Today we’re in the spirit of Halloween as we meet a remarkable cast of characters found in the Old Testament book of 1 Samuel 28:3-25. In the ghoulish theme of the season, we are taking a field trip along with ancient King Saul and a couple of his assistants. We’re off to see an unusual lady—unnamed—who has some fantastic powers. Okay, so this isn’t just some ordinary consultation that King Saul sought. The lady we’ll meet is politely referred to as a medium, otherwise known as a diviner or witch. Yikes! Hold on to your seats and don’t dim the lights during this bone chilling adventure.
Have you ever heard of a séance? No, we won’t try to conduct one this morning but brace yourself for an ancient séance that will conjure a dead prophet. Before we get too far, know this: The story of the witch of Endor seldom receives the attention it deserves, likely because it is rife with controversy. For those of you who know me, these conditions are an irresistible invitation to jump in, dig deep, and have some fun learning.
Now for the backstory. King Saul had been fighting against a culture known as the Philistines. This enemy is at the gates and Saul is about to lose his kingdom. Desperate for help, Saul needs a boost from beyond. The trouble is that King Saul had ordered that all sorcerers, diviners, mediums and such be put to death. In helping to save the day, Saul’s advisors knew of at least one witch whom they had spared—as something of an insurance policy I suppose. Saul and his small entourage trekked to the witch and asked her to raise the recently-deceased prophet Samuel.
As instructed, the witch of Endor summoned the dead prophet. Unfortunately, Samuel didn’t like being bothered. Perhaps the dead prophet was enjoying is rest and couldn’t appreciate being involuntarily brought back to earth. Nonetheless, Samuel warned King Saul about his sins and his imminent death. This was unlikely what Saul wanted to hear. Devastated, Saul refused to eat after hearing the horrible news. The witch and Saul’s two assistants finally got Saul on his feet, but sadly Saul’s life would end in just a few days later.
What should we or could we make of this story, one of the most bizarre in scripture? Let’s not cheat ourselves by dismissing the story as enticing froth. The narrative structure and indisputable sense of today’s passage is just as solid—or not—as any other in the Old Testament. This means that the writer of this event believed that the story was true and therefore worth preserving as holy writ.
Modern images about rising from the dead, witches, and all that Hollywood horror stuff are supported from this biblical passage. Before we get enticed by special powers there are warnings in the biblical books of Leviticus, Exodus, and elsewhere that condemn to death those practicing the magic arts. Extreme? Certainly, but that’s ancient Judaism for you. The question begs about what modern followers of God should do with the story of the witch of Endor. Definitive conclusions may remain elusive, but good questions remain. Are people still summoned from the dead? What’s the harm? Can someone be involuntarily retrieved from the grave by magic? Where is God in all of this and what does it say about the fluid, tenuous connection between this life and the next?
After meeting the witch of Endor, we are reminded that the universe is a marvelous, strange place. If nothing else, we can walk away with a rousing shake-up. Yes, an occasional shock & awe treatment serves a greater purpose, as if to stir people from spiritual apathy and slumber. Now that God has our attention we can renew and refresh our spirits. Happy Halloween! –Reverend Larry Hoxey