Who was the Witch of Endor?
Witchcraft in the Bible
Setting for the witch’s story
1. The great prophet and adviser, Samuel, has died. Oddly enough, one of the people who misses him most is King Saul, even though Samuel now supports young David instead.
2. King Saul has made some sweeping reforms. Among them is the banning of all forms of magic and witchcraft. This included séances or any attempt to contact the dead. Saul did not kill the séance ‘mediums’, but the woman in this story faced death by stoning if she was caught trying to make contact with the dead.
3. The whole country is on the brink of war, and Saul’s rule is about to end, amid wholesale slaughter of his family, soldiers and followers. He cannot hope to defeat the Philistine forces, who have cut off Saul from the northern tribes who might have supported him.
4. Death stares him in the face. Saul prays desperately to God for help, but is greeted by silence. God, it seems, has abandoned him.
The witch/medium of Endor
What does Saul do? Driven to desperation, Saul reverts to the old ways. He asks his servants to find him a medium, someone who can speak with the dead. He longs to hear Samuel’s wisdom once more.
The search cannot have been easy, since all mediums have supposedly been expelled. But Saul is desperate, and his servants find one woman, a medium, living in a cave at Endor.
Saul, of course, cannot be seen with a medium, so he takes off his royal robes and puts on a disguise.
The journey is difficult and dangerous but he takes the risk. When he meets the woman he immediately asks her to consult a spirit. There is no time to be lost, since the Philistines will probably attack at dawn.
The woman is reluctant. She is no fool. She seems to know quite well who Saul is. He is the king who has ordered the expulsion of all ‘witches’ like herself.
But Saul insists, guaranteeing her safety. So the woman, the ‘witch’ of Endor, consents. She summons the spirit of Samuel from the grave – or from Sheol, the Israelite land of the dead.
The ghost of Samuel appears
Samuel appears – to the woman, but not to the people beside her. Only she can see him or speak with him.
Saul is overwhelmed, convinced that his old mentor is truly present.
Through the woman, Saul begs Samuel for help. He tells Samuel of the Philistine threat, and worse, of God’s silence.
What is Saul to do?
What does Samuel’s ghost say?
Saul gets little comfort from the ‘spirit’ of Samuel – which is in reality the woman’s voice. ‘Samuel’ tells Saul that God has turned away from him, that the Philistines will triumph, and that David, not Saul, will rule. Saul’s army, including Saul’s three sons, will be destroyed.
Keep in mind as you read these predictions that it is the medium/witch who is making them, not Samuel. This astute woman is able to predict the future because she is shrewd and well-informed, not because she has ‘magic’. Being a medium gives her freedom to speak the truth – something no ordinary subject of Saul’s would dare to do.
Deep in his heart Saul knows she is speaking the horrifying truth:
- he will die
- his family and soldiers will be destroyed and
- Israel will for the time being at least come under the heel of the Philistines.
Saul collapses on the floor of the cave, unable to move.
The woman comforts Saul
What does she do? She shows compassion and good sense, the qualities of a woman of worth. Instead of retreating from the broken figure of Saul, she offers him food. She knows that, in the turmoil of this terrible day he has probably not eaten.
Now she offers this man, who has persecuted and exiled all the mediums like herself, a simple, nourishing meal. She gives him fresh-baked bread and succulent calf meat. Strengthened, Saul gets up and goes out to meet his fate.
The ‘witch’ of Endor has
- made a shrewd assessment of the political situation and its likely outcome
- forgiven Saul for the misery he brought to all the mediums of the land and
- helped and comforted him as best she could.
Notes, extra information on this story
Israel, witches and magic
Israel’s religion flatly rejected the practice of magic. It was strictly forbidden.
Despite this, superstition and magic always persisted among the ordinary Israelite people. In times of religious revival it might seem as if magical practices had been eradicated, but in fact they remained bubbling away below the surface, ready to reappear on the slightest excuse – even though, for example, witchcraft could be a capital offense (Exodus 22:18).
It should be noted that the woman in this story faced death by stoning if she was caught trying to make contact with the dead.
Of course, ordinary people got around these laws in various ways. For instance, Leviticus l9:9-l0 directs that at harvest-time, the corners of fields, the gleanings of corn and the fallen grapes in vineyards shall be left for the poor and the foreigner (see the story of Ruth).
This probably continued an ancient custom of leaving some of the harvest for the spirits of the corn and other crops, so as to ensure a good harvest the following year.
Necromancy (consulting dead spirits)
The Bible forbade necromancy (seeking guidance from the dead) in no uncertain terms:
“There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11).
Necromancers who invoked “ghosts and familiar spirits” seem to have been common, for more than one king attempted to stamp out the practice. Saul tried to ban the activities of sorcerers and necromancers, yet at the end of his life even he turned to such a woman (l Samuel 28:7-25).
The urge to seek guidance from ancestors and the recently dead is deeply rooted in people’s hearts. In a crisis, haven’t you ever ‘talked’ to a dead parent or a friend you admired, asking them to guide you?
Paintings: the Witch, Samuel, and Saul
Samuel and the Witch of Endor, Martynov, detail of the witch
Martynov’s witch is calm, solemn, sure of her power.
Martynov, Saul, Samuel and the Witch of Endor
Saul seems to have already received Samuel’s forecast of doom, and clasps his forehead in anguish. He turns towards the viewer, as if to face his future. The witch is the dominating figure in this painting: it is she who holds the power.
Witch of Endor, Edward Henry Corbould
Corbould seems to have drawn on a gypsy woman for inspiration for his witch. Her face is in shadow, but her summoning hand is still raised. Samuel is bowed. He can offer no hope to his former favorite, Saul.
The Witch of Endor, painted in 1777
The gates of Sheol are parted, and Samuel appears. Saul’s body language shows a man making one last, desperate plea for help from his former mentor, Samual.
The witch is nowhere in sight.
The Witch of Endor, Nicolai Gey
The red of Saul’s cloak evokes a horrifying image of how his blood, and the blood of his three sons, will be spilt on the following day. Samuel is a remote figure, other-worldly, without pity or emotion
The Witch of Endor, Matthias Stom
This later painting is more realistic. Samuel clasps the shroud around him as he tells Saul there is no hope. The witch is almost like a nurse or healer, not a frightening figure.
Saul too seems calm as he listens to his former friend and adviser.
Bible text for the Witch of Endor
3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the necromancers out of the land. 4 The Philistines assembled and came and encamped at Shunem. And Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. 6 And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets. 7 Then Saul said to his servants, “Seek out for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “Behold, there is a medium at En-dor.”
8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other garments and went, he and two men with him. And they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Divine for me by a spirit and bring up for me whomever I shall name to you.” 9 The woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the necromancers from the land. Why then are you laying a trap for my life to bring about my death?” 10 But Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” 11 Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 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.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage.
15 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. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16 And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 18 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 this day. 19 Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.”
20 Then Saul fell at once 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. 21 And the woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified, she said to him, “Behold, your servant has obeyed you. I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to what you have said to me. 22 Now therefore, you also obey your servant. Let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” 23 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 arose from the earth and sat on the bed. 24 Now the woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly killed it, and she took flour and kneaded it and baked unleavened bread of it, 25 and she put it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.
‘Witch of Endor’ links
There are many movies about power – the struggle for power, and the way it corrupts. Who succeeds the leader? The eldest, or the most competent? List some of these movies. Which is your favourite? Why?