My Favorite Witch Story In The Bible

Alright. You have my attention.

Truth be told there aren't a lot of options when it comes to witch stories in the Bible, but this is a good one. And just in time for Halloween! I mean Fall Festival. Or Trunk or Treat. Or whatever made up name your church gives whatever event you're hosting this coming week, in order to avoid such undesirable pagan affiliations. Good for you. I, however, will exploit the opportunity to write about some stories from the Bible that fit the theme. Here's hoping it leads you to actually reading the stories themselves.

This story comes from 1 Samuel 28, and focuses on Saul, Israel's first king. We actually mentioned him with my last post -- prophetic frenzy, what a hoot, etc. 1 Samuel 15-31 is a block of chapters all about the continuing downfall of Saul and the rapid rise of the future king, David. So in 1 Samuel 28, we're nearing the end of Saul's story.

The story begins with some background information in 1 Samuel 28:3. First we learn that Samuel, prophet/advisor to Saul, was dead. We already knew this, because it happened at the start of 1 Samuel 25. Why tell us again? Let's just say in a creative writing class they call this "foreshadowing." Keep reading, we'll get a little more background information. Depending on which translation you're reading, we learn that Saul had removed all the mediums/spiritists/wizards/necromancers from Israel. Necromancer is not a word we run across every day in the Bible, or anywhere else for that matter. A necromancer is someone who speaks with the dead.

Remember this show? Me neither. Medium is just a kinder, gentler word for necromancer.

You're probably beginning to see why these two pieces of background information will be important to the story.

At this time an an enemy army has gathered and is preparing to do battle against Israel. Saul has gathered the Israelite army as well,  but when he sees the army of the enemy, he's terrified. Not exactly what you hope for in a king. This happens repeatedly in 1 Samuel 15-31. David shows the qualities of a king. Saul does not. Because he's scared, Saul asks YHWH about the coming battle. The Hebrew verb for "ask" that's used here is actually the same word that Saul's name is based upon. His name means something like "the one asked of/for," which is convenient, since the people of Israel asked for a king and God gave them Saul. So, the author thinks he's punny in verse 6, telling us that "Saul sauled YHWH." Unfortunately, Saul didn't hear back from YHWH. Not through dreams, not through prophets, not even through the mysterious Urim that the high priests used to wear. No one knows exactly what they were, but it was kind of like casting lots, drawing straws, rolling dice, or having a magic 8 ball to God.

Someone's not going to like that, but I think it's fair.

So Saul decides to consult a medium instead. Bad idea, Saul.

"Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or cast spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD."
Deuteronomy 18:10-12

"A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death.
You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads."
Leviticus 20:27

Things are going downhill fast for Saul.

Saul's servants find him a medium in Endor. Saul disguises himself and goes to meet the woman, called in the Hebrew a "mistress of spirits" (mistress in the feminine sense of "master") for a late night seance. When the woman is hesitant because of the very laws that Saul had enforced, Saul swears in the name of YHWH that she will not be punished. Come on, Saul. You know better than that. This is perhaps one of the most powerful examples in the Hebrew scriptures of someone breaking the third commandment, "Do not misuse the name of YHWH." He then asks the mistress of spirits to bring forth the prophet Samuel. The lawmaker becomes the lawbreaker.

She does as she's asked, and she screams. We can't know for sure, but her response suggests to me that this was a new experience for her, that up to this point she'd never actually been successful, and she was terrified. Saul asks what she sees, and the NIV tells us she sees a "ghostly figure."

Boooooo NIV, boooooooo! The Hebrew text says that she saw an elohim. Elohim is a word that can refer to God (big G) or god (little g). She literally says, "I see a god coming up from the earth." It turns out it is Samuel, but again, I think the woman's description of what she sees shows she's not accustomed to this happening. Not to mention, Samuel immediately asks, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" So he's not happy. I've seen this movie before. It never ends well.

I guess this is as much a ghost story as it is a witch story.

Eventually, when Saul realizes Samuel is in the room (he can't see him, only the mistress of spirits can), Saul asks Samuel about the impending battle. Samuel's reply will bring no comfort to Saul. Samuel asks, "Why go to a messenger of God now, when God has left you?" He repeats words that he told Saul earlier when he was still alive and Saul had not followed the will of God (1 Samuel 15:28). You'll have to read the whole story in 1 Samuel 15 yourself, but here Samuel reminds him he's about to lose his kingdom as had been promised before. The Israelite army will lose the battle, and worst of all, Samuel tells Saul, "Tomorrow, you and your sons will be with me." Not what you want to hear from a ghost. I suspect at this point Saul realizes the only thing worse than not knowing the future... is knowing the future.

Let me say just a couple more things. Saul's loss of the throne stems in part from his actions in 1 Samuel 15, when he rebelled against God's will during a battle. At that moment, Samuel stressed for Saul the importance of obedience to God with these words in 1 Samuel 15:23:

"For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like iniquity and idolatry."

In the eyes of God, Saul's rebellion early in his reign was just as bad as witchcraft. Ironically, Saul would eventually get to the point of witchcraft as well, and this would be how Saul was remembered in Israelite history.

"So Saul died for his unfaithfulness. He was unfaithful to YHWH,
to the command of YHWH which he did not keep,
and also he asked a medium, seeking guidance."
1 Chronicles 10:13

Comments

  1. Woah. Ok I will go read the whole story. But what does it mean for us if we like to watch shows where paranormal investigators "talk to the dead " I have always been a little sensitive to spirits but only ever felt the bad ones... my whole life. I don't like it but don't try talking to them either.

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