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.