Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Archive for August 2012

1 Samuel 28: 3-25 


This strange episode is full of drama, mystery and tragedy. Perhaps Saul’s story was in Shakespeare’s mind when he let Macbeth fall under the influence of the witches.

The state of play at the beginning of 1 Samuel 28 is as follows:

Saul is disheartened by the threat of the Philistines, who are mustering their forces for war against Israel. Samuel has died and Saul is no longer able to obtain prophetic counsel regarding the inevitable military engagement. More than that he has lost a father figure, however harsh and critical that father figure may have been.

Saul is pious in his observance of Torah and has banished witchcraft from the land, in obedience to Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 19:3, Leviticus 20:6 and Leviticus 20:27.

You shall not permit a sorceress to live.Give no regard to mediums and familiar spirits; do not seek after them, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God.

The person who turns to mediums and familiar spirits, to prostitute himself with them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from his people.

A man or a woman who is a medium, or who has familiar spirits, shall surely be put to death; they shall stone them with stones. Their blood shall be upon them.

However, Saul now seeks a sorceress, because God does not answer him through the legitimate means of  prophecy – dreams, Urim and Tummim and prophets. Unlike David, Saul has no dialogue with God. David is in continual conversation with God, in his Psalms and also in his supplications; it is as if God accompanies David in his daily affairs. Saul never addresses God in this way, and reaches out to God only by using Samuel as an intermediary, even using the expression ‘Your God’ when he speaks to Samuel. 1 The loss of Samuel is therefore all the more devastating for Saul, as the lines of communication with God are now closed to him.

The Urim and Tummim are a divining function of the priestly breastplate. Sumerian literature makes reference to the Tablets of Destinies, objects performing divination in Mesopotamian culture. The priestly passages in the Pentateuch refer to the priests operating Urim and Tummim, but in the post-exilic books, they are conspicuous only by their absence:

The governor told them that they were not to partake of the most holy food, until there should be a priest to consult Urim and Thummim. 2

The silence of the Urim and Tummim at Saul’s time of need may be attributed to his massacre of the priests of Nob who had sheltered David; following this violence against the priesthood, the Urim and Tummin no longer respond to his enquiries.

Saul instructs his servants to find him a Baalat Ov – literally, mistress of ghosts. The Mishnah tells us that, although it is against the halakhah to consult a necromancer, the client, unlike the necromancer himself, is not liable to be executed.3 The Baalat Ov therefore potentially has more to lose than the king.

Saul disguises himself for the visit to Endor, with different clothes. Significant moments in Saul’s kingship have involved the changing or tearing of clothes, always with a negative connotation. He offers David his own armour for the fight with Goliath, unconsciously anticipating the passing of the kingdom from himself to David.4 When he tears Samuel’s cloak accidentally, Samuel says:

The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbour of yours, who is better than you.5

When pursued by Saul, David finds Saul off his guard in a cave and cuts off the corner of Saul’s robe.6

Saul’s son Jonathan takes off his garments, in effect the royal garments of the heir presumptive, and makes a gift of them to David:

Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was on him and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.7

Now, Saul sheds his kingly garments for the last time. A midrash says that he divested himself of royalty, reading the sin in vayithappes as a shin, to make the point that, in disguising himself, he made himself free  (hofshi) of the kingdom.8  He sets out by night, heading north to Endor in the region of the Jezreel Valley. He is accompanied by two servants, named as Abner and Amasa in Vayyikra Rabbah, where Saul is commended in following the Abrahamic precedent of taking two servants with him.9 Louis Ginzberg in ‘Legends of the Jews’ cites a tradition10 that the witch was Abner’s mother.

Disguised as a commoner, Saul tells the witch of Endor to conjure up a ghost. The woman replies that she is afraid to do so, since King Saul has abolished witchcraft and she fears for her life. Saul assures her  ‘As the Lord lives, no blame will befall you through this thing.’

Rabbi Levi, cited in Vayyikra Rabbah, sees the irony of Saul invoking God when he is about to break the law:

He was like a woman who is in the company of her paramour and swears by the life of her husband!11

The woman then asks who is to be summoned and Saul tells her ‘Bring up Samuel.’ What follows is startling – not only because the ghost of Samuel appears, but because the witch screams when she sees him. And she says at once ‘Why did you deceive me, for you are Saul?’  What has happened to make her recognize Saul?

Vayyikra Rabbah has an explanation: ghosts materialize upside down – except in the presence of a king. The witch tells Saul ‘An old man is coming up and he is wrapped in a cloak.’ This is Samuel’s meil, a cloak which he always wears, even from childhood when his mother Hannah made him a cloak, and just such a cloak was torn by Saul in 1 Samuel 15. In Hebrew, old man is ish zaken, but the Septuagint has a different translation: ‘An upright man (andra orthion) ascending out of the earth.’

Besides seeing Samuel, the witch sees elohim ascending: the spirits of elders accompanying Samuel. In Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum, a Latin rewriting of the book of Samuel by a Jewish author Pseudo-Philo, first century CE and therefore contemporary with Philo of Alexandria, Samuel says to the witch: ‘It is not you that have brought me up, but the precept which God spoke to me while I yet lived.’12  Perhaps we should understand that the witch is a charlatan who is taken by surprise when a ghost really appears, like the medium played by Whoopi Goldberg in the film ‘Ghost.’

As Saul asks the witch what she sees, we may infer that Saul himself does not see the ghost. Vayyikra Rabbah explains:

Three things are said of one who conjures up spirits by enchantment: the one who brings up the ghost sees it but does not hear its voice; the one who requires it hears its voice but does not see it; the one who has no need of it can neither hear nor see it. It was like this with Samuel: the woman who brought him up saw him but did not hear his voice; Saul, who needed him, heard his voice but did not see him; Abner and Amasa, who had no need of him, did not hear his voice and did not see him.13

When Saul hears that the ghost is wrapped in a cloak, he knows that this is Samuel and bows down on the ground.

Samuel’s opening words, expressing characteristic displeasure, are the only biblical instance of speech from beyond the grave. ‘Why have you disturbed me?’ is an understated translation of lamah hirgaztani, ‘Why have you caused me to shake?’ The midrashic rabbis attributed Samuel’s shaking to a fear that he had been roused for the day of judgment, noting that even the holy man and seer, Samuel, regards divine judgment with fear and trembling.

This idea of the afterlife  fits Daniel’s description in which the dead sleep, and are woken at the appointed time:

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.14

Saul immediately tells Samuel of his problems: the battling Philistines, the estrangement of God and the silence of prophecy. As in Samuel’s lifetime, Saul relies on Samuel, his curmudgeonly mentor. He does not refer to the Urim and Thummim;  their priestly connotation may remind Samuel of Saul’s massacre of the priests at Nob.

Samuel’s brusque reply begins with a play on Saul’s name: ‘Lamah tishaleni? Why do you ask?’ Saul’s name of course means ‘asked’ from shin aleph lamed. He is the asked-for king of 1 Samuel 8, whom Samuel provides against his better judgment. Samuel now tells Saul that God has torn the kingdom away from him (a repetition of Samuel’s words in 1 Samuel 15:28) and given it to his adversary, David. Brutally explicit, Samuel drives home the point that this is all Saul’s fault, due to his disobedience over the herem against the Amalekites. Worse still, he prophesies defeat in the forthcoming battle in which Saul and his sons will be slain. The seer who brought royalty to Saul now tells him of his impending death.

Saul prostrates himself or faints, full length on the ground (and we know that he was an exceptionally tall man15) due to fear and physical weakness caused by fasting. If you read the earlier chapters, you will see how fasting has already figured significantly in the lives of Saul and his son Jonathan16 and David.17

The witch now shows a kindly, maternal side and begs Saul to eat. When he refuses, she and his two servants insist until he gets up from the ground and sits on the bed. She then makes him a dinner of veal and flatbread which he and his servants eat, before departing in the darkness of the night.

The most detailed midrash on the Endor episode is an exegesis on the parashah Emor, which begins:

And the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the priests [my italics], the sons of Aaron, and say to them: No one shall make himself unclean for the dead among his people.18

In this midrash Moses is shown a vision of Saul and his sons, falling in the battle on Mount Gilboa. Moses protests: ‘Ribbono shel Olam, is this the honour due to your children, that the first king you place over them should fall by the sword?’19

The Holy One, blessed be He, answered him ‘Do you ask this of me? Speak to the priests whom he has slain and who are acting as his accusers.’

The midrash therefore links the narrative of the witch of Endor to the exegesis of the opening verse of Emor.

It should be noted that the verse immediately prior in the Torah, namely the last verse of the parashah Kedoshim, is:

A man or a woman who is a medium or a necromancer shall surely be put to death. They shall be stoned with stones; their blood shall be upon them.20

Gillian Lazarus 6 August 2012


1 Samuel 15:21

Ezra 2:63; Nehemiah 7:65

Mishnah Sanhedrin 7:7

1 Samuel 17:38-39

1 Samuel 15:28

1 Samuel 24:4

1 Samuel 18:4

Leviticus Rabbah 26:7

Leviticus Rabbah 26:7

Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer 33

Leviticus Rabbah 26:7

Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum 64:7

Leviticus Rabbah 26:7

Daniel 12:2

1 Samuel 10:43

ibid 14:24-28; 20:34

ibid 21:4

Leviticus 21:1

Leviticus Rabbah 26:7

Leviticus 20:27

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