HER COURAGE and kindness are preserved in Scripture (First Book of Samuel, chapter 28.), yet her name was not included. Argument about the medium whom Saul, first king of Israel, consulted at Endor has continued for two millennia. Begun by later biblical writers, the dispute passed to rabbis and Christian theologians, then to psychical researchers and back to biblical scholars. Was she really in touch with the dead prophet Samuel - and if so, how?
King Saul had lost the confidence of his inspirer Jehovah and could get no guidance on how to deal with a Philistine invasion. Though he had banished mediums from Israel, he found one and pressed her to bring up Samuel the prophet, who had recently died. Samuel was not sympathetic and told him that he, his sons and Israel were doomed to defeat. The medium then persuaded the shattered king to eat.
Mrs St. Clair Stobart had no doubt in Ancient Lights; the Bible, the Church and Psychic
Science (1923 p. 163ff) what happened when Saul said "Bring me up Samuel".
"And the spirit of Samuel at once began to materialize, in the presence of this powerful medium".
When the medium exclaimed, "I see Elohim ascending out of the earth" this was
"materialising, that is, from the ectoplasm exuding from the lower portion of the medium's body."
When the medium said Samuel was covered with a mantle, this was
"ectoplasmic drapery which generally surrounds materialized spirit-forms. Then it became visible to
Before WW2, Mrs Stobart toured England, preaching Spiritualism with the parson Maurice Elliott. But he took a less definite view of the type of mediumship in his series of articles for
Psychic News collected as Spiritualism in the Old Testament (1938).
The point about the mantle, he notes, was evidential. Saul had torn it in his last meeting with the aged Samuel (1 Samuel 15.27). Elliott adds:
"Samuel then spoke to Saul - either through the medium, or in the direct voice, or he was heard by her
clairaudiently - and asked why he had sought him." (p.139)
Many other discussions of this case might be quoted, but I would suggest that we do not know the precise form of mediumship
employed - only that it was very dramatic mediumship, by a woman risking death.
The 1611 Authorised translation of the Bible calls the medium "a woman with a familiar
spirit" - in Hebrew "a woman with an OB". The meaning of OB has been much debated, with some scholars suggesting it was an object like a wand, but J. Stafford Wright, an Evangelical member of the SPR suggested "spirit control". In truth, the meaning of the various terms for occult practitioners in ancient Hebrew remains uncertain. (One can similarly imagine a future scholar trying to understand references to "trumpets" in modern
sťance records, confident that it must be a musical instrument.)
There is a valuable recent survey of death and the afterlife in the Jewish Bible by Philip Johnston
Shades of Sheol (Apollos, 2002.) Johnston is an Evangelical Christian, and possibly plays down that of which he disapproves. But he acknowledges that the author of the
Book of Samuel believed that Samuel returned.
The biblical writer was also careful not to make the medium into the villain of the story. This is a theme of Susan M. Pigott's reassessment "1 Samuel 28 - Saul and the Not So Wicked Witch of Endor" which appeared in
Review and Expositor (a Southern Baptist journal) 1998 435-444. Rather, it is Saul who is condemned.
The medium describes herself, when urging him to eat, as Saul's "handmaid", a term which (as Dr Pigott notes) "functions uniquely in Deuteronomistic history to refer to women who are integral in establishing and legitimizing David as
king." Moreover "the sacrificial meal serves as a fitting marker of the end of Saul's reign and further defines the woman's prophetic role." Saul's reign had begun with a meal provided by Samuel (1 Samuel 9.19ff.)
Such insight is not apparent in many Jewish and Christian treatments of the medium over the centuries. Dinsdale Young, for example, a leading Methodist, preached on the case
(Neglected People of the Bible, 1901). Though her age was not known, he called her the crooked crone, the withered old witch, the leering scoundrel, the wrinkled necromancer and this hag. Young acknowledged that Samuel returned, but through God not through spiritualism.
"He would never deign to use it. Rather He interposed and frustrated the witch's incantations". This is reading into the text what is not there. There is no suggestion that the return of Samuel was a special divine effort.
One school of thought which is obliged to deny that Samuel returned is the teaching of "soul sleep" after death. This school has been popular among some fundamentalists. But they have difficulty with the story of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16) and even the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23.43), which indicate conscious survival after death. To them, the "Samuel" who returned was at worst a demon or at best some fraud by the medium.
To what extent was mediumship practiced in ancient Israel? Increasingly influential are the views of archaeologist Brian B. Schmidt, author of
Israel's beneficent dead; ancestor cult and necromancy in ancient Israelite religion and
tradition (revised paperback, Eisenbraun's, 1996)
Necromancy is seeking to know the future through the dead, and this was clearly what Saul was doing. His focus was somewhat different from that of some modern advocates of spirit communion, although there is no denying that the future is of great interest to the clients of many clairvoyants, past and present.
In a 2003 RBL review of Johnston's book. Dr Schmidt argues:
"... only a few, relatively late, biblical writers condemned the practice of consulting the dead or necromancy. These writers represented the Deuteronomistic or Priestly traditions and were, at the earliest, contemporaries of King Josiah of Judah. It was Josiah, perhaps inspired by his great-grandfather, King Hezekiah, who was responsible for introducing into Judahite religion a more radically restrictive form of Yahwism that excluded both traditional polytheistic Yahwism and
recently adopted Mesopotamian religious elements. For the traditional polytheistic Yahwism that remained prevalent at least down to the days of Kings Manasseh and Amon (and obviously Josiah) Mesopotamian necromancy offered a new, viable, alternative ritual form of
Schmidt believes that the Israelites adopted necromancy from the Assyrians and Babylonians (dominant powers in the region). But if Saul banished mediums, this suggests early opposition to them, perhaps by Samuel when alive. Moreover, the author of the biblical
Book of Chronicles strongly condemned Manasseh and Amon.
In conclusion, the presence in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures of the medium of Endor has ensured her case has become more widely known than that of modern mediums. There has been a general tendency for male preachers to project upon her insults that are not merited by the text. Whatever our view of her, the starting point must be what the text actually says. Biblical scholars would find it helpful to consider mediumship in other cultures including our own. Psychical researchers should also study the contributions of biblical scholars and of