Teaching through the Bible yearly as a Biblical Literature prof at Western Seminary has given me the opportunity to interact with many challenging interpretive questions. One that still puzzles me is the account of Samuel’s posthumous appearance before Saul and the witch of En-dor (1 Samuel 28:8-14).
Saul was facing a critical battle with the Philistines and sought out a medium to help him determine the outcome. In the Hebrew, the phrase translated “medium” literally reads, “a woman who is a mistress of necromancy,” that is, one who consults the dead to determine the future. Under the cover of darkness, Saul traveled to En-dor and asked the medium to bring up the prophet Samuel from the dead (28:11).
The medium carried out Saul’s instructions, but rather than using the tricks of her trade to deceive Saul, she was very much surprised to see an old man appear whom Saul identified as Samuel (28:14). The appearance of Samuel has been interpreted in various ways by scholars and theologians.
Some have suggested that the appearance of Samuel was psychological – in the mind of Saul. There are two against this view: (1) the woman also saw Samuel, v. 12; and (2) Saul actually talked with Samuel, v. 15.
The Church Fathers held the view that a demon impersonated Samuel and appeared to Saul. But the message recorded in 28:16-19 would have hardly come from a demon.
Still others have concluded that the medium was a fraud and tricked Saul into thinking that he saw Samuel. Yet, the medium was surprised by Samuel’s appearance (28:12) and that would not have been the case had it been planned or accomplished by trickery.
It may be best for us to follow the view embraced in rabbinical tradition that the text records a genuine appearance of Samuel that God Himself brought about. There are at least five arguments in favor of this interpretation:
1. The medium was surprised, indicating that something happened that she was not expecting (28:12).
2. Saul identified the figure as Samuel and bowed down in respect for the prophet. It is unlikely that Saul, who knew Samuel so well, would have been deceived by an impersonation.
3. The message Samuel spoke was clearly from God (28:16-19).
4. The biblical text itself says that the figure was Samuel (28:12,15-16). It is clear that the author, under divine inspiration, intended the readers to understand that Samuel actually appeared to Saul.
5. A similar appearance of men from the dead took place when Moses and Elijah appeared at Christ’s transfiguration (Matt. 17:3).
Although somewhat puzzling and problematic, there is nothing inherently difficult with God bringing about a posthumous appearance of Samuel the prophet. I believe this is the most straight forward reading of the text.