by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Human beings are a superstitious lot, and those who claim Christianity as their religion are no exception. Things that go bump in the night scare Christians and pagans equally. Some branches of Christianity seem to have a morbid fascination with the otherworldly, and this reality probably springs from the fact that the Bible does not hide the fact that Satan the Devil is alive and well and has hordes of demons ready to do his bidding. The dominant church throughout medieval times—and even some of its Protestant offshoots—delighted in dangling believers over the fires of hell to force conformity to its questionable doctrines and practices. Works like Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost are still quite popular among Christians.
Certainly, Satan and demons are real—they even play significant roles in the gospels, tempting Jesus and being exorcised from unfortunate demoniacs by Him. The book of Revelation is full of references to evil and diabolical forces arrayed against God and His people, causing wars and plagues and all manner of curses. The apostle Paul warns us of our spiritual struggle “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). God’s Word constantly reminds us that we have unseen enemies who want nothing more than to deceive us into giving up our crowns of life.
Superstitions also persist on the equally ethereal subject of the afterlife, a doctrine about which nominal Christians have differing ideas. Catholics, for instance, believe the evil go to hell and the truly good go to heaven, while the majority head to purgatory to work off their heavy load of sin. Most Protestants keep heaven and hell, but drop the idea of purgatory. If they are not nihilists, millions in the secular Western world, influenced by latent Christian teaching, accept as truth that they are bound for heaven or hell once they die.
These “Christian” doctrinal positions derive in part from the belief in the soul’s immortality—that the soul is the spiritual component of humans that does not die with the body but consciously exists elsewhere after death. These beliefs about the afterlife echo older beliefs—for example, the Greek idea of hades—that posited that the spirits of the dead go to a place, often the underworld, where they exist in a state of agony, limbo, or bliss, depending on the life they lived (or until reincarnated).
The church of God, however, does not accept the Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul, instead believing God’s Word, which says indisputably, “The soul who sins shall die” (Ezekiel 18:4, 20). One of the very first things God taught Adam in the Garden of Eden was the consequence of sin: “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17), a truth the serpent hastened to contradict (Genesis 3:4).
In the New Testament, Jesus teaches in Matthew 10:28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna, a symbol of the Lake of Fire (see Revelation 20:11-15)].” Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Humans are mortal, and God must give eternal life; we do not have it inherently (see Romans 2:7; I Corinthians 15:53-54; I Timothy 6:16).
We believe, then, that man indeed has a spirit (Job 32:8), “the breath of the Almighty [that] gives him understanding,” but that it is not his soul. When combined with a human brain, the human spirit allows a person to have the powers of mind. When he dies, the body returns to the dust, but his spirit returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7), who safeguards it as a record of his life.
Solomon also informs us that “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5), and “there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave” (verse 10), meaning that there is no consciousness in death. The person knows nothing, learns nothing, communicates nothing, does nothing—until the resurrection from the dead when God will unite that spirit with a new body, either a spiritual body or another physical body, depending on the resurrection (see Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 5:24-29; I Corinthians 15; I Thessalonians 4:13-18; Revelation 20).
Can Mediums Consult the Dead?
Against this, many bring up the Old Testament story of King Saul visiting the “witch” at En Dor (I Samuel 28:3-25), in which she seems to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel to foretell Saul’s demise. The narrative appears to show that necromancy is not only possible but has been successfully practiced, and that the disembodied souls or spirits of all who have ever lived are a medium’s summons away.
If this reading of the story is correct, it clearly contradicts the teaching of the rest of the Bible. Theologians down through the centuries have had difficulty explaining this passage because it appears so blatantly positive on the powers of mediums to consult the disembodied dead, despite the very negative answer Saul received. Foolish and desperate people who see this story in God’s Word need little further encouragement to seek a medium for answers.
So what really happened at En Dor? Did the woman truly have otherworldly powers? Did Samuel really appear to her? Was what she saw the prophet’s ghost? Are the dead alive and aware of what is happening here on earth? Or do people insert ideas into the story from their own preconceptions that are not warranted from what the text actually says?
Perhaps a more insightful question is, “Who is immediately behind all of the action in this chapter, God or Satan?”
Three Truths for Context
Before looking at the details of I Samuel 28, we would be well-advised to review three foundational, biblical truths to construct a necessary background for this story. If we try to evaluate what happened at En Dor without fitting it in its proper context, we will reach wrong conclusions. With these truths in mind, the true story will be apparent.
First, the Bible is not in the least ambiguous about what God thinks on the subject of the occult. It plainly condemns the practice of witchcraft and similar sorceries. Notice Leviticus 19:31, for instance, which condemns consulting mediums: “Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God.” A few verses later, God adds, “And the person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people” (Leviticus 20:6). This is as good as a prophecy of Saul’s demise. See also Deuteronomy 18:9-14, which names practitioners of witchcraft, soothsayers, interpreters of omens, sorcerers, conjurors, mediums, spiritists, necromancers, and diviners as abominations to the Lord.
The New Testament is just as condemnatory as the Old. However, instead of legislating against sorcery and the like—except where Paul lists sorcery as a work of the flesh, mentioned between “idolatry” and “hatred” (Galatians 5:20; see I Samuel 15:23)—the writers recount experiences of Jesus and the apostles battling against it. For instance, on the island of Paphos, the apostle Paul stood against Elymas the sorcerer, really a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus, saying, “O full of all deceit and all fraud, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease perverting the straight ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10). The episode in Acts 16:16-18 reveals that a slave girl diviner, who greatly annoyed Paul by following him around for many days, was in fact possessed by a demon, “a spirit of divination.” The second-to-last chapter of Revelation states plainly that sorcerers will be cast into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:8; see also 22:15).
This is sufficient proof that God considers the practice of all forms of occultism to be a moral outrage. He is not by any means involved in them and wants His people to avoid them, forbidding them to consult them or dabble in them in any way. This most important point indicates that God had nothing to do with the events at En Dor, except to allow them to move His purpose along, removing Saul to emplace David on Israel’s throne.
Second, the Bible does not typically portray practitioners of the occult and the demons behind them in a particularly macabre way. We moderns have been conditioned to imagine Satan, his demons, and their human minions as dark beings of pure ugliness, bearing attributes of horror and death. We have swallowed this deception from our historical culture and from the images presented by the media to entertain the masses and make millions of dollars.
Yet, while God’s Word warns us against Satanic deceptions, it does not provide the standard horror movie images. In fact, it often does just the opposite, cautioning us with the fact that the Devil and his demons do their best to appear as appealing to our senses as they can be. From what we see in Genesis 3, the serpent did not repulse Eve; to her in her innocence, he was logical and quite convincing. In Ezekiel 28, the description of the king of Tyre, a type of Satan, lauds him as “the seal of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (verse 12). It describes a creature whose beauty and magnificence turned his heart proud and corrupt (verse 17).
Though he and his demons have been cast down, at least some of their beauty remains, for Paul tells us in II Corinthians 11:14-15: “Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers [servants] also transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works.” Demons do not always look like snakes, dragons, gargoyles, or goblins but have the ability to appear attractive to us when it suits them. If accosted by a ghoul, we would shrink in horror and flee. Demons, though, are all about deception, and appearing as good and beautiful is far more subversive. People are far more likely to trust a physically appealing person than an old hag or troll.
Thus, while the tone of I Samuel 28 is at times stressed, suspicious, and fearful—as one would expect when encountering demonic powers—there is nothing blatantly horrifying or even ugly in the narrative. This tells us that a demon, being manipulative to the extreme, will appear to a person in a way that he thinks will work best for his purposes. A demon will stoop to whatever trick he deems necessary, even to appearing as a minister of righteousness.
Third, we must consider King Saul’s state of mind. Early in his reign, under the tutelage of Samuel, Saul had been the great champion of Israel, pushing its enemies back and making good progress in forging a nation out of the twelve tribes. Yet, just about the time David came on the scene, he began to display severe emotional problems, exacerbated by “the Spirit of the Lord depart[ing] from Saul” and “a distressing spirit from the Lord troubl[ing] him” (I Samuel 16:14). Evidently, God allowed a demon to cause Saul distress—perhaps severe melancholy and fits of sullenness and anger—and only David’s playing of his harp drove the demon away (verse 23).
Once David had slain Goliath and begun to receive acclaim from the people, Saul became murderously jealous of his young servant. Saul’s distress soon warped into real anger (I Samuel 18:8) and suspicion (verse 9), and the next time David came to play his harp for Saul, the king cast a spear at him, shouting, “I will pin David to the wall!” (verses 10-11). The younger man escaped, only to have the scene repeated sometime later (I Samuel 19:9-10). Not long thereafter, David had to flee and hide in the wilderness.
We see, then, that Saul was highly susceptible to demonic influence and emotionally unstable. The distressing spirit that God allowed to torment him had played with his emotions for years, and it is likely that as he aged, as David eluded capture, and as the Philistines grew in strength, Saul only became more depressed and fearful. By the time he was camped on the slopes of Mount Gilboa, brooding over the advance of the Philistine army into camp on the opposite hillside, he was in a state of severe misery and near-terror, knowing that no happy ending awaited him the next day.
These three factors provide the background for the story in I Samuel 28: God is always against those who practice sorcery; Satan and his demons can appear as ministers of righteousness; and Saul himself, emotionally unbalanced, was predisposed to the sway of a demon. Knowing these things makes all the difference in how we understand the events at En Dor.
Saul’s Terror and Trouble
As the story opens in I Samuel 28:3, the author fills the reader in on a couple of background details vital to his tale:
1. The prophet Samuel had died, probably about five years before, when David was hiding in the wilderness from Saul. The king could not have seen the real Samuel in the flesh, as it was well after the prophet’s death.
2. Sometime before, Saul had gone to great lengths to rid Israel of mediums and spiritists. Apparently, his agents had not done a thorough job, but his decree had driven those practices underground, and their practitioners feared the punishment of violating the law—death (I Samuel 28:9).
More than anything, these details provide insight into Saul’s state of mind.
The next verse puts the story on the map. The Philistines encamp at Shunem, a town that sits at the southern foot of the hill of Moreh at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley. At this location, not only has the Philistine army effectively cut the northern tribes of Israel off from the southern ones, but if it could defeat Saul’s forces, it would also have easy access to the Israelite highlands to the south along the Ridge Route. For this reason, Saul places his troops on the northern slopes of Mount Gilboa, directly opposite the Philistine forces. He probably hopes that the rocky hillside will limit the famed chariots of his enemies and stop the Philistine campaign in its tracks.
The two armies stare at each other across the valley. “When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly” (I Samuel 28:5). The king fears so much because the Philistine army seems invincible. No count of soldiers who took part in the battle is recorded, but it seems plausible that the Israelite forces were greatly outnumbered, bore inferior weapons (see I Samuel 13:18-22), and lacked horses and chariots to counter those of the Philistines.
Adding to Saul’s ill-concealed terror is the fact that God has refused to answer any of his supplications (I Samuel 28:6). In earlier days, he had been able to inquire of Him through Samuel, but since the prophet had been dead for five years, all communication had stopped. Saul has had no inspired dreams to guide him, and he had gone to the Tabernacle to beseech the high priest to use the Urim and Thummin but to no avail. All other prophets in the land had proven themselves useless, giving him not one word from God.
So, Saul reasons absurdly, if God had spoken to him only through Samuel, he would seek the prophet, dead or not. He would try to find a medium, if one were nearby, so she could put him in touch with the dead prophet and receive an answer. Saul seems not to have realized that, if God would not speak to him in the approved ways, He would surely not answer him through one of the forbidden ways! His dementia and fear are such that he can no longer reason. He would act contrary to God’s and his own law to get an answer to a question that his heart already knows the answer to.
He asks his servants to find him a nearby medium (verse 7), and they have what seems to be an immediate answer: “One is not too far away, just in En Dor!” How convenient! How do his servants know about this nearby medium-in-hiding? Did they expect to be asked such a question? Were they in the habit of consulting mediums? Could this be the reason such practitioners had not all been expelled from Israel, that they had high-level protection at court?
Whatever the case, En Dor is not as convenient as it appeared. The village, about ten miles away, lies north and a little east of Shunem on the other side of the hill of Moreh—that is, the Philistine army’s lines stretch between Saul on Mount Gilboa and the medium’s house. Going through the Philistine lines, even disguised (verse 8), is out of the question, and so, either walking or riding in the dark of night, Saul and his two guards are forced to take a circuitous route around to the east, probably doubling the distance over the hilly terrain.
“Bring Up Samuel for Me”
When the three men arrive in En Dor and find the medium’s house, Saul immediately asks her to conduct a séance for him. One look at the men tells the woman—who, by the way, is never called a “witch” in the account—that they are Israelite soldiers. Israelite soldiers fall under the command of Saul, whom she knows is in the area, and Saul is the one who had banned her livelihood. She perceives a trap. She crosses her arms and refuses, saying, in essence, “I’m not putting my head on the chopping block!”
Ironically, “Saul swore to her by the Lord” (verse 10), promising that no harm would come to her. Perhaps his authoritative voice convinces her that he means what he says. Perhaps she sees that, despite his disguise, he is a man of some means and therefore able to pay her well. Whatever it is that persuades her, she quickly agrees to do as he had asked. “Whom shall I bring up for you?” she asks, and he replies, “Bring up Samuel for me” (verse 11).
The narrative tells us nothing about the procedure the woman went through in conducting the séance for Saul. We might imagine the classical setting of a fortuneteller’s dark room, a few chairs around a table, a crystal ball sitting atop the table, and perhaps a lone candle flickering off to the side. Saul’s séance was probably nothing like this. She may have pretended to scry in a bowl of water or maybe she gazed in the fire or perhaps she burned some incense in a censer and sought images in the smoke. She may not have done any of these things, but simply closed her eyes and fell theatrically into a trance.
All we really know is that, this time, the woman really sees something—Samuel, she thinks—and cries out at the sight (verse 12). Immediately, she turns to Saul and identifies him by name, asking, “Why have you deceived me?” The details of this verse confirm that the woman is a fraud: She pretends to be a medium, but she never really contacts the dead. Yet, this time is different, and it scares her.
Her client, she guesses, must be someone special, and who but Saul has enough pull with God and the prophet Samuel to cause him to appear—to her!—so long after his death? In addition, she suddenly realizes that, like the king, this man is tall—taller than any other man that she had ever seen in Israel (I Samuel 9:1-2). She immediately fears again for her life, thinking that Saul had tricked her into revealing herself as a medium.
That the woman is afraid of the apparition is a clue that she does not see a friendly spirit. Scripture contains a number of instances of people seeing angels, and in nearly every case, the angel speaks positive, soothing words (see, for example, Judges 6:12; 13:3; Daniel 9:22-23; 10:11-12; Luke 1:12-13, 29-30; 2:8-10; Revelation 1:17; etc.). On the other hand, when Job’s friend, Eliphaz, has a demon-inspired dream and sees a spirit pass before his face, he feels extreme fear and receives no comfort (Job 4:12-21).
The text says that “the woman saw Samuel,” but upon further study, it is clear that she only thinks she sees Samuel. She had called for Samuel at Saul’s request, and a spirit rose before her, so she assumes that it is indeed Samuel. However, when Saul presses her, “What did you see?” she replies more vaguely, “I saw a spirit ascending out of the earth” (I Samuel 28:13). Note that Saul sees nothing; he has to ask her what she sees.
The fact that the spirit rises “out of the earth” is a telling detail. The Bible consistently indicates that spirits that come from the earth are not from God, as His messengers come from Him in heaven (see Galatians 1:8; Revelation 10:1; 14:6, 17; 15:1; 18:1; 20:1; etc.). Spirits associated with the earth are demons, who come from Satan, the god of this world (II Corinthians 4:4; see Job 1:6-7; 2:1-2; Luke 4:5-7; Revelation 12:9; 13:1-2, 11; 16:13-14). The writer of the book is indicating that this spirit is not Samuel but a demon impersonating him.
In Hebrew, the woman describes this being as elohim. She may have meant that the spirit was one of the “strong ones,” which is the meaning of its root, el, but that is unlikely. Here, the word is accompanied by a plural verb, so her actual words are, “I saw gods ascend out of the earth.” When elohim is paired with a plural verb, it is a scriptural indication of pagan gods (see Psalm 96:5; 97:7). Most likely, several spirits rose with the one she thought was Samuel. Would not the great prophet be accompanied by a retinue of angels?
Saul is not content with her vague answer, so he seeks more detail. She replies that she sees “an old man . . . covered with a mantle” (I Samuel 28:14), and from this meager description, Saul perceives that the spirit is the dead prophet and prostrates himself. Why is her scant description so convincing?
Samuel had indeed been an old man when he had died (perhaps as old as 92), a fact everyone knew. However, what sways the king is the mention of a mantle, a loose outer cloak (like an overcoat) that, it appears, had already become associated with prophets. Less than two centuries later, in the days of Elijah and Elisha, a prophet passing his mantle on to another would indicate the transferal of the office (see I Kings 19:16, 19). That Elisha later duplicates one of Elijah’s miracles with the mantle verifies his status as prophet (II Kings 2:8, 14). Perhaps Samuel himself had begun this tradition by wearing such a mantle.
Whatever the case, Saul wants the apparition to be Samuel so that he could get some answers. These two nebulous details prove to be enough to sell him on the identification.
A Cruel Answer
The internal evidence from the narrative reveals a number of significant details to conclude that the spirit the medium saw was not Samuel but a demon impersonating him. One of the most obvious clues is that the text tells the reader outright—twice!—that the Lord would not answer Saul (I Samuel 28:6, 15-16), and there is no way that God would answer him through a lying spirit during an abominable séance! One of the points of the story is to show what desperate people will do when they are cut off from God, in fear for their lives, and without hope.
Yet, this does not mean that the demon does not give Saul a truthful answer. Acting as if it were Samuel, the demon wounds the king with the cruelest words it can use, complaining about being disturbed in his rest, mocking Saul for seeking him, and rubbing it in that God had left him and become his enemy. It reminds him of one of Samuel’s prophecies—given when Saul had disobeyed God’s instruction about the punishment of Amalek and its king, Agag (see I Samuel 15)—foretelling that the kingdom would be torn from him and given to another, David (I Samuel 15:23, 26-28). Finally, it predicts that both he and his sons would die in the next day’s battle against the Philistines, a reasonable assumption considering how overmatched Saul’s forces were.
The demon’s words have the desired effect: “Immediately, Saul fell full length on the ground, and was dreadfully afraid because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no food all day or all night” (I Samuel 28:20). Playing on Saul’s fears and weakness, the demon succeeds in bringing the big man low, destroying any remnant of hope. Later, after finally eating and resting (verses 21-25), he leaves the medium’s house a completely broken man.
So, what happened at En Dor?
1. At the end of his rope and highly susceptible to suggestion, Saul was ready to clutch at any straw of hope for a better outcome.
2. The medium was a fraud, bilking people of their money by preying on their superstitions. The spirit’s appearance shocked her.
3. At most God allowed a demon to impersonate Samuel and pronounce Saul’s doom to him, to give him the truth from the only source he had ever trusted to speak straight to him.
In the end, the story of Saul and the medium at En Dor is a morality play of sorts, an object lesson to teach how dangerous it is to forsake God and turn to the counsels of demons through sorcery and divination. It is a path of fear, despair, lies, curses, and death. It records the sad and tragic end of a man who had shown such great potential but who had allowed jealousy and pride to bring him and his house to ruin.