The story introduced in 1 Samuel 28 is one that would fit quite well into a movie like Paranormal Activity. It’s a strange text containing an even stranger circumstance that is rarely described in such detail throughout the rest of Scripture. The book of 1 Samuel primarily centers around the rise and fall of Israel’s first king, Saul, and his successor’s rise to the throne – King David.
By the time we reach this particular chapter, Saul has fallen out of favor with the Lord and is nearing the end of his life having driven himself wild through repeated attempts to murder David and prevent him from ascending to kingship. War with the Philistines had become particularly vicious and the forces of these foreigners had come in strength to oppose Saul and his army. On the evening prior to the battle, Saul disguises himself and a few of his guards and treks into a foreign city to consult a witch for knowledge over whether or not he will win the battle. Specifically, he seeks out this witch to call upon his former, and now dead, prophet, Samuel. As she begins her practice, to everyone’s surprise, Samuel appears and speaks a foreboding word to Saul.
It is a text likely to be explained away as fiction or psychological trauma in our day in age, but one that must be addressed if we are to take the Bible seriously. So what in the world do we do with it? More specifically, how does one deal with the problem of Samuel seemingly rising from the dead? There are a few clues we can draw from the passage that may help with an explanation.
At this point in the text, Saul was operating under a tremendous amount of fear. As he looked upon the Philistine army that was ready to wage war against his own, Scripture says that “his heart trembled greatly” (28:5). In response, Saul began to seek the voice of the Lord that had long since abandoned him (16:14). This was not the first time God had been silent in the midst of Saul’s pleadings, but the king was persistent – so much so that when he received no answer, he sought to engage in an outlawed and abominable practice for his answer (Lev. 20:6; Deut. 18:10-11). The author of 1 Samuel offers a fearful picture of the king. He is desperately afraid of his enemies and wants a reassuring word from God so much so that he violates the very Law of God to get it.
As Samuel approaches the witch and her customers, she recognizes Saul as the king (28:12). Why does this occur? The mediums of that day are said to have dealt with demons who were called “lying spirits” (1 Kings 22:22), which is why the Lord demanded they be avoided. These spirits served only to lead astray and deceive their subjects. It is likely that the woman dealt regularly with one of these lying spirits who deceitfully posed as the resurrected form of her customers’ requested subjects. What seems to be the presence of the real Samuel would have been a startling departure from her customary experiences.
So how do we deal with the fact that Samuel seems to have actually returned from the dead?
To begin, I believe that this was in fact Samuel speaking from the place where he existed beyond this life. Some have argued that it was a demon posing as Samuel or that the witch merely tricked Saul into believing it was Samuel, but I disagree for two reasons:
1) The woman was startled to see Samuel approaching. It clearly frightened her that the person requested was the one she saw as opposed to the demonic spirit with whom she, likely, normally interacted.
2) During Moses’ time, God gave the criterion for distinguishing between true and false prophets. It was quite simple. If what the prophet spoke came to pass, he was a true prophet. If it did not, he was a false prophet (Deut. 18:22). In this scene with the witch at Endor, Samuel tells Saul that the Lord has turned from the king and makes a startling prediction – “tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me” (28:19). He also predicts a Philistine victory over the Israelite army. As the book of 1 Samuel comes to a close, chapter 31 reveals that every word spoken by Samuel during this encounter at Endor was absolutely true. Therefore, this was a true Word from the Lord which He chose to give through one of His true prophets, Samuel.
In light of this, a final important question must be asked: is this an occurrence we should interpret as normative to our lives?
I believe the answer is, no. This story does not condone the widely cultic and quite marketable beliefs in regular interaction with the dead through particularly gifted individuals such as psychics, mediums, and so on. The text strongly suggests that the witch herself did not bring up Samuel by her own abilities because she was terrified upon seeing him when he approached her. She did not expect the one who was called upon to actually appear. In other words, it is likely that she did not regularly interact with the actual dead, but a demonic spirit resembling the ones she “summoned.”
Could God have called Samuel up from the place of the dead? Absolutely. In fact, I believe that He did in this very instance. However, this Scripture neither verifies human ability to conjure up the dead nor does it encourage any practice of doing so as it is an isolated occurrence within the Bible and one in which the act’s success came as a great surprise to the actor.
This brief story is one of many in the book of 1 Samuel that, through the example of Saul, illustrates a life lived in faithlessness to God. We do not need to consult mediums or necromancers for assurance of God’s promises. He has given us His Word and displayed His character and nature explicitly through His Son. When our faith is placed on that solid foundation, we need nothing more.