Heart of the Story: King Saul consulted an out-lawed witch and received the worst possible news.
Backstory: The account of Saul and the witch of Endor occurred in 1010 AD, a day or two prior to Saul’s death in battle with the Philistines. Endor was a town in the tribal lands of Issachar near the Kishon River in the Jezreel Valley. Although located in the tribal lands of Issachar, Endor belonged to Manasseh (Joshua 17:11). Initially, the Manassehites weren’t strong enough to wrest Endor from the Caananites; however, by Saul’s reign, Endorites paid tribute to Manasseh. At some point earlier Saul expelled mediums and spiritualists from Endor and the entire Promised Land. Possibly, “expel” was a euphemism for killing them as Mosaic Law required (Exodus 22:18).
Story Line: King Saul’s interaction with the witch of Endor occurred prior a huge battle between the Israelite and Philistine armies. When Saul saw the size and might of the Philistine army, he was terrified. Saul asked God for help and direction; but God was silent, he gave Saul no response. By this point in Israelite history, Samuel was dead. No major prophet took his place. In desperation Saul asked his attendants to find a medium, a woman who talked to spirits, so he could inquire of her about the pending battle.
A disguised Saul went to the witch of Endor’s home. Saul asked the witch to bring up Samuel’s spirit so Saul could consult him. Initially the witch refused saying that Saul was setting a trap for her; consulting the dead was a sin in Israel. After Saul reassured the witch and offered her payment, she agreed to contact Samuel’s spirit.
When Samuel’s spirit was brought up, the prophet wasn’t pleased with Saul. Samuel told Saul that God turned away from him and gave his throne to David. The reason for God’s action was Saul’s disobedience. Saul didn’t carry out God’s judgment against the Amalekites. Samuel conveyed that tomorrow the Philistines would win the battle with the Israelites and Saul would die.
Saul collapsed from hearing Samuel’s dire words. Now the witch was terrified. Immediately, she reminded Saul (and his men) that he promised not to kill her if she obeyed. When the witch learned that Saul was fasting, she offered to prepare a meal. Initially Saul declined; but when urged by his men, the king agreed to eat. The witch killed and butchered a calf and made bread without yeast. After eating, Saul and his men left her home.
Pondering Relationships: The witch of Endor didn’t worship the Israelite god. Nonetheless, God used her to convey a clear message to King Saul – tomorrow the Philistines would win the battle and Saul would be killed.
Throughout this story we discern that witch doesn’t trust King Saul and his men. Likely, she recognized that her visitors were Israelites. Initially, she denied any ability to contact spirits. She knew the Israelite law on witchcraft and about the death or expulsion of many of her colleagues under Saul’s reign.
In ancient times it was customary for prophets and spiritualists to be paid for their interventions (1 Samuel 9:8, Ezekiel 13:19). Likely Saul’s promise not to harm her coupled with the rich payment he offered persuaded the witch to contact a spirit.
From the witch’s point of view, the result could not have gone any worse. True, she was able to contact Samuel; but Samuel was mad at being disturbed and had a message of defeat and death for Saul. She was justifiably scared. It wasn’t unusual for kings and lords to kill messenger who brought bad news to them. When Saul heard Samuel’s news and collapsed, immediately the witch reminded him and his men that they promised not to hurt her.
When she saw Saul’s terror and learned that he had been fasting, the witch offered to make a meal for the king and his companions. Her offer could have stemmed from self-preservation or she may have had compassion on Saul, after all his future was dire. The Jewish historian, Josephus (Whiston 1987), believed that it was compassion for King Saul that caused the witch to slay and cook her fatted calf for Saul.
Possibly, the witch of Endor was a fraud and swindler and had no real power. Perhaps she was in league with Satan and worshipped demons. Yet, she didn’t offer Saul platitudes, e.g., everything will win the battle and achieve a mighty victory. Instead she foretold a message one that came true the next day; a message from God.
Reflection: God can use even a person dedicated to Satan to do his will. The witch of Endor exhibited compassion for Saul, a man with no future benefit to her. Do we help others who are destitute and will give us nothing in return, or is our help narrowed to individual who can benefit us?
Copyright: December 4, 2014: Carolyn A. Roth, used with permission only.