The Bible’s Most Famous Ghost Story
In honor of the Halloween holiday, I thought we would examine one of the great tales of the supernatural found in the Bible. I originally wrote this piece as I was preparing for my Confirmation class. The kids really enjoyed it. One of the most remarkable and famous ghost stories of all time is the episode found in 1 Samuel 28 about Saul’s encounter with the Witch of Endor. Over a thousand years ago, Jewish thinkers debated this famous biblical story. Not everyone agreed as to what really took place.
Here is a partial citation from the scriptural narrative as it is recorded in 1 Samuel 28:10-21:
10 But Saul swore to her by the LORD, “As the LORD lives, you shall incur no blame for this.”11 Then the woman asked him, “Whom do you want me to conjure up?” and he answered, Samuel.” 12 † When the woman saw Samuel, she shrieked at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”13 But the king said to her, “Have no fear. What do you see?” The woman answered Saul, “I see a ghostly being rising from the earth.”
14 “What does he look like?” asked Saul. And she replied, “It is an old man who is rising, clothed in a mantle.” Saul knew that it was Samuel, and so he bowed face to the ground in homage. 15 Samuel then said to Saul, “Why do you disturb me by conjuring me up?” Saul replied: “I am in great straits, for the Philistines are waging war against me and God has abandoned me. Since he no longer answers me through prophets or in dreams, I have called you to tell me what I should do.”
16 To this Samuel said: “But why do you ask me, if the LORD has abandoned you and is with your neighbor? 17 The LORD has done to you what he foretold through me: he has torn the kingdom from your grasp and has given it to your neighbor David. 18 “Because you disobeyed the LORD’S directive and would not carry out his fierce anger against Amalek, the LORD has done this to you today. 19 Moreover, the LORD will deliver Israel, and you as well, into the clutches of the Philistines. By tomorrow you and your sons will be with me, and the LORD will have delivered the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.” 20 Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, for he was badly shaken by Samuel’s message. Moreover, he had no bodily strength left, since he had eaten nothing all that day and night.
21 Then the woman came to Saul, and seeing that he was quite terror-stricken, said to him: “Remember, your maidservant obeyed you: I took my life in my hands and fulfilled the request you made of me . . .
Many of the early interpreters offered creative insights that are no less stimulating even a thousand years later! One of the great rationalist theologians of the Gaonim, Samuel ben Hophni, Gaon of Sura (d.1013), father-in-law of Hai Gaon, was once asked whether the story about the biblical story should be taken literally or not. Simply put: Did the witch really raise the spirit of Samuel from the dead? How could she prophesy that Saul and his son would soon die in battle?!
The mere idea that a God would utilize a witch in raising the dead seems to Samuel ben Hophni preposterous. Rather, it is more logical to suppose that the witch probably knew about Saul’s impending death due to a prophetic remark Samuel made before he died. Perhaps it was nothing more than an astute observation on the part of the witch.
Here is where Samuel ben Hophni Gaon parts with rabbinical tradition. He notes that it is well known that the early rabbinic authorities interpreted this narrative quite literally. However, one is not bound to accept the views of the Sages when it contradicts reason and common sense.
Obviously, Samuel ben Hophni’s original thoughts did not settle well with his son-in-law Hai Gaon or with Egypt’s most celebrated early philosopher, Saadia Gaon. According to them, the text should not be taken out of context: the witch indeed by miraculous means managed to summon the spirit of Samuel. There are other views that suggest that ordinarily the spirit spoke through the medium, much like today’s New Age gurus “channel” a spirit. However, Saul evidently saw Samuel’s spirit without the aid of the witch. This would explain why she was so terrified, since this was the first time her powers were not necessary.
Ordinarily, human beings cannot communicate at will with the souls of the dead. However, there may be occasions when God allows a departed soul to appear to the living and even to disclose things unknown to them. Even if we wish to cede credit the reality of the apparition to Saul, the biblical narrator makes it clear that Samuel’s appearance had nothing to do with the witch, but was solely due to God’s will. As is often the case in the Tanakh, God utilizes flawed people to achieve His purpose.
In short, it remains unclear whether the ghost of Samuel was real or conjured; it is also possible the witch may have hypnotized Saul into believing that he had seen Samuel. The Witch of Endor has become the prototype for the spirit medium as a necromancer, a magician who raises the spirits of the dead.