Was the medium at Endor really able to bring up Samuel?

Q. How could the sorceress of Endor summon the spirit of Samuel from the dead? Was it really Samuel? How should we interpret
this episode in the Bible? Thanks.

Washington Allston, “Saul and the Witch of Endor”

For many episodes in the Old Testament such as this one, it’s truly a case of “you can’t get there from here.”  The story of Samuel and the medium who lived in Endor is related within the world view of an ancient culture in which it was believed that people who died became “shades” who rested in Sheol and who might be “disturbed” and brought up to earth for a time.  We today find it hard to understand how this could happen, particularly in light of the teaching of the New Testament that death is final so far as our earthly lives are concerned, so that the spirits of the dead cannot return to earth.

But this only illustrates how the Bible actually speaks from within a variety of cultural settings.  God “speaks our language” in the Scriptures to that extent.  I personally don’t believe that it’s possible to harmonize all of the different world views that we find represented in the Bible.  But I don’t think we need to try to do that, either.  We just need to recognize what the Bible really is and accept it as such:  a sprawling compendium of accounts from many different settings in human history that together tell the story of God’s dealings with humanity over the course of that history.

When we accept that the Bible speaks from a variety of cultural perspectives, then the message of this story about Saul and the medium becomes clear, and the account is no longer confusing or perplexing.  If we “suspend disbelief” and work with the story, allowing that the medium could bring Samuel up after his death to speak with Saul, then we realize that this episode, one of the last in Saul’s life, is filling out the portrait of his character that has been sketched all along.

In an earlier post I’ve addressed the question of why Saul was rejected as king for what seem like minor infractions, while David was called a “man after God’s own heart” even though he made major mistakes and committed serious sins.  The essential difference between these men is that David never turned away from the LORD to other gods, and as king he never usurped divine prerogatives.  Saul, on the other hand, never really accepted these limitations, and now we see him actually turning to occult powers—”mediums and spiritists”— even though he has previously expelled them from the land in obedience to the law of Moses.

Right to the end, Saul was a man who didn’t hesitate to take matters into his own hands, no matter what compromises this involved with God’s expressed wishes and intentions.  This last episode just before Saul’s untimely death validates God’s judgment against him as a king who wouldn’t respect the limitations on his power and actions necessary for him to be God’s agent ruling the people of Israel.

In other words, this account completes the biblical portrait of Saul as a truly tragic figure.  It does so within a world view we can’t quite embrace today.  But we shouldn’t let that stand in the way of our hearing its crucial message:  we can’t take it upon ourselves to decide which of God’s constraints on our lives we will honor.  We need to honor them all.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

4 thoughts on “Was the medium at Endor really able to bring up Samuel?”

  1. Thanks for replying to my question. This passage does me light into a better understanding to God’s words. Many thanks.

    Sent from my iPad

  2. Was the person that the medium summon..was it really samuel or was it a spirit pretending to be samuel…i don’t believe the Lord would allow samuel to be summoned….that is my thought, I could be wrong.

    1. I think it has been well said that when we read the Bible, we are dealing with three worlds at once: the “world behind the text” (the ancient historical and cultural context), the “world of the text” (the literary context the author creates, within which the story takes place), and the “world in front of the text” (our own context today). In this post I suggest that if we “suspend disbelief” that the medium actually could call up Samuel (something that I say in the post happens “within a world view we can’t quite embrace today”), then we can accept that this can happen within the “world of the text,” even if we can’t accept that it could happen in the “world in front of the text,” that is, the world as we know it ourselves. When we do that, I suggest, we realize that the passage isn’t really about whether and how a medium might call up a departed spirit (even though this becomes the main issue for us); rather, it’s actually about the portrait of Saul’s character and the judgment he’s about to experience for not respecting the limitations on his power and actions that were necessary for him to be God’s agent ruling the people of Israel. We can apply that lesson directly to ourselves, and we shouldn’t miss the application because we are thinking about the metaphysical question instead.

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