknowledges David to be more righteous than he is (v. 17), but in ch. 26 he delivers a more intense judgement on himself, “I have sinned…I have played the fool and erred exceedingly” (v. 21). There are several more examples of how ch. 26 intensifies what ch. 24 presents and indicates that the conflict between David and Saul is moving towards its resolution.
Now, what does this have to do with the raising of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28? My thesis is that just as chs. 24 and 26 should be read in tandem, so also chapters 25 (David and Abigail) and ch. 28 (Saul and the medium of Endor) should be read in light of one another. I will explore this approach in the seminar. But in preparation, I am asking you to do the following:
- Read 1 Samuel 25:1–35 and 28:3–25.
- What significant similarities or differences do you see in the broad sweep of the two narratives?
- In particular, what similarities/differences do you see between
- David and Saul?
- Abigail and the medium, in particular?
- How do any of your observations help or complicate your understanding of the raising of Samuel?
Laurence Turner is Principal Lecturer Emeritus in Old Testament at Newbold College of Higher Education.
Gina Jett is an attorney in Boulder Creek, California.
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