One of the more mysteries stories of the Bible is told in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 . Let us first quote the story in its entirety and then focus on some of the more mysterious aspects of it:
“Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had lamented for him and buried him in Ramah, in his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the spiritsts out of the land. Then the Philistines gathered together and came and encamped at Shunem. So Saul gathered all Israel together, and they encamped at Gilboa. When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by the prophets. Then Saul said to his servants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “In fact, there is a woman who is a medium at En Dor.” So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothes, and he went, and two men with him; and they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Please conduct a séance for me, and bring up for me the one I shall name to you.”
Then the woman said to him, “Look, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the spiritists from the land. Why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?” And Saul swore to her by the Lord, saying, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” And he said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul!” And the king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What did you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth.” So he said to her, “What is his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is covered with a mantle.” And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground and bowed down.
Now Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” And Saul answered, “I am deeply distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God has departed from me and does not answer me anymore, neither by prophets nor by dreams. Therefore I have called you, that you may reveal to me what I should do.” Then Samuel said: “So why do you ask me, seeing the Lord has departed from you and has become your enemy? And the Lord has done for Himself as He spoke by me. For the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord nor execute His fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines. An tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also deliver the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.”
Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, and was dreadfully afraid because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no food all day or all night. And the woman came to Saul and saw that he was severely troubled, and said to him, “Look, your maidservant has heard your voice, and I have put my life in my hands and heeded the words which you spoke to me. Now therefore, please, heed also the voice of your maidservant, and let me set a piece of bred before you; and eat, that you may have strength when you go on your way.” But he refused and said, “I will not eat.” So his servants, together with the woman, urged him; and he heeded their voice. Then he arose from the ground and sat on the bed. Now the woman had a fatted calf in the house, and she hastened to kill it. And she took flour and kneaded it, and baked unleavened bread from it. So she brought it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they rose and went away that night.”
One mystery comes to mind very quickly upon reading this account. Why do we have this account and who recorded it? Given the vivid description of Saul’s desperate attempts to communicate with God or one of His servants, and God’s steadfast refusal to send Saul any message whatsoever, and the fact that Saul’s servants are given a great deal of agency in finding this woman at En Dor and also in urging Saul to eat, it is likely that this particular story comes from a first-hand eyewitness account that represents Saul’s credulity in Samuel having risen from the dead to deliver the gloomy message (which we will address shortly). As to why the account would have been given such a lengthy and prominent account, the biggest reason to account for it springs from a few elements that combine to make it a powerful, albeit mostly indirect, appeal for the legitimacy of David’s rule. For one, the spirit clearly informs Saul that the kingdom of Israel has been placed in David’s hand, a fact which would have given the talebearer who recorded the account some legitimacy in David’s eyes. Likewise, the account’s poignant reminder that God had ceased communication with Saul, something that can drive anyone to distraction, shows how abandoned Saul felt by God in the aftermath of Samuel’s death, since he did not have a personal relationship with God to rely on in the absence of a prophet or some other intermediary, another factor that serves as an effective contrast with David’s own searching accounts of his own relationship with God. If one was forced to guess the identity of the source of the information in this passage, we could hazard a guess that it was one of Saul’s ambitious courtiers, possibly the one who found the witch at En Dor as a way of meeting his royal master’s request. Such clever and hardworking servants with good memories and the ability to find out information are valuable in any royal or aristocratic society, and it is likely that the source of this account was well provided for after Saul’s death for providing David, after the fact, with the account recorded here.
A second mystery is raised by this passage in the question of the afterlife. The spirit claimed that Saul and his sons would be with him in the grave shortly, and so it was. Yet the supposed knowledge possessed by the spirit clashes with the claimed identity as Samuel, given the grim view of the grave that the Bible shows. Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 says: “For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing. And they have no more reward, and the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun.” In listening to Samuel’s statements, and slight crowing about what he had said to Saul before, we do not hear an absence of hatred or envy. Quite the contrary. In stark contrast to this is the repeated biblical refrain of the dead being gathered before their fathers and of dwelling in the grave. Even in prophetic accounts of the dead being raised there is no awareness of the passage of time, whether we read it in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man or whether we look at Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones. In both cases, the dead lack knowledge of what happens on earth while they do. This account, by acting contrary to that biblical principle, consistently expressed, raises a red flag.
The red flag that is raised is the potential that this spiritual communication is a lying spirit sent to deliver a king to his doom. This is not a case that can be made directly, since Saul apparently never questions that Samuel has come up. Nevertheless, it is possible to make a strong case for the identity of the spirit as being a demon based on a variety of grounds. The first of these grounds has already been explored, namely that the spirit behaves in ways different from the ways that the dead behave: the spirit provokes Saul to envy, and the spirit shows supernatural knowledge, including foreknowledge. Both of these, being contrary to the way that dead people behave, demonstrate that what the medium brought up was unlikely to have been any supposed spirit from Samuel, but rather an impersonator sent to torment Saul. Let us note here that Saul had been tormented by demons for a long time—the first reference of David in Saul’s court is as a part-time musician sent to sooth Saul’s nerves during such intermittent torment (see 1 Samuel 16:14-23), which means that the author or compiler of 1 Samuel has already set up Saul to be troubled by spiritual opposition in the aftermath of his rejection by God.
Another part of the case for this inference can be made by the similarities that are drawn between the death of Saul and the death of Ahab. Both are kings who were rejected by God and whose deaths involved a rejection not only of them but of their dynasties as well, for refusing to kill someone who the Eternal had set aside for destruction. In the case of Saul, it was the Amalekites of Agag, and in the case of Ahab, it was Ben-Hadad the Syrian king. The chief difference between the two accounts (that of Ahab’s death in 1 Kings 22) is that in the account of Saul’s experience we have a credulous eyewitness, but not one granted with any particular spiritual insight, and in the case of Michiah’s warning of Ahab we have a prophet who was privileged to see the larger spiritual drama going on. Otherwise, the same use of luring a doomed king to a fatal battle through a lying spirit appears to be very similar.
Why would a demon be willing to impersonate a prophet of God? We are told, for example, in 2 Corinthians 11:14-15 that Satan and his ministers try to transform themselves into the servants of God and ministers of righteousness. This would be a classic example of such behavior that would illustrate Paul’s point very soundly. Likewise, we gain an indication of the identity of the spirit that spoke to Saul by what it did not do. Samuel, as a servant of God, would have steadfastly refused the worship of the tormented Saul who bowed down before him in 1 Samuel 28:14. Likewise, angels also refuse to be worshiped, pointing out that worship belongs to God alone (see, for example: Revelation 22:8). It is only after a human being has been resurrected into the family of God (see Revelation 3:9) that we can properly receive worship. By claiming to have risen from the grave, where Saul was going, because there was no way he was going to be admitted into heaven, nor have any other than Jesus Christ descended from or ascended to heaven (John 3:13). By accurately pointing out that Saul and his sons would die and join Samuel in the grave, the spirit that spoke to Saul blew his own cover by accepting the worship of a man without having been resurrected into eternal life, thus exposing himself as a demon seeking worship and praise, but trafficking in deception and despair.
Part of what makes this passage worthy of repeated investigation is the way in which so many topics and concerns are layered together. Saul’s inconstancy of belief and practice are shown here in their full glory—the same king who tried to root out mediums in a fit of obedience to God seeks out a medium when no other means will serve of communicating with God or His servants. Saul’s entanglement with demonic influence, a rather frightening aspect of the latter part of the reign, is here alluded to. Likewise, the passage contains implicit praise of the legitimacy of David’s rule, told through the account of what was likely a clever courtier who survived the difficult period after Saul’s death and the disastrous defeat at Mount Gilboa. Likewise, the passage has a poignant message about the trouble we cause when we cease communication when there are still truths to understand and messages to hear. In such a light, it is little wonder that someone as spiritually unstable as Saul would seek to communicate with the dead, or with a reasonable facsimile of the dead, as a way of getting any message at all, even if it was a message he did not in the end really want to receive. Perhaps that is why God allowed the message to be given through such disreputable means, in that He cannot remain silent even when He has committed Himself not to speak directly with someone who has refused to obey with a whole heart, and whose rule is rejected and given to another more worthy. And if God cares so much for communication that He is willing to use unsavory methods to get the message across, we should be more gracious in our own communication, to the best of the abilities that God has given to us. It is no mystery why this passage should be often read—it has a lot to say to us, after all.
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