In spirit of Halloween, here’s the Witch of Endor
By Michael Leo Samuel
CHULA VISTA, California — Most of you are familiar with Macbeth, which is considered to be one of the most psychologically gripping plays by Shakespeare. Macbeth tells the story about a Scottish lord named Macbeth, who chooses evil as a means of attaining power. He commits regicide to become king and furthers his moral descent through conducting a reign of terror that finally plunges his country into civil war. In the end he loses everything that gives meaning and purpose to his life before losing his life itself.
Macbeth reminds me of King Saul in a number of ways. On the battlefield of life, Saul is invincible, but in the psychological battlefield, Saul is a incredibly weak and insecure. After disobeying the prophet Samuel, Saul becomes increasingly insecure–he tries to avoid his fate. Saul is prepared to do whatever it takes to stay in power–despite the prophecy that predicts his eventual downfall.
In honor of the Halloween holiday, I thought we would examine this great story of the supernatural found in the Bible. I originally wrote this piece as I was preparing for my Confirmation class. The kids really enjoyed it. In 1 Samuel 28, we read about Saul’s encounter with the Witch of Endor. Over a thousand years ago, Jewish thinkers debated this famous biblical story. Not everyone agreed as to what really took place. Here is a partial citation from the scriptural narrative as it is recorded in 1 Samuel 28:10-21:
- · But Saul swore to her by the LORD, “As the LORD lives, you shall incur no blame for this.”Then the woman asked him, “Whom do you want me to conjure up?” and he answered, Samuel.”When the woman saw Samuel, she shrieked at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!” But the king said to her, “Have no fear. What do you see?” The woman answered Saul, “I see a ghostly being rising from the earth.” “What does he look like?” asked Saul. And she replied, “It is an old man who is rising, clothed in a mantle.” Saul knew that it was Samuel, and so he bowed face to the ground in homage. Samuel then said to Saul, “Why do you disturb me by conjuring me up?” Saul replied: “I am in great straits, for the Philistines are waging war against me and God has abandoned me. Since he no longer answers me through prophets or in dreams, I have called you to tell me what I should do.”
- To this Samuel said: “But why do you ask me, if the LORD has abandoned you and is with your neighbor? The LORD has done to you what he foretold through me: he has torn the kingdom from your grasp and has given it to your neighbor David. “Because you disobeyed the LORD’S directive and would not carry out his fierce anger against Amalek, the LORD has done this to you today. Moreover, the LORD will deliver Israel, and you as well, into the clutches of the Philistines. By tomorrow you and your sons will be with me, and the LORD will have delivered the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.” Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, for he was badly shaken by Samuel’s message. Moreover, he had no bodily strength left, since he had eaten nothing all that day and night. Then the woman came to Saul, and seeing that he was quite terror-stricken, said to him: “Remember, your maidservant obeyed you: I took my life in my hands and fulfilled the request you made of me . . .
Many of the early interpreters offer creative insights that can appeal even to a 21st century reader! One of the great rationalist theologians of the Gaonim, Samuel ben Hophni, Gaon of Sura (d.1013), father-in-law of Hai Gaon, was once asked: Should this story about the biblical story be taken literally or not? Simply put: Did the witch really raise the spirit of Samuel from the dead? How could she prophesy that Saul and his son would soon die in battle?!
Simply put, Samuel ben Hophni does not believe in ghosts. Rather, it is more logical to suppose that the witch probably knew about Saul’s impending death due to a prophetic remark Samuel made before he died. Perhaps it was nothing more than an astute observation on the part of the witch.
Here is where Samuel ben Hophni Gaon parts with rabbinical tradition. He notes that it is well known that the early rabbinic authorities interpreted this narrative quite literally. However, one is not bound to accept the views of the Sages when it contradicts reason and common sense. This is a radical thought for any Orthodox thinker to express, but Samuel Hophni Gaon did not shy away from defining the boundaries of rabbinical wisdom. His approach to the story is primarily psychological. Samuel’s appearance is really the manifestation of his guilty imagination. Saul’s conscience demands that he own up to his murderous reign–and for that Saul realizes that he must die.
Obviously, Samuel ben Hophni’s original thoughts did not settle well with his son-in-law Hai Gaon or with Egypt’s most celebrated early philosopher, Saadia Gaon. According to them, the text should not be taken out of context: the witch indeed by miraculous means managed to summon the spirit of Samuel. There are other views that suggest that ordinarily the spirit spoke through the medium, much like today’s New Age gurus “channel” a spirit. However, Saul evidently saw Samuel’s spirit without the aid of the witch. This would explain why she was so terrified, since this was the first time her powers were not necessary.
Ordinarily, human beings cannot communicate at will with the souls of the dead. However, there may be occasions when God allows a departed soul to appear to the living and even to disclose things unknown to them. Even if we wish to cede credit the reality of the apparition to Saul, the biblical narrator makes it clear that Samuel’s appearance had nothing to do with the witch, but was solely due to God’s will.
In short, it remains unclear whether the ghost of Samuel was real or conjured; it is also possible the witch may have hypnotized Saul into believing that he had seen Samuel. The Witch of Endor has become the prototype for the spirit medium as a necromancer, a magician who raises the spirits of the dead.
In both the stories of Saul and Macbeth, one common theme emerges: The mad pursuit of power can make monsters out of human beings because of their sense of hubris. Bad people become their own worse enemies–and this is a timeless lesson that applies no less today than it was in ancient or medieval times. The real tragedy is that failed leaders bring destruction and ruination not only to their own lives, but to the lives of their kingdom as well.
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