This article is part of the Tough Passages series.
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11Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He said, “Bring up Samuel for me.” 12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. 15 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” Saul answered, “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I shall do.” 16 And Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has turned from you and become your enemy? 17 The Lord has done to you as he spoke by me, for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, David. 18 Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing to you this day. 19 Moreover, the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me. The Lord will give the army of Israel also into the hand of the Philistines.” 20 Then Saul fell at once full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel. And there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night.
—1 Samuel 28:11–20
Saul without His Consultant
1 Samuel 28:3 provides two pieces of information needed to understand the subsequent narrative. First, the notice of Samuel’s death and burial is repeated from 1 Samuel 25:1. Saul can no longer consult the prophet for guidance. The second part of 1 Samuel 28:3 anticipates verse 1 Samuel 28:9. At an earlier stage Saul had acted in accordance with Mosaic law (Lev. 19:31; 20:27; Deut. 18:9–14) and had purged the land of those who practiced the occult. This was prevalent in surrounding nations but divinely proscribed as an abomination in Israel. A medium (Hb. ʼob) claimed to be able to conjure up and consult the spirit of a dead person (also termed ʼob), perhaps using ventriloquism to convince the gullible that they had contacted the departed (cf. Isa. 8:19; 29:4). A necromancer (“a knowing one”) claimed to possess knowledge through access to the spirits of the dead. As the narrative later reveals (1 Sam. 28:7), Saul’s efforts in dealing with this phenomenon, as in other expressions of his commitment to the standards of the Lord, fall short of total success.
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The Philistines abandon their earlier strategy of launching raids into the hill country of Judah and instead march north to seize control of the Valley of Jezreel, a key trade route running east to west and itself rich agricultural land. In that open terrain they can deploy their chariot forces to good effect and so drive a wedge between Saul and the northernmost tribes. At first the invaders had mustered at Aphek (1 Sam. 29:1), the northernmost Philistine settlement, but here they have advanced a further 44 miles (71 km) to Shunem, so chronologically this incident fits in after 1 Samuel 29. Shunem is on the north side of the valley, while Gilboa is on the south, about 7.5 miles (12 km) away.
When Saul sees the Philistine positions, he realizes the situation is grim and has a premonition of the outcome. In mountainous territory the Israelite infantry might hold their own, but this is open country. “Afraid” echoes “saw” (cf. comment on 1 Samuel 23:15), and along with “his heart trembled greatly” (cf. 1 Sam. 13:7) is the first of a number of indications of fearfulness in the chapter.
In the ancient world, military commanders consulted the gods before venturing into battle. However, when “Saul inquire[s] [yishʼal shaʼul; cf. comment on 1 Samuel 1:20] of the Lord,” he meets with total divine silence. None of the three recognized modes of divine communication function because the Lord refuses to speak to one who has already been rejected because of his disobedience (1 Samuel 15:26). Saul is seeking not a way back to God but a way to avert impending defeat.
Saul Services a Medium
At his wits’ end, Saul decides to use the services of “a woman who is a medium” (lit., “a woman, mistress of a spirit”).1 Such a person would conduct séances in which it was claimed that the spirits of the dead could be contacted and the greater knowledge they were credited with might be disclosed (cf. 1 Sam. 28:15). Saul’s decision to use the services of a medium violates even his own shallow understanding of the religion of the Lord and marks the final step in his downfall (cf. 1 Chron. 10:13–14). Saul’s servants are army officers, two of whom subsequently accompany him on his visit (1 Sam. 28:8). They ascertain that there is a surviving medium at En-dor, possibly a Canaanite enclave in the territory of Manasseh (Josh. 17:11–13). To get there from his camp Saul must pass 6.2 miles (10 km) through enemy-controlled territory.
To escape the notice of the enemy as well as his own troops, and also to deceive the medium, the king removes his royal robes. With two companions he makes his way to the medium “by night,” which was possibly the usual time for séances but would also help conceal his movements. He asks the woman to “divine for me by a spirit [ʼob, “ghost”; cf. comment on 28:3].” “Divine” (cf. 1 Sam. 15:23) is the most general term for engaging in occult practices, and Saul is requesting a séance during which he will name a specific individual to be called up from the realm of the dead.
The woman suspects her unknown visitor might be an agent acting for Saul, and so, without conceding that she could do what has been asked, she reminds them of the royal policy. “Cut off” implies a death sentence, as required by Mosaic law (Lev. 20:27), and is a stronger term than the earlier “put” or “remove” (1 Sam. 28:3), which would still leave open the possibility of expulsion. The medium does not want her alleged ability to contact the dead to lead to her joining them prematurely.
However, Saul will not accept her refusal, and to reassure her he swears an oath. Although “As the Lord lives” (cf. 1 Sam. 14:39) is a standard Israelite expression, its use in this context reveals how thoroughly confused Saul’s thinking has become. It is sheer blasphemy to employ the divine name to guarantee immunity to one engaging in practices contrary to divine law.
Possibly the manner in which Saul speaks and the assumption that he can indemnify individuals convinces the woman that she is dealing with no ordinary visitor. “Whom shall I bring up for you?” concedes that she can conjure up spirits. In his reply, Saul places “Samuel” first for emphasis. Samuel is the prophet who had conveyed Saul’s call to him and represented the certainties of the past on which Saul has turned his back.
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The text is reticent about the procedures the medium uses—indeed, that she uses any at all—not just to avoid undue interest in the occult but also because on this occasion her techniques do not contribute to the result. “When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice.” Her shriek is an inarticulate gasp of astonishment at an occurrence outside her control or experience. In light of her description of the apparition in 1 Samuel 28:13, it is improbable that she recognizes Samuel at this point. However, despite her fright, the medium has been thinking hard, and the unexpected nature of the apparition leads her to identify Saul and accuse him of deception by not disclosing himself to her.
Saul is as excited as the medium is disturbed. “Do not be afraid” is a perfunctory attempt to allay her fears, because he does not want the séance to end prematurely. “What do you see?” reveals that at this stage Saul can see nothing himself. The language of the medium’s reply is not totally clear, nor is our understanding of what is taking place. “I see a god coming up out of the earth” presumably means that from her heathen perspective the woman sees an imposing, preternatural figure that she takes to be divine. “Up out of the earth” reflects the belief that Sheol, the realm of the departed, is located under the world.
Saul still cannot see anything and has to ask, “What is his appearance?” The medium’s description is sufficiently distinctive for Saul to identify the figure as Samuel. “An old man” describes Samuel in terms of human frailty (certainly not the “glory” of Moses and Elijah in Luke 9:30–31), and he is wearing a “robe,” his characteristic dress from boyhood (1 Sam. 2:19) that played a significant role in Saul’s rejection (1 Sam. 15:27–28). Perhaps at this point Samuel becomes visible to Saul, who greets him with all deference and respect.
There are no barriers to communication between Samuel and Saul, and the medium plays no part in their conversation. Indeed, the later “came to Saul” (1 Sam. 28:21) opens up the possibility that she is not present at this point. Samuel upbraids Saul because he has “disturbed” him by disrupting his mode of existence in the realm of the dead. Saul justifies his action on the grounds of his “great distress”; he is at a loss to know how to handle the Philistine threat. More significantly, there is no confession of wrongdoing or past rebellion. Saul merely states, “God has turned away from me and answers me no more.” Though “turned away” is the same term as “departed” (1 Sam. 16:14; 18:12), this does not spur Saul to reflect on why God has not responded “either by prophets or by dreams.” There is no mention of the Urim (1 Sam. 28:6), perhaps because it raises memories of Saul’s massacre of the priests at Nob. But Saul has summoned Samuel because he expects him to “tell me what I shall do.”
“Why then do you ask me?” is not an encouraging response from Samuel. Once more the use of “ask” incorporates a play on Saul’s name (cf. comment on 1 Sam. 28:6). Compared to Saul’s single mention of God in 1 Samuel 28:15, Samuel refers to “the Lord” seven times in his reply. He has no doubt about the Lord’s control of events. Repeating the verb used by Saul in 1 Samuel 28:15, Samuel uncompromisingly emphasizes that “The Lord has turned [away] from you” in covenant rejection. “Become your enemy” spells out that the rebel could expect no help from the divine Overlord, or from Samuel as his spokesman.
Samuel provides Saul with no new information, instead stressing that the existing situation is in accordance with what Samuel had, during his life, revealed to Saul. “The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor” repeats the verdict Samuel delivered in 1 Samuel 13:14 and especially 1 Samuel 15:28, with the specific addition of the identity of the neighbor—David.
Saul’s circumstances are the product of his past disobedience, echoing 1 Samuel 15:19. The same verb is used in both “did not carry out” and “The Lord has done this thing,” linking the offense and the retribution imposed by God. “This thing” is probably God’s refusal to respond to Saul: the one who has abandoned God is abandoned by him. God has withdrawn not only prophetic guidance but also support for Saul’s kingdom. Defeat awaits king and people alike. Furthermore, Saul and his sons will die the following day (cf. 1 Sam. 31:6), when they will join Samuel in Sheol. The king appointed to defeat the Philistines (1 Sam 9:16) will die leaving Israel dominated by the Philistines.
Presumably Saul had maintained a kneeling position before Samuel (1 Sam. 28:14), but on hearing this inexorable declaration he collapses “full length on the ground.” The terror-stricken king had been hoping against hope that Samuel would indicate some way to avert the looming disaster, but he has instead reinforced its certainty and immediacy—and then he apparently fades from the scene. “And” (lit., “also” or “moreover”) introduces a further factor beyond the crushing mental blow: Saul is also physically drained and exhausted, “for he had eaten nothing all day and all night,” perhaps to obtain divine favor by abstaining from food (cf. 1 Sam. 14:24) or through loss of appetite due to his anxiety.
Left to Face the Inevitable
In Saul’s predicament, forsaken by God and Samuel, it is the medium who acts with compassion. Looking at the king lying on the ground, she “saw that he was terrified”—an intense and debilitating emotional reaction that overwhelms an individual and leaves him unable to function appropriately. Since she has risked her life to comply with his demands, he ought now to act on her advice and eat to regain his strength. The medium’s practical humanity is no doubt tinged with circumspect self-preservation: what would happen to her if the king died in her house? Saul’s initial refusal is overcome by the insistence of his two attendants and the woman, who “urged him” (“pressed him to respond”; cf. 2 Sam. 13:25).
Eventually he gets up from the ground to sit “on the bed,” probably here a couch-like structure with a frame, not merely a mat on the floor. The woman has a fattened calf in the stall in her house. She kills it and presumably boils or roasts some of its meat—a special delicacy in those days. Though she acts quickly in preparing it and baking bread, it is no mere snack she provides but a meal fit for a king. So for an hour or two Saul sits on the bed, brooding over what has occurred. After Saul and his men ate, “they rose and went away that night.” The scene conducted in darkness ends in darkness (cf. v. 8; John 13:30). The God who is light had not blessed Saul, who is left to face his inevitable end the following day.
- A different interpretation of this expression is provided by Tsumura (First Book of Samuel, 630–631), who argues that “mistress” refers to the sun goddess who, during the night, traverses and rules the subterranean realms of the dead and can bring back spirits of the departed from there. The medium would thus be a devotee of this goddess.
This article is adapted from the ESV Expository Commentary: 1 Samuel–2 Chronicles (Volume 3) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton, Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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