Man standing in flames

Ghost, Demon, or Hallucination: Did Samuel Return from the Dead?

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.


About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).

2 thoughts on “Ghost, Demon, or Hallucination: Did Samuel Return from the Dead?

  1. I think the story of Samuel appearing to Saul in the Bible is pretty straightforward and I have always taught that’s exactly what happened. The Bible warns in several places (Deuteronomy, Leviticus, Revelation) to have nothing to do with mediums, witches, wizards, sorcerers, etc. but it does not say they are fake or have no power. The danger of dabbling in the occult is encountering someone that does in fact have supernatural power, but not power that comes from God or through the Holy Spirit. There is a spiritual realm just out of our sight and the followers of God are warned not to go poking around into it. The first signs demonstrated by Moses and Aaron the magicians of Egypt were able to duplicate using their “secret arts.”

    There is another passage of scripture I find problematic. When Jesus comes to his disciples walking on water, in Matthew and Luke, they are afraid and cry out in fear thinking it is a ghost. Jesus responds that it’s just him and not to be afraid. I wish he had said “It’s just me, don’t be afraid. There are no such things as ghosts.” I don’t believe there are ghosts, but I’ve Bible students claim the disciples believed in them. When Jesus calmed the wind and waves they were afraid; the simple fact if they did not fully understand who or what Jesus was until later.

  2. What you should also think about is this, no man can prophesy without the Holy Spirit.. This would mean that in spiritual form, Samuel also prophesied in the Spirit. The implication is staggering. He was not bodily present. Yet GOD spoke through him. GOD confronted Samuel in his sinful moment and turned is against him by showing Samuel what David had said.Psalm 139:8, even in this place, HE was there.(Sorry not my original point)
    I came across this thought/idea when I was trying to understand body, soul and spirit..What is the difference between soul and spirit? Its obvious that GOD used the Spirit of Samuel and yet prophesied in the Holy Spirit. Also its obvious that GOD did not feel the need to explain this further. SO other than to know what HE did.. I cant help but to think of the Mount of transfiguration somehow.. Anyway, as far as ghosts go, I would say those are spiritual beings (not human), and demonic. Wandering the land too and fro causing mischief.

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