The story of the witch of Endor is one of the most obvious examples of a horror story in the Bible. It’s told in 1 Samuel 28 in the Old Testament. And what a highly-charged, dramatic, eerie and tragic story it is! We have a witch, a séance, an ghost. We have hidden identities, shrieks of fear, and a portent of doom. It doesn’t get more horror that this!
For those of you who don’t know the story, here’s a summary of what happened.
King Saul, the first king of Israel, was in a bad way. Almost from the start of his reign, he kept disobeying God and God’s chief prophet at the time, Samuel. Samuel prayed for Saul and tried to guide him but to no avail. God’s Spirit was taken from Saul and an evil spirit tormented him. Then, when Samuel died, Saul had no one left to counsel him, having previously fallen out with his son Jonathan and his champion David. In desperation, Saul finds a witch to conjure up the spirit of dead Samuel for some advice before a battle with his big enemies, the Philistines. Samuel appears, rebukes Saul for using a witch, and predicts he will die soon, which Saul does the very next day.
It’s a story that triggers many interesting questions.
What Exactly Appeared to the Witch?
The general principle of the Bible is that there is no traffic between the living and dead. Once you’re dead, that’s it. You’re in the realm of the dead, either for good or ill. There’s no coming back or journeying back, unless under miraculous circumstances, which only God can control. And there’s the problem. In this story, the witch seemed in control of this séance, not God.
There are a large number of suggestions for what really went on here. Here’s some of them.
- The apparition of Samuel was fake then, just like séances are fake now. The witch practiced some form of ventriloquism, pretending that dead Samuel spoke when it was really just her.
- The appearance of Samuel was the psychological projection of a mentally ill Saul, who only imagined he saw his former prophet and mentor alive. But it was just a phantasm of his disturbed mind.
- The spirit of dead Samuel really appeared, having been compelled to do so by the witch’s magical incantations.
- Dead Samuel really appeared, being raised up by a special miracle of God in this particular situation. (If so, was it his spirit, his resurrected body, or his dead carcass?)
- Something really appeared in the form of Samuel but it was the devil or a demon. This is what the story means when it says the witch had a “familiar spirit”.
- Something really appeared but it was an angel sent by God to deliver a true prophecy in the form of Samuel.
- Something really appeared but it was a ghost or spectre of unknown type and origin.
How Did the Witch Describe WhatAppeared to Her?
When the witch brings up Samuel, she screams. Saul asks her what she saw. Her answer to this question is recorded in 1 Samuel 28:13. The details of her answer to this question depends on what Bible version you use. Here is the variety of possible translations.
- “I saw gods ascending out of the earth”
- “I saw a god ascending out of the earth”
- “I saw a ghostly figure ascending out of the earth.”
- “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth.”
- “I saw a divine being ascending out of the earth.”
- I saw a godlike being ascending out of the earth.”
- “I saw one like a god ascending out of the earth.”
This ambiguity of translation is caused by the use of the Hebrew word elohim here which can mean anything from the true God, false gods, angels and supernatural beings, the spirits of the dead, and even human prophets or judges. It all depends on the context. But since the context here is uncertain, so in the best translation.
What Else Was Happening?
There are lots of other questions about this story that are hard to answer.
- Did Saul see whatever it was that appeared? It seems not. Only the witch talks about what it looked like.
- Why was the witch surprised by Samuel’s appearance? It seems she was shocked and scared by what came up, implying that whatever appeared was not what she expected.
- Was the future predicted accurately? Yes. Saul was killed, as the apparition foretold. Whatever it was had the ability to correctly foretell Saul’s future and death. In the Bible, this is the sign of a true prophet (Deuteronomy 18:22).
- Why was the spirit said to come up from the earth rather than down from heaven? If it was the spirit of Samuel, this implies that the souls of Old Testament saints were still at this point in the realm of the dead rather than the abode of God.
- Did the witch really not know it was Saul until the spirit told her? Her fear in finding out that it was Saul seemed to genuinely terrify her. She was scared for her life.
How Have Great Artists Depicted This Incident?
There is some outstanding and fascinating art on this story. I recommend you take a look at these.
- The Ghost of Samuel Appearing to Saul (1800) by William Blake
- Saul and the Witch of Endor (1828) by William Sidney Mount
- Saul at the Witch of Endor (1856) by Nikolai Nikolaevich Ge
- The Endorian Sorceress Summons the Shade of Samuel (1857) by Dmitry Nikiforovich Martynov
There is also an interesting print made by German engraver Gabriel Ehinger, based on the work of artist Johann Heinrich Schönfeld, of Saul and the Witch of Endor, made between 1660-1670. Not only does it show Saul on his knees listening to the ghost of Samuel, but the setting is a graveyard with skeletons and flying ghouls in the sky. But it appears that Samuel is sitting on some sort of trap door that has opened from the ground!