So this starts a new series about Weird Stuff That's Actually In the Bible. I'm doing this series because I like researching and getting to know the Bible more. Because when you really get into the nuts and bolts of the thing, you'll find some really interesting and some really weird stuff. Like what kicks off our series - The Witch Of Endor.
First things first - Nobody calls her "the witch of Endor" in the Bible. She's not a witch, she's a medium, meaning she can summon, talk to, and communicate with spirits who are already dead. The underworld in Old Testament times was called Sheol, and it acted much like Hades did for the Greek - a place where people who die go to spend eternity, or eternity as it was understood back then.
WHO ARE THE PLAYERS IN THIS WEIRD TALE?
It's Samuel and Saul, the delightful alliterative names that totally tripped me up when I was a kid. Hard to keep them apart when they both start with the same letter. And the witch, who we’ll call the Medium here.
WHAT'S THE BACKSTORY?
Samuel is a prophet, and leads the people of Israel until they demand a king, because if there's one thing that can be gleaned from the people of Israel, one common theme that you can count on to be hit repeatedly over and over - they're NOT THAT BRIGHT. And God still loves them anyway, despite their stubbornness and stupidity.
Because the people of Israel are not supposed to ask for a King, they're supposed to rely on God. But, because they're stupid (okay, okay, maybe stupid is too much, how about "really misguided”), and demand proof when they should be relying on faith, they demand Samuel, who is their current God's Mouthpiece, to give them a King. Someone they can see, someone that other people can see, a leader who will protect and lead them on.
Because God loves us all, even the really misguided ones, He grants their request, and gives them Saul, a warrior king if there ever was one.
Saul and Samuel repeatedly butt heads during the course of Saul's reign, from Saul offering sacrifices that Samuel is supposed to offer before battle, to keeping prisoners of war alive when Samuel as God’s Mouthpiece explicitly tells him to kill them, all the way to messing up Samuel’s clothes by tearing Samuel’s robe. It’s because of all this that God tells Samuel He’s giving them a new king, a guy named David who’s going to be just as flawed as Samuel is. But that’s another story.
AND NOW OUR STORY BEGINS!
Samuel dies (from old age, I think) and now Saul's in a pickle. The bad guys, the Philistines, are itching for a fight, and before, Saul could just consult Samuel, God's mouthpiece, and figure out what to do, or what the outcome was most likely going to be. now his mouthpiece is gone. What to do?
Saul actually does the right thing, which is ask God what to do. 1 Samuel, Ch. 28 V6 “He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.” Yep, God’s response is a big fat empty vat of silence. And if you’re me and thinking, “Um, not really fair,” it’s important to remember that Saul decides to do the right thing after years and years and years of misbehaving and ignoring Samuel’s (and therefore God’s) advice when Samuel was alive. And if you’re me and thinking, “Um, God consistently forgives Israel even though they spent years and years and years of misbehaving,” then, well, um…. Welcome to Old Testament God. He’s particular and outside of our realm of understanding. That’s a story for another time.
Saul doesn’t respond well to non-answers, and decides to consult Samuel. Um, Samuel’s dead? Yes, but there is a way he can still ask him. Just use a Medium!
That's right! When you see signs on the road advertising one, or late night commercials hawking the services of one, or watch movies where Whoopi Goldberg wins an Oscar for playing one, know this - THEY EXISTED IN THE BIBLE!
Now Saul's in a double pickle because back when he was a reasonably good King, he outlawed anyone who had anything to do with communicating with the dead.
But like any good politician, Saul can be a hypocrite when it suits his purposes, so he disguises himself as a commoner and goes to Endor, where Ewoks and prohibition Mediums live. They find one, and say the password, which is “As surely as the Lord lives, you will not be punished for this,” (1 Samuel 28:10) and ask her to call up Samuel.
The Medium then recognizes Saul so either his disguise is really bad, or God tells the Medium it’s Saul, or maybe Samuel The Ghost tells her it’s Saul when she calls him up, “Not THIS bum.”
Regardless, here’sssssssss Samuel! And Samuel’s all “Why are you bugging me, Bozo.” (1 Samuel 28:15 “Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up.’) Saul asks for help, and Samuel essentially says “You turned your back on God a long time ago and NOW you want His help?” (1 Samuel 28:16 – “Samuel said ‘Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has turned away from you and become your enemy?’) Then Samuel finally does what Saul wants and tells him what’s gonna happen in the battle – Saul and his sons will be killed, and the nation of Israel will fall to the Philistines. Thanks for playing!
Lo and behold, the ghost of Samuel is correct, and Saul and his sons die in battle (Saul by his own hand, after being wounded).
There’s a second theory that scholars like to bat around, that the Medium was perhaps inadvertently calling up an evil spirit masquerading as Samuel, which would justify why there’s never any other ghosts or Mediums mentioned in the Bible again. I dunno, I’m kinda more interested in the theory of why God would continually forgive the Israelites and not Saul, or a couple of other folks in the Bible (like Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened by the Lord (Exodus 9:12) ) You can always fall back on the whole “They Sinned So Much That God Eventually Gave Them Over To The Consequence Of Their Own Choices,” or perhaps, “That’s Just How They Did Things In The Old Testament.”
Because the Old Testament is full of weird stuff.