The Witch Of Endor & The History Of Necromancy In The Old Testament
In the Bible, there is a brief narrative that has often been referred to in shorthand as ‘the witch of Endor’ story. This story is a short narrative that is found in the book of 1 Samuel in chapter 28. The story has been referred to by many scholars and theologians as a key text in justifying the idea of a disembodied intermediate state in which people exist in some form between death and resurrection. The account found in 1 Samuel is unique in that it is the only recorded attempt of necromancy in the Bible. Necromancy is the practice of conjuring up a dead person’s spirit or soul that is believed to exist in a disembodied underworld. Taken out of the context of its narrative place within the 1 Samuel, and the Old Testament scriptures as a whole, it is easy to see why many have been led to think this text supports dualist anthropology. The text has then been referred to by many in support for the argument of the immortal soul. However, if we understand the larger narrative that encompasses this story, and the history of necromancy as a whole in the Old Testament scriptures, we may come to a completely different understanding of the text.
In order to understand the story as a microcosm of necromancy, we will first zoom out and look at the history of necromancy within the scriptures on a more macro level. It is only then that we can begin to see how this smaller narrative, fits within the whole. Let’s start with a brief outline or roadmap to get our bearings on where we are headed.
Step 1. Syncretism
The Biblical account describes how the nation of Israel mixes their religious practices with other nations which ends up diverting their object of worship. The fundamental mistake is that Israel allows the object of their worship to be hijacked by pagan influence.
Step 2. Warning
The Bible records God’s warnings to his people in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In the book of Leviticus, God warns Israel concerning pagan gods, child sacrifice, and necromancy. In the book of Deuteronomy God again warns Israel again about pagan gods, child sacrifice, and necromancy.
Step 4. Reflection
The Bible also records songs by Moses and David who reflect on Israel’s idolatry and pagan worship. These songs reveal that God’s people were “playing the harlot” or cheating on their relationship with God, elevating created things above their creator. This is something Paul reflects on in his letter to the Roman church. (See Romans chapter 1)
Step 5. Practice
The one recorded attempt at necromancy is found in 1 Samuel 28. In the text, the first Israelite king, Saul, doesn’t heed Gods warnings and is removed from office as a result of his idolatry.
A brief vocabulary list may be helpful for the reader to reference for this study. Most the references will be transliterated or will include both the English translation and the Hebrew word for the reader.
A medium is someone who is said to contact the spirit world or be able to have conversations with the dead or demonic.
This is a similar word as the one above sometimes translated as ‘familiar spirit’ or ‘wizard’.
This is another similar word as the previous two used to describe someone practicing divination or witchcraft.
This word is associated with soothsaying or enchanting or sorcery.
Muth- the dead/death
This word is used to refer to a person or group of people that have died or death itself.
This word is found only twice in the Bible once in Deuteronomy and once in Psalms.
Teraphim- household god/idol
This word refers to common Ancient Near Eastern idols or household objects that were worshipped.
Elohim- God or spiritual being
This word is used to refer to God and or spiritual beings such as angels, demons or the divine counsel of spiritual beings in heaven with God.
SYNCRETISM IN THE DESERT
To begin, it is important to understand that the Israelites were influenced for better or for worse by surrounding cultures and religions. Probably the most influential of these were the Egyptians. As a result of spending years in captivity, the Israelites began to get comfortable with their captors. This is to be expected from any community of slaves that settles in for a lifetime of slavery and does not see the potential of escape from enslavement. The process of getting comfortable inevitably led to syncretism. Syncretism is what happens when a culture begins to combine their distinct beliefs with another foreign culture. This leads to the blending of practices and rituals as well as various schools of thought. Syncretism is the merging or assimilation of traditions that were originally distinct to a specific religion or culture. This often occurs within the areas of theology and religion. The process of merging faith and practice, creates an underlying unity which in turn allows for an inclusive approach to other faiths. For the Israelites, this assimilation and syncretism led to adulterous acts and practices of necromancy and child sacrifice. In the Old Testament the writers and prophets were constantly warning against the worship of false gods and trappings of syncretism that enticed Israel into idolatry.
As the Exodus story unfolds, the Israelites are rescued by God and led out into the wilderness. In their travels, the Israelites come to the base of Mount Sinai. It is here where Moses ascends the mountain and God gives his corporate rules for his community known as the Ten Commandments. At the same time, at the base of the mountain, the Israelite people turn to idolatry, worshipping false gods as they have learned to do from their Egyptian captors. God has done amazing things to rescue his people up to this point in the story and he has even promised his people their own land, but their disobedience greatly prolongs the giving of this gift. The following book, Leviticus greatly expands on the rules and regulations for the people and warns against worshipping other gods they may have encountered in Egypt or may encounter in the future.
Summary: The attempt to merge two or more religious cultures often ends in syncretism and compromise. In Israel’s case, they were repeatedly warned not to be influenced by the surrounding religious practices of other nations. As a result of Israel’s time spent in bondage to Egypt, they continually fell back into old habits of idol worship and pagan practices.
God’s Warning in Leviticus
As God leads his people to the promised land he warns them, “You will not do what is done in Egypt where you came from or Canaan where I am taking you.” (Leviticus 18:1) God is specifically referring to how Israel has chosen at times to worship false Gods instead of the God himself who brought them out of the land of Egypt. There are several reoccurring elements that are found in Israel’s idolatry. First, the Israelites repeatedly worship a pagan god or create an idol to worship. The story that most often comes to mind is the worship of the golden calf at the base of Mount Sinai. Second, the Israelites engaged in child sacrifice like many of their surrounding religious cultures. We see this practice in the Bible as early as Abraham, when God test him in the attempted sacrifice of his son. Third, we see that necromancy was practised and forbidden because it was engaging in demonic activity. Finally, we also see there were practices that revolved around offering sacrifices to the dead themselves. Among the pagan ritual practices that Israel had been engaging in, there are two specific ones that are relevant for our discussion concerning the story in 1 Samuel.
The god Molech and the practice of Child Sacrifice
The first practice is found in the book of Leviticus, the Israelites are told, “you shall not give any of your offspring to offer them to Molech, nor shall you profane the name of your God; I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:21). The Israelites had adopted the practice of worshipping the pagan god Molech who required child sacrifice to be appeased or manipulated. In an act of worship, the Israelites were offering their firstborn children as sacrifices to the pagan god Molech. In response, God declared that “any man from the sons of Israel or from the aliens sojourning in Israel who gives any of his offspring to Molech, shall surely be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones. (Leviticus 20:2) A few verses later, the author describes this act as “playing the harlot.” Israel has prostituted themselves to a false God and they are sacrificing their children to him. The practice of sacrifice to appease a god was a common Ancient Near Eastern religious practice. The overarching narrative of the Bible shows that God is continually trying to move his people away from this practice. In fact, many of the sacrificial practices instituted in the Old Testament Law seem to be contested by the prophets later on in Israel’s history. Jesus seems to take the side of the prophets in regards to this issue. Jesus echoes the words of Hosea declaring that God “desires mercy, not sacrifice.” (see Hosea 6:6 and Mathew 9:13)
Mediums (Hebrew- ob) and Spiritists (Hebrew- yiddeoni)
The second practice that seems to be related to the first, is the act of engaging in necromancy. Necromancy is the practice of attempting to communicating with the dead, especially in order to predict the future or gain information for one’s benefit. The Israelites are told, “do not turn to mediums (ob) or spiritists (yiddeoni); do not seek them out to be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God.” (Lev 19:31). God defines this act as something that defiles his people. Later they are told, “as for the person who turns to mediums (ob) and to spiritists (yiddeoni), to play the harlot after them, I will also set my face against that person and will cut him off from among his people.” (Leviticus 20:6). Here we have both acts, child sacrifice and necromancy, described as Israel “playing the harlot”. This phrase is descriptive of the action and connects the two as something prohibited by God. This act is so detestable to God that the Israelites are warned that “a man or a woman who is a medium (ob) or a spiritist (yiddeoni) shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones, their bloodguiltiness is upon them.” (Leviticus 20:27)
God’s Warning in Deuteronomy:
If we fast-forward through the story of Israel’s history, we come to a similar warning found in the book of Deuteronomy. We pick up the narrative where the Israelites are drawing closer to entering the promised land. As a result, the people are warned again, “when you enter the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to imitate the detestable things of those nations.” (Deuteronomy 18:9). Here we will see these “detestable things” are the acts of child sacrifice and engaging in necromancy. God repetitively warns his people and allows them to choose disobedience or obedience.
The god Molech and the practice of Child Sacrifice
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses warns the people that “there shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination (qesem), one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer.” (Deut 18:10). The language of “passing through the fire” refers to the acts of sacrificing young children to appease the false deity Molech. This phrase later becomes a shorthand way for authors to refer to what happened without going into detail. The Hebrew word qesem which is used in this text will also be used later in 1 Samuel to describe the acts of Saul.
Mediums (ob) and Spiritist (yiddeoni)
In the very next verses, Moses tells the people to stay away from anyone “who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. (muth) For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord, and because of these detestable things the Lord your God will drive them out before you.” (Deuteronomy 18:11-12) In our previous texts which we examined in the book of Leviticus, both actions were referred to as “playing the harlot”. In this text, we see that both actions, child sacrifice and necromancy, are referred to together in the same breath by Moses. Later as Moses approaches his own death, he writes a song that records what happened during Israel’s travels through the desert on the way to the promised land.
Summary: Sacrifice was something that God was continually attempting to move his people away from. Surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures often practiced both human and animal sacrifice. We see as early as the story of Abraham and Isaac that God was moving Israel away from such a practice. Child sacrifice was also associated with other practices such as witchcraft and necromancy which God described as idolatry and was forbidden for the nation of Israel.
Moses’ Song Reflects on these events
In Moses’ song, he writes that Israel was making sacrifices to demons. Moses says, “but Israel grew fat and kicked, you are grown fat, thick, and sleek, then he forsook God who made him and scorned the Rock of his salvation. They made Him jealous with strange gods; with abominations they provoked Him to anger. They sacrificed to demons (shedim) who were not God, to gods whom they have not known, new gods who came lately, whom your fathers did not dread. You neglected the Rock who begot you, and forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Deuteronomy 32:15-18). The Hebrew word shedim is translated as demon. This word is only found in two places in the Old Testament, here and in the text, we will examine next. Moses explains that the Israelites were actually engaging in demonic worship by sacrificing to Molech and the dead. Here we see that necromancy is forbidden not because God does not want people interacting with the dead spirits of their loved ones, but because they are actually being misled by the demonic
Psalm 106 reflects on the events
The Psalmist later reflects on these activities, also through song. In the song, he describes how Israel was sacrificing to demons and to the dead. The Psalmist says “They joined themselves also to Baal (the god) of Peor, and ate sacrifices offered to the dead (muth).” The songwriter continues saying “they even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons (shedim), and shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; and the land was polluted with the blood.” (Psalm 106:37-38) Here again, these two activities are tied together and we are also given more of an explanation. By “playing the harlot”, Israel has prostituted themselves to foreign gods offering sacrifices to the dead and the god Molech. The practice of necromancy then is directly connected to engaging in the demonic. God’s warning not to engage in necromancy is not because the act is possible, but rather because in doing so the people are engaging with demons and allowing themselves to be influenced by them. With this knowledge of the cultural and historical background in which necromancy engages the demonic, we can now begin to examine the text at hand and understand fully what is being described in the story.
Summary: Pagan practices such as child sacrifice and necromancy are directly tied to demonic activity by both Moses and the Psalmist. Practices related to the dead were very common in other cultures. Most Ancient Near Eastern cultures believed in some sort of disembodied spirit afterlife. Necromancy or attempting to have an encounter with the dead then was not prohibited because it was possible, but because it was actively engaging with the demonic according to Moses and the Psalmist.
A QUICK REVIEW:
First, let’s do a quick review of the book of 1 Samuel. The book of 1 Samuel can be summarized in four movements. The first movement describes how Samuel is raised up by God to be a prophet and a judge of the nation of Israel. Second, the Israelite people ask God for an earthly king and in doing so they reject God as their heavenly king. God concedes to their request but warns the people that an earthly king will rule over them by abusing his power just like the other nation’s leaders. Despite this warning, the people still demand a king regardless of Gods warning and God acquiesces, choosing Saul to be the first king of the Israelite tribes. The third movement of the book describes how Saul fails as a king and as a result, God moves in to raise up David in his place. Finally, the last section of the book describes how Saul hunts down David in jealousy attempting to kill him. It is within this last section of the book that we find the story of Saul and his encounter with the witch of Endor. All four of these major elements of the book as a whole are also found within this single chapter. A leader has been raised up. God has been rejected as king. We see the leader’s failure, and the leader is about to be replaced. In essence, the narrative serves as a microcosm of the entire book.
At this point, I would encourage the reader to pause and go ahead and read 1 Samuel chapter 28 to review the text. The opening verses of the story begin by reminding the reader that Samuel is dead. (muth) The Old Testament describes death as the reversal of the creation account. This is evident in the juxtaposition of Gen 2:7 with Eccl 12:7. When man is created from the dust of the earth he is breathed into. This breath is a gift from God and is separate from Adam himself. When a man dies, this gift of breath that has sustained his life returns to God. Man is created a living nephesh or creature and ceases to exist when he returns to the dust from which he came becoming a dead nephesh.
Samuel is dead and buried
- v3 “Now Samuel was dead (muth), and all Israel had lamented him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. “
It is here that we might pause and ask the question, what do we know about the dead and those that go to Sheol, the Hebrew word for the grave? Scripture affirms that all people go to Sheol when they die. The Psalmist says, “What man can live and not see death? Can he deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?” (Psalm 89:48). The dead are said to decay and return to the dust (Job 17:16). In Sheol there is said to be no activity, planning or wisdom (Eccl 9:10). Sheol is a place of silence (Psalm 31:17), and a place without the praise of God. (Psalm 6:5, Isaiah 38:18). Next, the writer reminds the reader of the prohibition against the mediums and spiritists.
Saul has removed the mediums and spiritists
- The author states in verse 3 “and Saul had removed from the land those who were mediums (ob) and spiritists (yiddeoni).
- The medium echoes in same phrase verse 9 “behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who are mediums and spiritists from the land.”
Again, the reader is asked to pause and ask, why were the mediums and spiritists cut off from the land? This is where all of the previous historical and cultural information becomes helpful. For a modern reader who has not connected all of the pieces, it is easy to glance over this repeated reminder. The mediums and spiritists have been cut off because they have been encouraging the syncretistic practices of sacrificing to the dead, child sacrifice, and necromancy all of which engages with the demonic. The third important reminder is that God has stopped talking to Saul.
God is not speaking to Saul through any method that he inquires
- The author says in verse 6 “When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim (priest’s dice) or by prophets.”
- Saul states in verse 15 “God has departed from me and no longer answers me, either through prophets or by dreams; therefore I have called you (Samuel), that you may make known to me what I should do.”
- The author presents Samuel supposedly speaking through the medium in verse 16 saying “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has departed from you and has become your adversary?”
When we pause again to as the question why is God not speaking to Saul, we find another important piece of the puzzle. If we rewind the tape back to 1 Samuel 13:13-15 we read that Saul offered sacrifices without Samuel present. The text seems to be unclear whether Saul offered sacrifices to God or to other foreign gods? If Saul truly offered sacrifices to God, then Samuel is said to get angry because he was left out. This seems to be an unlikely conclusion. If Saul offered sacrifices to pagan gods however then Samuels anger would seem to be justified. As a result of Saul’s sacrifices, God removes Saul as king and begins the process of replacing him with David. It would be odd if God removed Saul from his leadership position for sacrificing to him in worship. It seems much more likely that the sacrifices that Saul was making were intended for pagan gods. As the narrative unfolds the reader seems to gain more clarity into what is happening.
A text found two chapters later also helps shed light on the situation. In 1 Sam 15:22-23 Saul allows some of the people to save several of their enemy’s animals to sacrifice to God. Samuel rebukes Saul once again saying,
“Has the Lord as much delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. On account of your sin of stubbornness, your household gods (teraphim), wickedness, rebellion and divination (qesem) God has rejected you from being king, because you have rejected him.”
The Hebrew word qesem is the same word used in Deuteronomy 18:10 that we reviewed previously concerning the worship of Molech and the sacrifice of children. Saul is found guilty of engaging with mediums (ob) and spiritists (yiddeoni). It should be no surprise to the reader then that Saul returns to the mediums (ob) and spiritists (yiddeoni) for wisdom when God is not answering him. Saul returns to the demonic activity that is familiar to him which got him in trouble with God in the first place. Here the author shows the reader that “Like a dog that returns to its vomit Is a fool who repeats his folly.” (Proverbs 26:11) So the author gives the reader enough information to clearly decipher that the encounter that is described in 1 Samuel 28 is not an encounter where Saul actually talks to the dead spirit of Samuel but a demon. While Saul is said to “speak to Samuel” the reader should be reminded that Saul is still only speaking to the medium.
Saul never sees Samuel, he supposedly speaks through the medium
- In verse 13-14 Saul asks the witch “What do you see?” She answers: “I see a divine being (elohim) coming up out of the earth.”
- Saul then asks: “What is his form?” The witch answers: “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe.”
The reader is told that what Saul experiences is something he does not see. In addition, the author plays with the idea that while Saul first met with the medium he concealed his identity to fool her into performing the necromancy for her, now the demon acting through the medium has concealed his identity and is fooling Saul by pretending to be Samuel. This notion is revealed by the key word that the medium uses to describe what she sees. The witch says that she sees an elohim. Dr. Michael Heiser in his book “The unseen realm: recovering the supernatural worldview of the Bible” says that the word elohim is used in the Old Testament do describe:
- Yahweh the God of Israel (thousands of times e.g., Gen 2:4-5)
- The members of Yahweh’s council (Psalms 82:1, 6)
- Gods of other nations (Judges 11:24, 1 Kings 11:33)
- Demons (Hebrew shedim Deuteronomy 32:17, Psalm 106:37-38)
- Angels or the Angel Yahweh (Gen 35:7)
(note: Dr Heiser also includes the text in the discussion concerning Samuel. If this is the case, it would be the only place where the Hebrew word elohim is used in all of scripture to refer to a person or deceased person that I am aware of. Instead of making this illogical leap, I suggest that it makes much more sense in light of the larger testimony of scripture to see that the author intends to point out that Saul is engaging in demonic activity.)
The author of 1 Samuel uses the Hebrew word elohim to specifically remind the reader exactly what is going on. Just like his forefathers, Saul is practising divination (qesem), the act of necromancy or calling upon the dead. As we have already seen in the previously discussed texts, this act is described as engaging with shedim, demons. In addition, one other word that has been used to argue for the existence of a disembodied spirit afterlife is the Hebrew word rephaim that is found in eight texts within the Old Testament. If this word were actually used to refer to a dead spirit being, one would expect that this would be the most relevant place for the author to use the word. However, this word seems to be conspicuously absent from the story. What we find later in the Biblical narrative is that Saul actually becomes a test case for how kings will be ranked in quality. The worst king to ever reign over Israel is said to embrace the same demonic activity as Saul. On the other side of the spectrum, the best king is said to be the one who abolished all necromancy, child sacrifice and demonic activity. In the next post, we will look briefly at these two kings.
- The narrator is adamant that the reader understands that Samuel has died, he was buried and his body is in Ramah which is not near Endor.
- The narrator reminds the reader that the practice of necromancy has been strictly forbidden as a sin. (1 Sam 15:23, see also Lev 19:31, 20:6, 20:27, Deuteronomy 18:11)
- The narrator explicitly states that God is not speaking to Saul in any of the normally expected ways.
- The narrator has already previously stated that only God has power over life and death. (1 Sam 2:6)
- The entire encounter can be summarized as a progressive downward spiral in which Saul’s sin leads to the loss of power, identity and finally his life.
- Through the encounter Saul relinquishes power by submitting to the medium and the medium gains power and influence over Saul.
- Through the encounter the author shows that Saul has hidden his identity from the witch and it is later revealed. Then the narrator reveals the identity of the demon (elohim) while Saul thinks that he is having a genuine encounter with Samuel. In this way Saul’s attempt in deception leads to his own deception. This deception is seen by the reader in that Saul asks the witch what she has seen because he never sees Samuel for himself.
- While the mediums life is said to be at risk of death and she is in fear, it is ultimately Saul who must fear his own impending death.
- The Hebrew word elohim is never used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to a human or the dead. It is only ever used for God himself or a spiritual being such as an angel or demon.
- The Hebrew word that has sometimes been used to propose a disembodied afterlife, rephaim, is absent from the text altogether. If there was ever a place that the word rephaim would be used if the Hebrews meant that word to be a disembodied spirit/soul, this would be the text.