The Witch of Endor: going the extra mile

1 Samuel 28

Medium of Endor ©MicahHayns

One of the films I’m most looking forward to once we can go to the cinema again is Blithe Spirit, based on the play by Noel Coward and starring the great Dame Judy Dench. She will playing the role of the psychic medium Madame Acarti who summons the ghost of the late Elvira Condomine, the first wife of Charles, who then proceeds to haunt him and his current wife. You can see the trailer here

Our next woman is also a medium and she is commonly known as the Witch of Endor, although oddly the bible never actually calls her a witch. We don’t know her name but she was clearly a well-known figure in Endor and her life was likely to have been ‘underground’ and on the margins. The ancient religious tradition of the time believed that consulting the dead could reveal secret wisdom, but all witchcraft and necromancy (speaking to the dead) had been banned by Jewish law:

No one shall be found among you who makes a son or daughter pass through fire, or who practices divination, or is a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or one who casts spells, or who consults ghosts or spirits, or who seeks oracles from the dead. For whoever does these things is abhorrent to the Lord’

Deuteronomy 18. 10-12

Added to this King Saul had recently expelled all the mediums and ‘spiritists’ from the region (1 Samuel 28.3).

I have a confession to make here. My husband is a magician and before ordination I spent my time organising parties which included magic, fire eating and general sorcery. But we didn’t summon ghosts or consult with the dead, so hopefully that’s OK!

Considering King Saul had just banished all spiritualists it’s surprising that in his time of greatest need he turned to the Medium of Endor for answers. He was at the end of his life and the Philistine forces, with David now on their side, were preparing to fight him once again. He didn’t know what to do and so, in flagrant disregard for his own law, he disguised himself and went out late at night to visit the Medium to ask her to consult the late prophet Samuel.

She lets him in but is wary. She quickly sees through his disguise and thinks it might be a trick :

‘Why have you deceived me? You are Saul’

1 Samuel 28.12

But she does what’s asked of her and summons up the spirit of the prophet Samuel. There is all the drama you would expect: Madam Acarti would have approved!

..she cried with a loud voice...I see a divine being coming up out of the ground.” He said to her, “What is his appearance?” She said, “An old man is coming up; he is wrapped in a robe.” 1 Samuel 28.13-14
Witch of Endor by Nikolai Ge, 1857.

Samuel tells Saul what he doesn’t want to hear: that Saul had angered the Lord, and by the next day he and his sons would be dead. He’s devastated by this news, understandably.

The story ends with a gesture which shows the kindness of the Medium of Endor towards the King. She saw Saul’s distress and offers him food, which he refused at first. She insisted and persuaded him to stay and even killed the fatted calf and baked some bread. He eventually ate and is restored enough to go on his way.

He does indeed die the very next day.

Reflection and Prayer

It’s hard to know what to make of this story. Do we believe the soul of Samuel was really summoned up, or was this some kind of trickery, or an apparition of a weary, hungry and desperate man? It’s been a cause of debate for centuries, with her being called a ventriloquist, a demon and a prophet. She’s been portrayed in fantasy art and even has a mention in the Star Wars franchise (the planet where the Ewok’s live is called Endor!). I don’t know the answer. I think it’s dangerous to dabble in the occult, but I’ve also been around enough magicians to know that most of it is simple sleight of hand and clever illusions.

But perhaps what we can take from this story is that she was a woman who was part of a persecuted group, who encountered the very person who had banished her people. She did what was asked of her but went the extra mile and provided much needed hospitality to her oppressor. An early Good Samaritan in fact!

But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him....Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, 
“The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
From the parable of the Good Samaritan
Luke 10: 25-37

Support for our neighbours and for those in need is crucially important at this time isn’t it? And that support can sometimes come from the most unexpected people. Let us be thankful for all those who, like the Medium of Endor, go the extra mile.

Lord Jesus, who taught us to love our neighbour as ourselves,
we lay before you the needs and concerns of our community,
knowing that in your love for us you will hear, guide and heal
according to your wisdom;
help us in our daily living, to respond
with the same love, patience and mercy
to those who call on us.
For your names sake. Amen
Frank Topping

Author: clarehayns

College Chaplain and Welfare Coordinator of Christ Church, Oxford | Mum of three boys | wife of a juggler and magician | Council of Reference of ZANE - | enjoys board games, dog walking, films, eating out.

4 thoughts on “The Witch of Endor: going the extra mile”

  1. I do sometimes think John should be sent straight to hell for some of his tricks! I am always left thinking “how the hell did he do that?” and it hurts my poor little brain!


    1. Clare, Greetings from a 70+ priest from New Zealand.
      Thank you so much for this piece, for two reasons.
      1. While being very familiar with the story, I have never noted the significance of the last paragraph – the tenderness and compassion showed by the woman. Thanks for emphasising that aspect.
      2. Like many, I am getting dependent on my daily fix of Consider the Lilies. When it didn’t come through yesterday, I was getting concerned for your welfare. Hope you and yours are all keeping well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So sorry, somehow I missed this comment! Thanks you so much for this message, and I’m delighted you’ve joined the blog from New Zealand. Happy Easter (we’re not quite there yet here).


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