Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Necromancy in 1 Samuel 28: Of God or the Evil One?
I preached Sunday on Saul: A Picture of Failure (1 Samuel 28). The most notorous aspect of this chapter is Saul's interview with the medium of En-Dor. Here's an excerpt from my notes:
Now, here is the strange thing about this passage, and there is nothing else like it in all of Scripture. What is described is essentially a séance. But notice there is no detailed description of how she did her conjuring. The writer of Scripture wants to excite no prurient interest in pagan activities. Nevertheless, when the woman calls for Samuel, v. 12 reports that she does, in fact, see him. In fact, it say she screamed when she saw him. Some have suggested that she was a charlatan or faker and had hoped merely to take money from these rubes, but she cried out with surprise and fear when she actually saw someone standing there. Under this scenario, no one is more surprised than this woman! Others suggest the cry is because it was revealed to her (either by her familiar spirit or by the Samuel figure) that the man who has hired her to practice this necromancy is, in fact, King Saul: “Why hast thou deceived me? For thou art Saul” (v. 12).
Now, let me introduce perhaps the biggest debate about this passage. This is the question of what exactly is happening here. Is this really Samuel brought back from the dead? Can the spirits or ghosts of men return to earth? Was this an extraordinary event permitted by the Lord? This seems to be the understanding of many modern interpreters (cf. Dale Ralph Davis: "How then does one explain this piece of necromancy? I suppose by the power and permission of God.... Yahweh's word was spoken even if it came via an illegitimate method." [1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, p. 291]). When you look at the old interpreters among the Protestant and Reformed fathers, however, it is a different story. I looked at Matthew Henry, Matthew Poole, and John Gill and all three agreed that this was a deceptive work of Satan. This was not really Samuel but a false experience manufactured by the deceiver who, as Paul says, can transform himself into “an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14).
Matthew Poole's very first argument that this “was not Samuel, but the devil representing Samuel” is the fact that it had just been stated that the Lord would not respond to Saul’s enquiries (v. 6). Why now would the Lord allow himself to be manipulated by such pagan means?
We might add, referring to the account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16, that Abraham tells the rich man of a “great gulf fixed” so that no one can pass from the afterlife to the land of the living (Luke 16:26).
Some, like the Church Father Gregory of Nazianzus, simply take an agnostic position saying we cannot and will never know for sure whether this was actually Samuel or not (see R. Youngblood in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 3, pp. 779-780).
When Saul asks what the woman sees, she says, “I saw gods ascending out of the earth” (v. 13; NKJV: “a spirit”; but the original Hebrew word here is elohim which in addition to God or gods can mean “exalted personages” or an “exalted person”).
When Saul asks about his form, she says he is an “old man” and “he is covered with a mantle” (v. 14). This mantle would have been the prophetic dress that Samuel would have worn (cf. 15:27). “And Saul perceived that is was Samuel….” (v. 14).
When this Samuel figure asks, “Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?” Saul bears his soul (v. 15). The upshot is that he is desperate to know the will and direction of the Lord.
The strongest argument in favor of this truly being Samuel permitted by the Lord to appear to Saul is the fact that this is what the text directly states (e. g., "the woman saw Samuel" [v. 12], "And Samuel said to Saul" [v. 15]). Another is the fact that this figure's prophecy appears to be accurate (see vv. 16-17). But Poole points out there are notes of ambiguity as well. Notice particularly in v. 19 as Samuel says, “and to morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me.” Did that mean in the bosom of Abraham? In the land of death? It has the feel of one of the ambiguous Delphic oracles. Poole says “the devil’s design might be to flatter Saul into an opinion of his own future happiness, and to take him off from all serious cares and thoughts about it.”
Whether the true Samuel or a Satanic apparition, God had permitted this to happen. Luther said that even the devil is God’s devil.