You Asked: How Do You Explain the Witch of Endor?

Editors' Note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to [email protected] along with your full name, city, and state. We'll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition's Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Stephen T. from Rochester, New York, asks:

1 Samuel 28, on the witch from Endor, raises a number of questions. What do you do with this text?

  1. Is the spirit the witch summons actually Samuel? Or a demon acting like Samuel (1 Sam. 28:14-15)?
  2. Where is Samuel coming from—-especially since he says Saul and his sons “shall be with me” (1 Sam. 28:19)?
  3. The Bible paints very different pictures of Samuel, Saul, and Jonathan. Yet Samuel seems to say they will all be in the same place (Sheol?). Should we assume anything about Saul's salvation from this? (1 Sam. 28:19)

We posed this question to Dale Ralph Davis, former pastor of Woodland Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson. He is the author of many helpful books, including an expository study of Judges, 1 Samuel: Looking on the Heart, and The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts.


Our questions about 1 Samuel 28 probably cannot be resolved. The Torah had forbidden necromancy (Deut. 18:9-12). Moses didn't say it didn't “work”; he said it was an abomination. So the writer of 1 Samuel will truly report that Saul dabbled in necromancy, but he seems to be stingy with particulars that would satisfy our curiosity. No overly intricate details. He's not about to provide us with a necromancy “how to” kit. Hence I doubt that these subsidiary queries can ever be definitely answered.

Is the spirit the medium summons actually Samuel? Apparently so, since what “Samuel” says in vv. 16-19 is entirely consistent with what he had said prior to his death (see 1 Sam. 15:17-19, 22-23, 28). (Saul got no “new light” here.) Or could it have been a demon impersonating Samuel? Some have thought so; others have thought that the woman screamed because she was actually a phony and not accustomed to the real thing happening, as it did on this occasion (see Youngblood, in revised EBC, vol. 3, for various views). Or it could simply be that God permitted a bona fide manifestation of Samuel through this forbidden means in order to confirm Saul's forsakenness to him.

It seems reasonably clear that Samuel is coming from the realm of the dead. When he says Saul and his sons will be “with me” (v. 19) the next day, he means they too will be dead and hence in the realm of the dead. He is making no assessment or statement about Saul's eternal state here.

Listen to the Text

What do you do with this text? That is the really important question. And the answer is: Listen to it. But to do that we must look beyond these puzzling matters and get a grip on the overall context of the chapter.

Our writer has thrown chronology to the winds. He has told us about David in Ziklag as a Philistine mercenary (1 Sam. 27) and the terrible jam he is in (28:1-2). He will be marching with the Philistines in their major assault on Israel. A bit of a problem—-if he does that he can kiss kingship goodbye (no Israelites with any sense will accept him as king if he sides with Philistia in such an attack). Then the writer drops David, leaves him frying in his mess. And he leaves you, the reader, hanging as well, as if to say, “We can worry about David later.” At this point he “fast forwards” to report this strange story about Saul, the medium, and “Samuel” (28:3-25). This occurs on the night before the decisive battle—-we know this from the geographical sites (Shunem, Gilboa) in 28:4. After Saul & Co. walk off into the night (28:25), the writer satisfies your curiosity about David and tells how the Philistine brass refused to have David and his men in the Philistine ranks (ch. 29). This happened at Aphek (29:1), the Philistine assembly point on the way to Shunem, and hence took place some time before 28:3-25. The chronological order would be: 27:1-28:2, then chapter 29, then 28:3-25.

A rough geographical analogy (with exaggerated distances) would be to think of David's base at Ziklag as San Antonio, Shunem as St. Louis, and Aphek as Oklahoma City. The logical (and chronological) order moves from San Antonio north to Oklahoma City (Philistine assembly point) then northeast to St. Louis (battle location). But our writer has switched the sequence and put St. Louis before Oklahoma City, that is, Shunem before Aphek. Why the switch? I propose that the writer wanted to place the dilemmas of David and Saul side-by-side so his readers would be forced to compare them. I have already alluded to David's dilemma—-he was with the enemies of God. He is—-by his own successful scheming—-marooned in the Philistine ranks and seemingly expected to fight alongside these pagans. And Saul's dilemma? Saul himself expresses it in 28:6 and 15. Note verse 15: “God [emphatic] has turned away from me and answers me no more.” Saul's problem is that he is without the Word of God. Could there be anything more terrifying than to be cut off from all communication from—-and apparently communion with—-God in the most critical moment? Which is worse: with the Philistines or without God? Some dilemmas are worse than others, and I've a hunch the writer wants to scare us with a glimpse of Saul's abysmal hopelessness.

This comparison brings John 5:14 to mind. Jesus later sees the man he cured at the pool and says, “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” Something worse? There is something worse than 38 years of helpless paralysis?

So what do you do with this text? Let it frighten you. Don't try to tidy things up with queries about whether Saul was “really saved.” Remember Tozer's answer about whether Demas (2 Tim. 4:10) was finally lost or saved—-“All I can say is that the last time we see Demas, he was walking in the wrong direction.” And the last time we see Saul here, he is walking out into the night (v. 25), cut off from God and his Word. It's meant to be scary; that's not necessarily bad—-'twas grace that taught my heart to fear.

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