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.

Why did God reject Saul as king for making one small mistake?

Q. I always felt sorry for Saul.  God chose him to lead His people, and he did a good job at it.  Saul only made one mistake and God sent David to replace him.  I think David did much worse, yet God said, “He’s a man after my own heart.”

Rembrandt, King Saul (detail)

These are excellent questions.  In this post I’ll look at why God rejected Saul as king.  In my next post I’ll consider how God could call David a “man after my own heart.”

Kingship in Israel was supposed to be different from kingship in the surrounding nations.  Israel’s king was not to be considered divine.  In the law of Moses, God carefully distinguished the priesthood from the kingship and gave future kings careful instructions that put them under the law.

So it was vital that Israelite kings not usurp any priestly or divine prerogatives.  The precedent that Saul set as Israel’s first king would influence all of his successors (like George Washington declining a third term).  So he was held to a strict standard.

At one point during Saul’s reign, he was campaigning against the Philistines and waiting for Samuel to come and offer sacrifices to seek God’s favor.  When Samuel didn’t arrive as soon as he expected, Saul offered these sacrifices himself, assuming the prerogatives of a priest.  When Samuel did arrive, he told Saul, “You have done a foolish thing,” using the Hebrew term for people who act without regard for God.  Samuel warned that Saul’s kingdom would not endure, meaning that his family would not establish a dynasty.  He’d be succeeded on the throne by someone from a different family.

Some time later, however, God gave Saul a new assignment in his capacity as king.  Samuel introduces this assignment by saying, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel.”  So perhaps this was intended as a “second chance.”

God commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites.  (This is one of those episodes of total destruction in the Bible that are very difficult for us to understand; I’ve shared some thoughts about them here.) One thing we can recognize in such episodes is that the Israelites were never to take any plunder because weren’t in the war for themselves; they were considered agents of divine judgment.

But Saul and his army spared “the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good.”  They only destroyed what they thought was undesirable and worthless.  They spared King Agag because in this time captured kings were a prized trophy of war.  By conducting this raid as if it were ordinary warfare that he was directing, Saul once again usurped a divine prerogative and misrepresented the character of divine judgment, which doesn’t privilege the powerful and the beautiful.

It seems that God gave Saul a second chance, but this only showed that he still hadn’t learned to respect the limits of his authority as king.  And so, to prevent Israelite kingship from being established on the model of the divine kings or priest-kings of surrounding nations, God didn’t allow Saul to establish a dynasty.

Nevertheless, even after Samuel announced this judgment a second time, he granted Saul’s request, “Please honor me [as king] before the elders of my people and before Israel.”  Saul reigned for 42 years and throughout that time he was acknowledged as the rightful king.  David, even though promised the kingship himself, respected and protected him as the “LORD’s anointed.”

One of the last things we hear about Saul in the Bible is David’s tribute to him after he was killed in battle.  Acknowledging how Saul had made Israel secure and prosperous by defeating its enemies, David laments,

Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
How the mighty have fallen in battle!

So even though Saul wasn’t able to establish an Israelite royal dynasty on the right principles, the Bible acknowledges the benefits Israel received from his long reign.