Years ago I was intrigued with the story in 1 Samuel 28. I like to occassionally read some literature on Old Testament and ancient Judaic studies, and so not too long ago I read a few articles and commentaries on this story. It is an interesting one in that it presents the sole account of contact with the dead in the Old Testament. King Saul is intent on divining the future due to an imminent war with the Philistines. Upon finding that the usual (and lawful) methods of gaining this information (dreams, prophecy, and the Urim) are useless, he contacts a medium found to be still living in the land despite his recent expulsion of all mediums (v. 3).
Contacting the dead was thought to be beneficial due to the fact that the dead were thought to possess information that could be of vital significance for the living. This practice, known as necromancy, is the art of obtaining knowledge that exceeds ordinary human knowledge by contacting the dead. Through necromancy one could possibly contact departed loved ones or use it as a means to ward off any evil influences. It entailed the use of a medium and was prohibited by the Mosaic Law with the punishment being death by stoning (Lev. 20.27; cf. Lev. 19.31, Deut. 18.10-11, Isa. 8.19). Naturally, though, this prohibition of necromancy by the Mosaic Law did not stop it from occurring.
This medium from the village of Endor, more popularly known as “the Witch of Endor,” obliges King Saul by bringing up the prophet Samuel from Sheol (šĕ’ôl), a ubiquitous term in the Old Testament which is typically translated as “the grave” or “the pit”, and is seen as the place to which both the righteous and unrighteous departed to after death (cf. Psa. 89.48, Eccl. 9.10). The medium sees the ghost of Samuel and refers to him as a “god” (’ĕlôhîm), a word which is used throughout the Old Testament to describe different entities: Yahweh, evil spirits (Deut. 32.17), and angels (Gen. 32.1). Its usage here to describe the deceased Samuel is possibly a linguistic vestige demonstrating a belief in the divinity of the dead.
The witch of Endor sees Samuel coming up out of the earth with the appearance of an old man wrapped in a robe. Somehow, upon seeing Samuel, this imparts super-human knowledge to her that she is in fact dealing with King Saul (v. 12). The odd logic in this verse (i.e. the appearance of Samuel to the medium as the means by which she is able to see through the disguise of Saul) has led some commentators to resort to source-critical or text-critical explanations to explain this incongruity. Most commentators, however, do not accept either of these conjectures but resort to other explanations. For instance, Beuken (‘I Samuel 28: The Prophet as “Hammer of Witches”’, JSOT 6; 1978: 9) believes that the mere presence of Samuel the prophet removes all deceit and enables the medium to recognize Saul through his disguise, while Reis (‘Eating the Blood: Saul and the Witch of Endor’, JSOT 73; 1997: 9-10) considers that Samuel would have only allowed himself to be summoned by someone with whom he had strong ties with, which in this case, is King Saul. Regardless of how the medium sees through Saul’s disguise, upon seeing the apparition and describing him, Saul immediately recognizes it as the deceased Samuel, who then goes on to give the knowledge that Saul was seeking, albeit it was not exactly the news Saul was hoping for (see vv. 9-18).
From a theological perspective, this story supports what can be seen elsewhere concerning the dead in Old Testament theology. The dead do not simply just vanish into nothingness. They become emptied and feeble ‘shades’ (rĕp’āîm) that inhabit Sheol (see Psa. 88.10; Isa. 14.9; 26.14, 19). The shades inhabit a place where there is no knowledge or activity (cf. Eccl. 9.5, 10; Psa. 6.5; 115.17). They are unable to properly communicate, but can only do so with the “voice of a ghost” and speech like a “whisper” (Isa. 29.4). According to 1 Sam. 28.12-14, shades can summoned from Sheol, are recognizable, and are also able to communicate with the living. Despite all this, even though a person continues on after death as a shade, death is not depicted in the Old Testament as a beatific condition of the soul or as a desirable release from the body (as it was seen in Platonism as well as much of Christendom). Ultimately, death is depicted here as it is elsewhere in the Old Testament – as a lamentable eventuality.