“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.’ 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.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
This is one of the most intriguing stories in the whole of the Old Testament to me. What exactly we are to make of this story isn’t at all clear at first read…or at second or third or fourth read either for that matter. In over a third of a century worth of listening to sermons I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a preacher tackle it. We’re usually taught both in the church and out that this kind of stuff is not real and cannot happen. And yet, here the Scriptures present it as happening. What gives?
Well, let’s start with what we see going on here. The people of Israel are being threatened once again by the Philistine army. Saul, the king, is terrified for his people and for his own life. He seeks the Lord, but cannot get an answer no matter how hard he tries. In his desperation to get some kind of advice he has his servants find a spiritualist, or a medium, a woman who has the ability to make contact with the spirits of those who have died.
The texts notes that he had driven all of them out of the nation which is a small point in his favor, but they are able to find this woman anyway. He goes to her in a disguise and asks for her to raise Samuel in hopes that he can get some kind of advice from his old mentor.
So far so good in terms of believability, but things are about to go off the rails. The medium, or witch as some translations call her, summons Samuel at Saul’s command…and the next thing we know Samuel’s spirit is coming up out of the ground and then he is standing there in front of them ready to talk. What?!? Really?!?
Apparently so. The very fact that the Scriptures present all of this with such little fanfare and so matter-of-factly points us to the truthfulness of the reporting. It’s a little like the various miracles Jesus does. None of them receive any fanfare, just old school newspaper style straight reporting. Samuel shows up, irritably asks why they bothered him, lets Saul know that he’s going to die in the upcoming battle along with most of his army and even his son, Jonathan, and then goes back to wherever he came from. Saul has a bit of a panic attack at the news and the witch encourages him before sending him on his way. And nowhere is our screaming question of what on earth we’re supposed to make of this get answered. It’s not even acknowledged as a question.
Well…WHAT ON EARTH ARE WE SUPPOSED TO MAKE OF THIS??? The simplest answer is not very much. The text doesn’t give us a whole lot to go on because it reports everything with such little fanfare. Let’s cautiously explore what we can say.
First, yes, by all appearances, this really happened. This woman really did somehow summon Samuel from the grave. Whether this was something she had done before we don’t know. The way she has a little freak out moment when she first sees Samuel leads me to wonder if this was a first for her, but the very fact that she had been found by Saul’s men on the basis of her reputation as having the ability to do this very thing points in the other direction. Somehow she had the ability to make contact with the dead, or at least had done a fake job convincingly enough that she had such a reputation anyway.
This leads to another question: If God is the Lord of the living and the dead, was this an ability He gave her for this occasion or something she gained from demonic powers and had been successfully using for a long time? Again, the text doesn’t say. Speculating really doesn’t help us at all. My inclination is that at least this time was a concession granted by God for some reason—perhaps as a way to throw a bone to Saul for his persistence—given that there isn’t anything demonic otherwise reported as happening. But what that means for the larger story of this woman’s life and abilities I don’t know. We do know that there is no power or authority in this world other than God’s power and He only shares or grants what He wants, when He wants. So, in that light we can say she could only do this because God allowed her.
The other important thing we can say is that occult practices like this are apparently a real thing. What that means for the broader picture we can’t say with a lot of confidence, but we can at least say it’s real. When people mess around with the occult, they’re not necessarily just engaging in harmless, eerie fun. Now, this doesn’t at all mean that every time someone pulls out a Ouija board they’re going to contact some dead person. Far from it. But we’re dabbling in stuff that can quickly get over our heads.
The thing that the Scriptures makes clear on several occasions is that the demonic is real. More broadly, there is a spiritual realm that exists somehow alongside what we can see. Sometimes, for some reason, God allows contact with this to happen. Sometimes, folks who aren’t protected from it by the presence of Jesus are contacted by it against their will.
I think perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind here is that we don’t know a whole lot more than we do. We understand far less than we sometimes put on. The Scriptures reveal a little, but not nearly enough to do more than speculate. When we start digging or playing around in the occult, we are into stuff we shouldn’t be. No good can come of it.
There’s a reason that as often the Scriptures proclaim its reality, they tell us to stay away from it. God has a reason for that and He’s proven Himself wise enough times to warrant our trust. Why exactly He allowed Saul to contact Samuel through this medium we simply don’t know. As the rest of the chapter makes clear, no good came of it.
The bottom line is that while we are in Christ, we need not fear any of this, we also need not mess with it. Seeking as full an understanding as the Scriptures can give us is one thing, but a morbid fascination is beyond where we need to go. Let us put our trust in the God who has power over all of His creation and let Him be our guide.