The Spirit-woman of Endor
First Samuel 28 tells the story of the eve of King Saul’s death. The night before his final battle against the Philistines, distraught and having come up short in all of the normally available means of divine guidance, Saul takes the desperate measure of seeking out a medium to put him in contact with the spirit of the prophet Samuel, now dead, who had been his spiritual advisor until the two had a falling out over Saul’s failure to complete the massacre of the Amalekites. Saul finds such a woman in Endor and skirts past the enemy encampment at Shunem to consult with her. She does indeed summon the spirit of Samuel, but the prophet merely confirms that God has rejected Saul and that the king is destined to meet his end.
How are we to understand this strange story? And how are we to understand the “strange” woman, traditionally though inaccurately called the “witch of Endor,” at its center? My contention is that it is fruitful to set her within the spectrum of what I have been calling Israel’s wise-woman tradition. To be sure, she is never called a “wise woman” in the text. Rather, she is called an ‘eshet ba`alat ‘ob, literally “a woman who is the mistress of an ob” (i.e., a ghost or spirit). NRSV translates this expression by the word “medium.”
Furthermore, this woman practices necromancy, an occult practice specifically forbidden in the Torah (Deut 18:9-14). Continuing to approach the wise-woman texts phenomenologically, let us set aside for now the fact that there is a spiritually unsavory undertone to her profession. First we must seek to understand what she is doing and how it fits within Israel’s wise-woman traditions. (Claude Mariottini posted a student paper on the Medium of Endor that I commend to you as excellent background reading.)
I would argue that it is indeed appropriate to connect her with the wise-woman tradition. First of all, we have already seen that Israel’s wise women may have been associated with folk-religious rituals, especially those involved with childbirth and mourning. Of these, the clearest biblical evidence pertains to the rituals of death and bereavement, since, as we have seen (1) women mourners are specifically called “wise women” in Jeremiah 9:17 and (2) the wise woman of Tekoa makes verbal allusions to rituals related to mourning and honoring the dead in her conversation with David.
The practical and spiritual ministrations surrounding both birth and death were laden with ritualism in the ancient world—and indeed continue to attract ritual accretions even in the practice of thoroughly orthodox religious adherents today. We can probably safely suppose that, in addition to their skills in leadership and conflict resolution, Israel’s wise women were acquainted with various forms of ritual symbolism, parallelism, homeopathy, or even sympathetic magic. This was certainly the case for their non-Israelite sisters.
A second reason to identify the woman of Endor as a wise woman is that her actions harmonize well with the “core” of the wise-woman tradition. She is first and foremost a mediator figure. Obviously, her profession casts her as a mediator between the living and the dead. On an even more basical level, in her ministration to King Saul “attempts to resolve a dispute between Saul and Samuel—a difficult task inasmuch as one of the parties to this dispute is already dead” (Michael S. Moore, “‘Wise Women’ or Wisdom Woman? A Biblical Study of Women’s Roles,” Restoration Quarterly 35/3  152). Just as Joab enlisted the aid of a wise woman to help resolve the conflict between David and Absalom and as Abigail stepped in to attempt a reconciliation between David and Nabal, so does Saul seek out someone who can achieve a reconciliation between himself and Samuel—and God.
The conclusion of the story also suggests that the woman of Endor was in some sense a motherly figure. In Saul’s distress, she offers him “a morsel of bread” to eat. When he refuses, she practically forces him to eat something (1 Sam 28:22-23). Then she sets before him what can only be described as a royal feast, providing a whole fatted calf for Saul, two servants, and herself (v. 24-25)! She takes care of him in his moment of crisis. In the process, she demonstrates the kind of compassion and hospitality one might expect in the rural, tribal traditions of the patriarchs.
But does being a “medium” or a “wizard” (1 Sam 28:3) cohere with the identity of an Israelite wise woman? Certainly not in the sense that all wise women practiced these forbidden techniques. As with midwives and mourners, it is impossible to make a compelling case that all wise women were versed in the occult arts. One could possibly argue that all or nearly all of them practiced more benign forms of folk magic—comparable to an Appalachian “granny woman” who puts a knife under the bed to take away labor pains or advising placing a Bible under one’s pillow to drive away nightmares—but that is not what this story is about. At best, necromancy is on the fringes of the Hebrew wise-woman tradition, at least as it is portrayed in Scripture.
One should note, however, that the attempt to divide “good” magic from “bad” is also found in later Judaism. Geoffrey Dennis notes that magical incantations, for example, even appear in the Talmud—and therefore are presumably sanctioned by at east some of the early-medieval sages. Most of these incantations have to do with healing. Other forms of magic, love spells, curses to inflict upon one’s enemies, etc., are never endorsed. In general, the rabbinic sages are far more tolerant of spells that enhance praiseworthy goals: healing or assistance in learning the Torah, for example.
Last time we looked at Israel’s ancient cult of the dead and saw how at least certain aspects of that cult eventually came under severe condemnation. Why might this cult be a part of the wise woman’s interests? It may be precisely because of the importance of family and tribal traditions. As King and Stager point out,
Nurturing the dead was a way for family members to maintain the relationship between one generation and the next. In other words, cult of the dead emphasized the continuity of kinship. (Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel [Westminster/John Knox, 2001] 376)
Israelite folk religion envisioned consulting the dead through ritual objects or religious specialists, a class of people outlawed in several passages of the Pentateuch and apparently by Saul as well. In Israel sorcery seems to have been practiced chiefly by women. King and Stager suggest this may have been to compensate for the fact that they had no role in the official cult (King and Stager, 380), although the prominence of female magical practitioners seems to be almost universal in the ancient world—even in cultures were formally installed female priestesses were commonplace.
Evaluating the Wise Woman of Endor
One might assume that extrabiblical evaluations of the medium of Endor would be uniformly negative, but this is not the case. Timothy Beech states,
Outside of the biblical narrative, the evaluation of the medium appears to have been both positive and negative. Pseudo-Philo, for example, associates her with Israel’s enemies by identifying her as the daughter of a Midianite diviner who had once lead Israel astray (64.3), and completely eliminates the oft regarded details of her hospitality and tenderness. [Ps.-Philo also gives her a name: Sedecla—DJP] Josephus, on the other hand, hesitates to say anything negative at all about her, but instead praises her character as a model for all to emulate (Antiquities 6.340-342). (“Witch of Endor,” Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture [Sheffield Phoenix, forthcoming])
Josephus’ positive attitude toward this woman is surprising. In Antiquities 6.342 (= VI.14.4) he says,
Now it is but just to recommend the generosity of this woman, because when the king had forbidden her to use that art whence her circumstances were bettered and improved, and when she had never seen the king before, she still did not remember to his disadvantage that he had condemned her sort of learning, and did not refuse him as a stranger, and one that she had had no acquaintance with; but she had compassion upon him, and comforted him, and exhorted him to do what he was greatly averse to, and offered him the only creature she had, as a poor woman, and that earnestly, and with great humanity, while she had no requital made her for her kindness, nor hunted after any future favor from him, for she knew he was to die; whereas men are naturally either ambitious to please those that bestow benefits upon them, or are very ready to serve those from whom they may receive some advantage. It would be well therefore to imitate the example and to do kindnesses to all such as are in want and to think that nothing is better, nor more becoming mankind, than such a general beneficence, nor what will sooner render God favorable, and ready to bestow good things upon us. (Emphasis added)
According to Josephus, the woman of Endor had a number of positive traits. Following on Josephus’ lead, we might suggest the following:
- She is hospitable. Though Saul is a stranger, she welcomes him into her home.
- She is forgiving. Josephus imagines that Saul, having banished mediums and wizards from his kingdom, has deprived this woman of her livelihood. Even so, she consents to help him.
- She is compassionate. When she sees Saul’s distressed state, she has compassion on him.
- She is nurturing. She comforts Saul in his distress.
- She is practical. She encourages Saul to eat and regain his strength.
- She is generous. Even though her fatted calf was all she had, she offers it to Saul and his servants.
- She is selfless. She seeks no reward or compensation for her services.
Therefore, Josephus says, we should imitate her example in these things.
From the point of view of Deuteronomic theology, the only “good guy” in this story is Samuel—and he is dead and only appears under protest! If Josephus has it right, however, perhaps we are meant to see positive traits in the “bad guys.” (Following his praise of the woman of Endor, Josephus goes on to praise Saul for his bravery in going out to battle the next day even though he knows he will die.)
I’m reminded of the story of King Abimelech in Genesis 20. This was the Philistine king whom Abraham feared would kill him for the sake of his wife, Sarah. Therefore, he concocted the lie that she was really his sister. Abimelech brings Sarah into his harem, but God warns him not to touch her. When Abimelech protests that he didn’t know Sarah was a married woman, God agrees, saying “Yes, I know that you did this in the integrity of your heart; furthermore it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her” (Gen 20:6). Here we see a non-Israelite, a worshiper of foreign gods, who speaks with God, whom God keeps from sinning, and whose character God personally endorses. By the end of the story, we are left to contemplate how a pagan king can be more righteous than the chosen patriarch. Similarly, by Josephus’s reading 1 Samuel 28 perhaps forces us to consider the possibility that a necromancer can demonstrate greater sensitivity to the things of God than a reprobate king.
Perhaps, to paraphrase Forrest Gump, pagan is as pagan does.