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.


AJ said...

A fascinating passage that had my children wondering in bewilderment as we studied through this several years ago in family study.

I understand that I am deviating from the larger body of sound expositors, but I honestly tend to take this passage as the author, as it seems to me, to intend - that this was indeed Samuel. I explained to my children that we have reasons to believe that it is Samuel:

1) The text recognizes the speaker as Samuel (vs 15, 16 and 29.

2) Samuel reiterates the same message that the Lord sent by Samuel earlier (that the kingdom is rent from his hands and given to David).

3) The prophetic nature of the outcome - Isreal is defeated and Saul and his sons join Samuel - in death.

As far as the objections (ahem, I know I'm sticking my neck out arguing against men of great theological clout, but just for grins):

1) I don't see it as the Lord being manipulated any more than He is when He has condemned men but still sends them a preacher. He didn't answer Saul, but allowed Samuel to pronounce his fate through this abominable manner, rather than directly, as the Father would His child (vagabonds have to come in the backdoor!).

2) the "great gulf" is what makes this passage so interesting. This passage clearly involves a "medium", by definition, an individual that bridges the gulf to allow communication betwitx the two - through demonic possession? Don't know and frankly don't want to play with it to find out, but God strongly urges His people to stay away from such fire. This story seems to proceed in such a manner that the woman was the "medium" through which Samuel communicated. Saul didn't see Samuel, the witch did, so it's just as likely that the woman relayed words between the two.

3) I don't necessarily see this event as anything to deceive or fool Saul, but rather Saul was so distressed to the point of falling to the earth without strength and losing his appetite (v. 20) - doesn't sound like a man that was convinced of a flattering opinion regarding his future happiness! Saul took the message as a declaration of his doom from the word of the prophet of the Lord. He was anything but pleased to hear that he and his sons would "be with" Samuel.

I've probably said too much, but this is truly an intriguing text. I've only tried to give my children the best answer that I could, with the caveat that daddy "can't really be certain", except that God had rejected Saul and it was providentially pronounced, once again, at the hands of a witch - the last hope of a condemned man. That ought to be sobering for us!

Thanks again for the post on this passage.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for your thoughtful comments and glad to hear you were teaching this passage to your children. As you note, the strongest argument in favor of this truly being Samuel (and not an apparition) is that this is what the text directly says. It could have read, 'a figure who looked like Samuel.' But, as you also note, it does give one pause when the old, faithful, pre-critical interpreters (e.g., Poole, Henry, Gill) line up in their reading. You might especially be interested in reading Poole who gives a typically thoughtful explanation of his conclusions if you have time and access. You can get Poole's 3 volume exposition of the Bible from CBD (in old school book form!) very cheaply and I usually find it to be even better than Henry.

As my comments indicate, I did not posit a clear conviction on my own interpretation but note that whatever the case, God is sovereignly using the circumstances as he has permitted them. Hopefully, that's not too much of a "punt."