Prayer is a Place by Phyllis Tickle



More on Saul and David

- David

The Witch of Endor

Written By Phyllis Tickle

The following reflection first appeared in May 2009 as part of  First Sundays with Phyllis Tickle, a series of monthly blogs written by Tickle and posted on explorefaith from 2008 to 2010.

Saul and the Witch of Endor from Our Day by W.A. SpicerI’ve been a Bible story addict all of my reading life, and I freely admit that. But whether we are talking about the liturgical year or the physical year, there are some seasons that are just more prone to set me off than are others. This lovely May day, looking at the calendar hanging on the bookcase by my desk, I know myself to be the victim of a double-whammy. It’s May in the physical year and it’s the last thirty-one of The Great Fifty Days in the liturgical one … and those all rolled up into a single month, no less! That can only mean one thing for me—the itch to talk about the Witch of Endor. Remember her? Or better to ask, how could any of us who’ve ever heard the story possibly forget her?

One can spend a great deal of time and a whole season’s worth of intellectual energy parsing out who the Witch of Endor actually was, of course, not to mention fretting over what exactly is meant by the use of the term witch in the Hebrew original. When one is a child, though, as I was when my father first read me the story, a witch was a witch, Halloween and all. I saw her then, and still see her in my mind’s eye, as sitting outside her hovel one dark night in front of a steaming caldron, stirring some magical and undoubtedly noxious brew. As she stirs, spirits dance in and out of the shadows around her campfire, and an owl or two watches from a limb or two above her head. I always assumed that, in some way only adepts could understand, what she was brewing was the perfume or intoxicant of transport that allowed the dead to come up out of the earth and speak their piece; for that is what the Witch of Endor did. By whatever name one gives her or her art, she conjured the dead.

Some several months before the Endor story opens, the larger story says that Samuel, the great prophet and last judge of Israel, having lived to a ripe and full old age, had died. Israel had mourned him extravagantly and with good reason; for at that point in their history, they were a people in great distress. Some twenty years before Samuel’s death, they had demanded and demanded and then demanded again that they be given a king. The motivation behind this oft-recurring request seems to have been that the Children of Israel wanted to be governed, as were the peoples and nations around them, politically rather than theocratically.

Eventually God spoke to Samuel, saying as only God can,“I am wearied to death of this people!” After that, He told Samuel to acquiesce to the people’s demands and anoint a king over them. The anointed one—the first king of Israel—was Saul, a son of the tribe of Benjamin and, almost from the first, every bit of the disaster that God, through Samuel, had told the people a king would be.

This does not mean that Saul was pure evil. It just means he was simultaneously both sovereign and human, a dangerous mix even in the best of times. None the less, when Samuel died, it had been Saul who led the people in their mourning and who seems genuinely to have grieved the demise of his mentor and counselor. He had even gone so far, in his sorrow and loss, as to attempt to purify the land. In doing so, of course, he had employed his own understanding of what righteousness and correct adherence to Yahweh might look like. As a result, he instituted what can only be called history’s first recorded witch hunt. What that meant was that Saul ordered his soldiers to ferret out and slaughter every witch and necromancer and medium in the land of Israel along with every suspected or accused witch and necromancer and medium in the land as well.

Despite Saul’s efforts at purification—some might even say in part because of them—things got worse instead of better; and Saul’s Israel was hard pressed by the armies of the Philistines. The Children were, in fact, so pressed that Saul’s heart was shaken within him and he feared for his own life as well as that of his people. In the throes of this consuming distress of body and mind, Saul longed earnestly for the comfort and counsel of Samuel; for it had been Samuel who, always before, had offered wisdom and instruction in times of dire need.

So it was, the story says, that as Saul came closer and closer to what he knew would be the war’s pivotal battle, he yearned more and more toward Samuel and hungered more and more for the sweet consolation of the prophet’s voice. And then Saul had an idea: find a conjurer. Find a conjurer who would disturb Samuel’s rest in Sheol and who could entice the shade of the prophet to come back into time just long enough to counsel and re-assure his king.

The problem, obviously, was that there were no more necromancers or mediums left in Israel. But Saul sent his servants out anyway to inquire among the people. Finally, one retainer reported, rather hesitantly in fact, that the common folk said there was one witch who had escaped the king’s purge and who still lived in Endor. That was all Saul needed. Under cover of night, on the eve of the great battle, the king, taking two soldiers with him, disguised himself as a common foot soldier like his companions, and went in search of the Witch of Endor.

Once the small company had located the witch’s hovel, Saul humbled himself before her, saying that he would pay her well if only she would conjure for him a man who had recently passed over. Successful medium or not, the witch apparently was fooled about the identity of her petitioner; but she was very sure about the danger involved in what he asked for, saying that she no longer conjured because of her fear of King Saul. The disguised king pressed her so unrelentingly, however, that she eventually gave in and asked whom she was to conjure. One must assume that the woman was at least passingly distressed to find that it was Israel’s dead holy man whom she was to evoke; but she set to with a good will, and soon a shade or shadow began to emerge from the earth.

As Samuel’s form began to rise before her, the witch, suddenly cried out, “What have you done to me?” And then she screamed, as if she were herself in death throes, “You are Saul!”

At that point, Saul is convinced that she is indeed a medium and swears to her an oath of impunity forever, if only she will continue with the conjuration. Either persuaded or else just too terrified to resist, the witch begins to describe what she sees. Within a matter of just a few descriptive sentences, Saul realizes that it is indeed Samuel who is coming back to him. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of this gift, Saul prostrates himself before the emerging Samuel. In a matter of a few more moments, Samuel is fully present, and the two men talk face to face. The conversation, however, is a bitter one and hard to bear; for Samuel tells Saul that all is lost, that God’s blessing no longer goes into battle with him, that Israel will fall the next day into the hands of the Philistines, and that he himself will die in the battle.

After that, things are pretty much in wind-down. Once Samuel has finished speaking and has receded into the earth, Saul falls down full length upon the ground again, this time filled with such decimating fear that there is no strength left in him.  The witch, seeing the depths of his undoing, ministers to the broken king. In one of the most generous acts of ancient history, in fact, she even gives the king and his two companions food and drink from her own larder. Then, we are told, Saul goes out into the night in sure and certain knowledge of his own death, but without doing any further harm to the Witch of Endor.

It’s a rich story, one that generation after generation of Jews and Christians have heard and told over the centuries. It certainly is one of those tribal stories that any Jewish man or woman would have known by heart two thousand years ago … a tale, in other words, that every follower of Rabbi Jesus would have known intimately. Understanding that the dead …especially the holy or semi-divine dead … can, upon occasion and under sufficient necessity, rise up out of the ground and come back from Sheol was part of the warp and weft of first-century understanding of how the world works. Certainly the disciples themselves, when Jesus once had come walking across the water to them, had thought  He was a ghost. Yes, they knew that sometimes the newly dead remain among us a while and, even beyond that, the less recently, but none the less still-powerful, dead can sometimes rise and be seen and come back for a while…

…which is why Easter morning, while it undoubtedly was confusing to them, was not quite the moment in time that we try to make of it nowadays. Rising from the dead—temporarily, at least—might be unsettling for those whom one visits or appears to, but it does not, in and of itself, prove all that much of anything … or it didn’t two thousand years ago.

And thus it was that, over the course of the forty days or almost six weeks immediately after Easter, we find a resurrected Jesus time and again trying to persuade His disciples and followers that He is something other than a ghost or a spirit or a still-incarnate persona. He eats before them, He urges poor doubting Thomas to handle Him, He materializes and de-materializes in front of them.  All, apparently, to little or no avail. Even those who were closest to Him finally give up and go back to their original trade of commercial fishing. They do, that is, until the day of His Ascension.

The dead of ancient story may be conjured by the likes of the Witch of Endor or evoked by the likes of Ezekiel or provoked by the accusers of poor Job, but even the holy dead do not … they definitely do not … ascend right in front of one’s eyes straight into Heaven and the waiting arms of chorusing angels. No, the dead, even those who have been successfully roused, go back to the earth. Like Samuel, they go back to being dead.

Something was wrong here … or else something was terribly, terribly right … and they had to know which. So they left that place of ascension and did what He had told them to do. They went into the city and back into the upper room, some hundred or so of them, to pray and to wait. They prayed, because it was all that was open to them, and they waited because none of them knew what else to do.

Those ten days of waiting and not knowing even what it was for which they were waiting … those ten days of excitement and fear and the sure knowledge that if they were right about what they had seen, then the whole world was turned upside down … those days must have been the most dreadful and exhilarating in Christian history. If…. If…. If….

But how were they to know? How ever would they discover again the possibility they had seen …that they knew they had seen … that never before had been seen ….

Ten days of ecstasy and agony sustained by prayer and petition and the power of a small community caught together in the experience of the inexplicable and of the just possible possibility that creation itself had only days before pivoted before their very eyes ….

And then, on the tenth day, It came in that upper room. It came in flames as visible as the angels they had seen on the plain of Ascension. It came and so jumped all the former parameters and circumstances of creation that they rejoiced in psalms and hymns beyond their own languages and ways of knowing. It came. The Mystery came. It was true: Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ of God and He lived.

No more fishing, of course … no more much of anything beyond the passion of their discovery. The Church was born on that day in that upper room, and the broadcasting of her story had begun.

We Christians speak from time to time, of course, about The Great Fifty Days, but our speaking is, I think, sometimes more lip-service to a half-acknowledged idea than it is amazement at a new twist in the story. The Fifty began this year, as they do every year, on Easter, which in 2009 fell on April 12th.  The first forty of them … the days that remember those weeks of the disciples’ confusion and near defeat … will end on the 21st of this month, when we commemorate again the confirmation and the startlement of all things which were and are the Ascension. And then, ten days later, we receive again the empowerment of Pentecost which, of course, falls on May 31st this year.

But God be praised this year and every year … this May and in every Great Fifty Days … for the Witch of Endor. Without her story and others like it, we would be tempted to forever live Easter in our world-view instead of re-living it in the world-view of those to whom it first happened. And more to the point on this First Sunday, without some remembrance of the Endor story, we might fail to rejoice again in the cataclysmic rupture of Ascension and the birthing release of Pentecost.


Copyright © 2009 Phyllis Tickle

The illustration of Saul and the Witch of Endor appeared in Our Day: In the Light of Prophecy by W.A. Spicer, published by Southern Publishing Association, Nashville TN, © 1917 by Review and Herald Publishing Association. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Our Day is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at