Halloween is the holiday of witches and warlocks, ghosts and goblins, and– if we are being honest– quite a few kids dressed up as the cast of Frozen. Halloween is also the season of ghost stories and the bible has a fantastic one: the Ghost of Samuel. The “Good Book” has its share of demons (we have discussed Azazel and Lillith in previous Halloween posts), but nowhere does the bible say more explicitly that witches are real, that necromancy is real, and that you can talk to the spirits of the dead than in the story of King Saul and the Ghost of Samuel. To do necromancy is against the Law of Moses, but that does not mean– the story seems to say– it does not work.
This is the story of King Saul and the Witch of Endor. It is a ghost story. So, gather around the campfire, bring out your bibles, and let’s talk spooky. Read on for more.
Witches in the Bible
King Saul was many things, but he was also a God-fearing Israelite that knew the Torah. He had been selected by God, through his prophet Samuel, to lead the people of Israel as their king, although by the time our story begins he had fallen out of favor with God. It would ultimately be King David (of David and Goliath fame) that would become the true king of a united Israel. Even so, we know one command that Saul had obeyed:
Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land.
1 Samuel 28:3
“Mediums” and “Spiritists”– these are the words chosen by the NIV in their translation. The King James version calls them “wizards” and “those that had familiar spirits”. Other translations call them “speakers with the dead”, “necromancers”, “psychics”, “soothsayers”, and even “witches”.
Why did Saul do this? It is because the Law of Moses commanded it, not once but several times. Witchcraft is serious business that no God-fearing people should meddle in. In fact, witchcraft was worthy of the ultimate punishment.
Do not allow a sorceress to live.
Deuteronomy takes this law and expands on it in a big way. This is where we learn what Exodus meant by “sorceress”:
When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God.
Deuteronomy 18:9-13 (emphasis mine)
In all of these references, notice that the bible does not say that witchcraft does not work. In fact, it implies several times that it does, even that it is a weapon that some nations might use against the people of Israel. Black magic works, but God-fearing people must avoid it or pay the ultimate price.
Even hundreds of years later when the New Testament was written, witches were known and accepted as real. Paul even warns about witchcraft in his Epistle to the Galatians:
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God
Galatians 5:19-21 (emphasis mine)
Black magic was the ultimate card to play for a desperate man. Who would be desperate enough to risk death for some answers from dead friends? Saul, that is who.
King Saul’s Desperation
Our story begins in the First Book of Samuel, well after the Exodus where the Israelites returned to Israel, after the lawless period of the Judges, and finally at the dawn of the “united monarchy” of Israel. King Saul had been anointed by God’s prophet Samuel as the king of all Israel, but he has lost favor. The story of King Saul and King David is a fantastic one and I hope to detail at at some point in the future.
Saul was under great pressure. The land of Israel was being invaded by the Philistines and it seemed as if they were on the verge of defeat. God, who had always seemed to march with Israel’s armies, was giving Saul the silent treatment. King Saul was terrified.
The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all Israel and set up camp at Gilboa. When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart. He inquired of the Lord, but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.
1 Samuel 28:4-6
Saul, in his desperation to consult with God had tried dream interpretation, he had tried consulting the Urim, and he had tried to get answers from the court prophets. The subtext here is that he tried everything from A to Z. The Urim was a tool used by the priests (ever since Aaron) to tell the future and a symbol of the organized religion of Saul’s kingdom. The court prophets were at the other end, more affiliated with the monarchy itself but also sometimes an independent voice. (The Urim would subsequently become a major item in the Christianity of the Latter Day Saints, a topic that is generally outside the scope of my research.)
Having turned to the priests and the prophets, there was only one place left to go for answers: black magic.
Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium [witch], so I may go and inquire of her.”
1 Samuel 28:7
Under Saul’s reign, the witches had been persecuted and pushed out. There were none to be found, except one: a witch from the
forest moon town of Endor. Saul and his attendants go to her in disguise, but she thinks it is a trick. She remains suspicious, but agrees to perform the conjuration.
Then the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”
“Bring up Samuel,” he said.
1 Samuel 28:11
And finally, Saul reveals his hand: the true reason why he sought out the necromancer. Saul had tried to reach God in all of the right ways, but God remained silent. But Samuel was the prophet that had once declared Saul as king. He was the greatest prophet of his age. Surely, Saul must have thought, that Samuel even in death would have a great connection with God. If anyone could reconnect Saul with the divine presence, to tell him what to do to get back into God’s good graces and save the land of Israel from the Philistines, it would be Samuel.
The witch began the incantation and the spirit emerged.
The woman said, “I see a ghostly figure coming up out of the earth.”
“What does he look like?” he asked.
“An old man wearing a robe is coming up,” she said.
Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.
Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”
“I am in great distress,” Saul said. “The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has departed from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.”
1 Samuel 28:13-15
And there we have it on the page: ghosts are real. Samuel was really there, he had come back from the dead– however briefly. Perhaps because Samuel was such a great prophet, it seems that after a moment he no longer needed the witch to speak for him. He could speak directly to Saul and answer his questions. But God had already forsaken Saul and now the king had turned to the banned black arts. If he thought Samuel was going to be able to help him, he was wrong:
Samuel said, “Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today. The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.”
1 Samuel 28:16-19
Finally, Saul gets the answer that he had been craving, but it was not an answer that he wanted. God has turned away from Saul because he did not truly defeat the Amalekites back in 1 Samuel 15. God had commanded Saul to kill every man woman and child and to destroy all of their belongings. Saul instead left one man left alive– Agag, the former king of the Amalekites– and took all of their best livestock rather than killing them. God wanted a genocide and Saul only nearly committed an genocide. There is very little to like about this part of the story.
Regardless, God was punishing Saul for not listening to his command. Tomorrow, according to Samuel, Saul’s sons would die. But that would only give Saul time to grieve because he, too, was marked for death. God would ensure that the Philistines won and Saul would himself he killed. Boo!
Samuel’s Prophecy Fulfilled
The following day, Samuel’s prophecy came true. Saul faced his enemies the Philistines on the field of battle and was routed. The Philistines pursued Saul’s retreating army and Saul’s three sons:
Now the Philistines fought against Israel; the Israelites fled before them, and many fell dead on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines were in hot pursuit of Saul and his sons, and they killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malki-Shua.
1 Samuel 31:1-2
Saul may not even have known about his sons’ deaths, but elsewhere on the mountain his own battle was drawing to a close. There was only one solution:
The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically.
Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.”
But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all men died together that same day.
1 Samuel 31:3-6
Saul saw the writing on the wall. He knew he was going to die just as Samuel predicted. He asked for his armor-bearer, his royal servant, to kill him– but he refused. So Saul took up his own sword and tried to kill himself. He was convincing enough that his armor-bearer thought him dead and killed himself as well. But Saul was not even able to do this properly. God, it seemed, would not let Saul take his own life.
The bible does not show us the next scene as it happened, but only by a second-hand report. A young soldier comes to report to David that Saul and his sons are dead. This is the story that the soldier told to David:
“I happened to be on Mount Gilboa,” the young man said, “and there was Saul, leaning on his spear, with the chariots and their drivers in hot pursuit. When he turned around and saw me, he called out to me, and I said, ‘What can I do?’
“He asked me, ‘Who are you?’
“‘An Amalekite,’ I answered.
“Then he said to me, ‘Stand here by me and kill me! I’m in the throes of death, but I’m still alive.’
“So I stood beside him and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive.
2 Samuel 1:6-10
As if to make God’s point, Saul is not directly killed by a Philistine but rather by an Amalekite: one of the very people that God had commanded Saul to kill. Because Saul did not follow God’s command to genocide the Amalekites, there was one remaining that would kill him. It’s a vicious sort of judgement, but that is the end of King Saul. David would soon take the thrown, beat back the Philistines at least for a little while, and the story would continue.
And what happened to that Amalekite that killed Saul? David fulfilled God’s command and had him executed.
I hope you have enjoyed this brief “ghost story”! As bible stories go, this is not one of my favorites. We can see God’s wraith here in a way that we see it so infrequently in the bible. He punishes Saul for not being blood-thirsty enough by killing his children, ending his royal line, and then by placing Saul’s death at the hands of a man that Saul was supposed to have killed.
Some readers believe that the brief side-story with the soldier reporting to David that he killed Saul was a lie. The bible had earlier reported that Saul was dead and so were all the Amalekites except one. The way to avoid contradicting the bible narrator would be to conclude that the soldier was lying: Saul really was dead and the soldier was not even an Amalekite, only claiming both in a misguided plot to win David’s favor. If so, it hardly matters because David killed him.
I hope you enjoyed this “spooky” story. It has all the ingredients for a good Halloween story: a ghost, a witch, and lots and lots of blood. There is hardly an morale here, except perhaps that no matter what you problem is, it will be worse if you try to solve it with witchcraft.
If you have enjoyed this, please consider liking me on Facebook. Clicking “like” on the right will support my blog and new articles will (sometimes) appear in your Facebook feed. Clicking “like” above or below will tell Facebook this post is cool. Feel free to click both! To subscribe via email, use the form on the right. My email address is joe at coatofmanycolors.net.
Thank you for visiting!