The Gospel and the Witch of Endor

My favorite books about the Bible – the ones that get me thinking and talking with others, and rereading and thinking some more – are ones that break open some aspect of God’s story of redemption, and especially the role people play in that story. They deepen my understanding of how God graciously uses the faith and the flaws of men and women to further His purposes. The more I learn about God’s character as He works through the lives of the characters in the Bible, the better equipped I am to see Him as He’s at work in my own.

The most recent example of a book that fits this description is Vindicating the Vixens – Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible. Edited by seminary professor and author Sandra Glahn, Vindicating the Vixens offers a fresh examination of some of the most notable women in the Bible by a collection of broadly conservative evangelical scholars. Each chapter tests popular assessments of a woman’s story against a robust hermeneutical framework.The goal is to see how God wants us to think about each woman and her place in redemptive history, versus what academia or contemporary culture has dictated. One by one, women like Eve, Tamar, Hagar, Vashti, Bathsheba, and Mary Magdalene are portrayed in an accurate, and more redemptive light. By the end of the book, you don’t just have a better understanding of their stories – you see how God has woven them with beautiful redemptive intention into the good news of the ultimate story of the gospel.

Finishing “Vindicating the Vixens” prompted me to open my Bible and reread the story of one woman I was hoping to have been included but wasn’t – the story commonly titled “The Witch of Endor” in 1 Samuel 28. Reading Glahn’s book triggered a memory about a frustrating Bible study discussion I had participated in about this enigmatic Old Testament character several months earlier.

The teaching time and discussion centered almost entirely on Saul and the peculiarities of Samuel’s appearance. The woman wasn’t maligned so much as almost entirely overlooked. When I asked about the role the woman played in the story, I was shot down. She “wasn’t really the focus” of the story, I was told. So I sat in silent exasperation on her behalf. It’s not that I believed her to be a sympathetic character at all, at least at the time. But on the basis of simple hermeneutical principle alone I found it astonishing that a woman whose actions the writer of 1 Samuel describes in such particular detail was relegated, like so many other women in so many other stories, to being simply an insignificant female presence, overshadowed by male actors.

When I read “Vindicating the Vixens” and saw how culturally-informed presumptions and downright inaccuracies had fueled the misreading of other women’s narratives, I couldn’t help wondering if the same dynamic was going on with the woman of Endor.

A simple examination of the narrative structure of the chapter indicates the significant role this woman plays. Read from the perspective of the lead actor – the person who is pushing the narrative forward, 1 Samuel 28:3-25 looks like this:

  • 3-14 – Saul
  • 15-19 Samuel
  • 20-25 The Woman

Read through the lens of the words being spoken, or actions being performed, the passage looks like this:

  • 3-7 Saul and The servants
    • 8-14 Saul and the Woman
      • 15 Saul and Samuel
        • 16-19 Samuel
        • 20 – Saul
    • 21-23a The Woman and Saul
  • 23b The Servants, the Woman and Saul
  • 24 The Woman
  • 25 The Woman, Saul and the Servants

Either way you look at it, the writer of the text clearly puts the words and actions of the woman on equal footing with the other characters in the story. The question then becomes – just who is this woman, and why is she there?

An important principle reinforced in my pastor’s hermeneutics class last summer is to pay close attention to how the writer of a text describes a character, over and above what the summary headings say (because they’re not inspired) or what your own assumptions might be (also not inspired).

OT law made it abundantly clear that consulting with sorcerers, spiritists or mediums – people who consulted with the dead to discern the future – was an act of defilement and strictly forbidden. Both 1 Chronicles 10:13 and 1 Samuel 28 make Saul’s intention to consult one abundantly clear. But while Saul’s servants label the woman of Endor as medium, the writer of the text never does. She is simply referred to as “the woman,” eight separate times. The distinction of this difference plays out as the story unfolds, as we observe the stark and consistent contrast between Saul’s words and actions in this story and the woman’s.

1 Samuel 28 begins on a positive note that Saul had acted rightly in purging the land of mediums after the prophet Samuel had died. But with the Philistines primed to attack and the LORD silent, Saul’s decision to seek one out anyway is testament to his sinful desperation. From the moment Saul is struck with fear at the sight of the Philistine camp, he piles one rebellious sin on top of the other to prevent his defeat. Not only does he defile himself by looking for a medium in the first place, he invokes the very name of YHWH to promise the woman that she won’t die or be punished for doing what YHWH has clearly forbidden. Then he speaks the command to bring Samuel up from the dead.

But the text never records the woman actively cooperating with Saul’s command. From the moment the man she’s never met arrives on her doorstep in the middle of the night, her words are more in line with resistance than obedience. She reminds the stranger that what he’s asking is against the law – tha King Saul himself has already worked to eradicate the practice. She believes it’s a trap. Even when the stranger invokes a divine exception clause, she doesn’t comply – she simply asks a clarifying question.

And before she responds to Saul’s command, Samuel appears.

The woman’s terrified reaction to the sudden appearance of “a divine being” coming up out of the earth offers another hint that she’s not actually what Saul’s servants believed her to be. A true practitioner of sorcery would have been nonplussed at any kind of visitation by the spirit world. The woman’s fright indicates that’s not what she was. She was more a likely a charlatan who used parlor tricks and sleight of hand to separate the desperate from their money and thus make a living for herself.

Plenty of speculative ink has been spilled on the nature of Samuel’s surprise appearance, but far less attention has been paid to what he actually says, and doesn’t say, and the difference in ways Saul and the woman respond.

Samuel’s prophecy to Saul in 1 Samuel 28 is an amplification of the one he gave in 1 Samuel 15. There, ironically, he warns Saul that the sin of rebellion is just as a great as divination. In rebelliously consulting with a medium, Saul stands every bit as condemned as the woman. Samuel invokes YHWH’s name seven separate times to condemn Saul, the number Jews associate with completion and finality. Samuel’s prophecy is as certain and final as it can possibly be – because of Saul’s rebellion, God is giving the kingdom to David, and Saul and his sons will die the next day in defeat to the Philistines.

All this Samuel says to Saul (v. 15). But to the woman, Samuel says nothing.

Saul’s initial response to Samuel’s prophecy is one the writer credits to terror and weakness from hunger after not having eaten for 24 hours. But as the woman offers to feed him to restore his strength, Saul attempts one last act of rebellion. Samuel has declared he is going to die in defeat on the battlefield the next. But Saul other ideas. He’s determined to die right there of starvation on the hard floor of a strange woman’s house.

Saul’s response to the word from God is protracted defiance. The woman’s is entirely the opposite.

The text never says that the woman invoked any kind of spell in response to Saul’s command. Saul spoke and Samuel appeared, and Samuel makes it clear who he holds accountable for it. And yet, in verse 21, she implicates herself anyway, telling Saul that she obeyed him – taking her life into her hands simply by listening to what the stranger, revealed to be the King, told her to do.

In this #MeToo era, it’s hard not to read the woman’s words, and hear in them the echoes of so many women as they wrestle with guilt of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with a powerful man. Her words may be a lament of this kind. But there’s another possibility hinted at by what she sees when she goes to Saul. The King of Israel is laying on her floor, stripped of dignity, a heap of motionless, speechless terror. And so she says and does the only thing she can think of to mitigate his fear. She lifts his sin from him and places it on herself.

But she doesn’t stop there. After who knows how many years of pretense and chicanery, the woman of Endor has had an actual encounter with YHWH, the God of gods and Lord of lords. What this God has said must be obeyed.

From beginning to end, Saul is dedicated to rebellion against God’s commands and decreed will. The woman does the opposite – obeying what she hears and submitting to God’s commands, taking on the accountability for sins she herself did not commit, and actively obeying God on Saul’s behalf. Samuel’s prophecy is abundantly clear – Saul’s life ends tomorrow on the battlefield. But in a last act of defiance, Saul wants to end his life on his own terms. The woman is determined to intervene – to help Saul obey God by obeying her command to him to eat so he can go on his way.

She takes flour, kneads it, and bakes it into bread. She slaughters and prepares a fatted calf. In any other context, verse 24 would read like a celebratory feast. And in a sense it is. It is the last meal of a king who has been sentenced to death.

And in her intentional ministrations to her King in obedience to God, we hear the echoes of another woman who will do the same for another King, many years later.

Hundreds of years after the story of the woman of Endor takes, in Luke 7, another woman with a sinful past will minister with same intentional care to a King on the eve of his death – washing and kissing his feet, and anointing them with oil. Just as Saul and his servants do with the woman of Endor, so Simon judges the woman as a sinner. But Jesus does not. She is woman who is forgiven, whose faith has saved her. Days later, this King too will die an ignominious death that looks like defeat, but is in fact the key to eternal life, for her and all those like her who believe in Him.

Until now, the best applications of 1 Samuel 28 I’ve read, especially when paired with 1 Samuel 15, help us see ourselves in Saul – in our rebellion against God and the desperate lengths we’ll go to live life on our terms instead of His. But the woman of Endor has lessons to teach us as well. Like Rahab and Bathsheba and Tamar and Mary of Bethany, the woman of Endor reminds us that none of us, woman or man, need be defined by the circumstances of our past and the way others may be determined to define us by them. All of us can be brought into His story of redemption, by placing our faith in the One who came to redeem us, and committing to doing whatever He asks.


by Rachael Starke

2 thoughts on “The Gospel and the Witch of Endor

  1. Well spoken, for many years I have studied that story and came much to the same lesson. Thank you for your insight.

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