The Witch of Endor

Ambrose Andreano
Then said the woman, ‘Whom shall I bring up to you?’ And he said, ‘Bring me up Samuel.’ And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spake to Saul, saying, ‘Why have you deceived me? for you are Saul.’ And the king said unto her, ‘Don’t be afraid: what did you see?’ And the woman said to Saul, ‘I saw gods ascending out of the earth.’ And he said unto her, ‘What form is he of?’ And she said, ‘An old man comes up; and he is covered with a mantle.’ And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself. And Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disquieted me, to bring me up?’ And Saul answered, ‘I am very distressed; for the Philistines make war against me, and God departed from me and doesn’t answer me anymore, neither by prophets, nor by dreams: therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I shall do.’ Then said Samuel, ‘Why then do you ask me, seeing the Lord departed from you and is with your enemy? And the Lord hath done as he said by me: for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbor David: Because you didn’t obey the voice of the Lord, nor executed his fierce wrath upon Amalek, therefore the Lord has done this thing unto you this day. Moreover, the Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines: and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me…’ (1 Sa 28:11-19)

The Deception Argument

When it comes to this text, there are basically two main perspectives. The first interpretation understands the “Samuel” of the passage to actually be a demon merely presenting itself in the form of Samuel, and thus the truth of the “prophecy” is not actually truth or a prophecy, but merely a coincidental result of the deception.  Before I go into more detail about what this means, I wanted to list the fathers who argued for this perspective.

Those who said it was deception (through demonic apparition):

  • St. Augustine of Hippo (On Christian Doctrine, Book II, 35-36)
  • St. Hippolytus of Rome (Fragments, On Kings)
  • St. Basil the Great (Commentary on Isaiah. 8,19/22)
  • St. Gregory of Nyssa (On the Sorceress K1.T.83)
  • St. Jerome (Commentary on Matthew. 6, 31)
  • St. Ephrem the Syrian (Commentary on Samuel, 28)
  • Evagrius the Solitary (Cephaleia Gnostica, VI,61)
  • Tertullian (On the Soul, 57,8f.)

To understand what the fathers meant by this, one needs to understand the ancient understanding of demons. If you read my previous article, you may have a bit of an understanding already with regards to this perspective. Since St. Anthony is the foremost authority on demons, I’ll quote something he said that really brings out the framework behind this perspective:

If the demons pretend to foretell the future, do not listen to them. They often announce beforehand that certain people will arrive in a few days, and they do actually arrive. However, the demons do this not with any care for those listening, but to simply gain their trust. Then after a little while having got them in their power, they will destroy them. We must not listen to them, but ought to rather refute them when speaking, since we don’t need them…Why should we be in awe when a demon merely observes someone beginning a journey, then speeds passed them and announces their coming? Naturally they are capable of such a thing because they do not have bodies like man. Just as a horseman gets a head start on the man journeying by foot: he announces the arrival beforehand. There is no need for us to marvel at them…Therefore, the demons know nothing about that which is not yet in existence, because only God knows all things beforehand. The demons are more like thieves: first running off with what they see (that we are assembled together), then proclaiming what they have discovered and discussing plots against them before any one of us could go tell these things. Even a young boy could do this by simply running further ahead of one who isn’t as fast. –St. Anthony the Great (Life of St. Anthony)

Anthony not only tells us that demons attempt to foretell the future, but he also explains how they do it. If you take Anthony’s knowledge of demons and apply it to the events of the witch of Endor, one could easily believe that the “Samuel” in the passage was simply a demon trying to deceive Saul and get him to obey. The demon could have simply  observed that the Philistines were on their way to Saul, their estimated ETA was “tomorrow,” and their numbers made it obvious that there was no way Saul was going to win the battle. Since it is likely that Saul’s sons would be fighting with him, they would likely die as well. Because of how fast demons can travel, the “Samuel” demon simply traveled passed the Philistines and arrived to Saul a day early to make a “prophecy” that is little more than a highly probable assumption. It is nothing at which to marvel.

St. Augustine of Hippo argues that just because what Saul heard happened to come true, that doesn’t make the witchcraft any less detestable. He references the woman who spoke truly of the apostles, yet Paul still rebuked the evil spirit within her (Acts 16:17-18). He concludes that all dark arts are to be avoided by Christians (On Christian Doctrine, Book II, 35-36).

St. Hippolytus of Rome agrees, and makes much more textual arguments to support his position. He argues that the text suggests that Saul didn’t actually see Samuel, because he asked, “What form is he of?” (1 Sa 28:14). Hippolytus also says it wouldn’t be difficult for a demon to take the form of Samuel, since they already know what he looks like, and he gives an analogy:

Just as a physician who has no exact knowledge of the science might yet, seeing a patient past cure, tell of his death (though he made an error as to the hour). So too the demon, knowing the wrath of God by Saul’s deeds and by this very attempt to consult the sorceress, foretells his defeat and his death at the same time (though in error as to the day of his death).” –St. Hippolytus of Rome(Fragments, On Kings).

The Truth Argument

There is, however, another perspective. Alternatively, some of the fathers believed that the witch of Endor really did summon Samuel, and it really was the truth. Even though it is within the minority, this perspective is held by some really big names.

Those who said it was truth (through Samuel *or a demon):

  • *St. John Chrysostom (Homily VI on Matthew)
  • Origen (Homily on 1 Kingdoms 28)
  • St. Justin the Philosopher (Dialogue with Trypho, 105)
  • St. Ambrose of Milan (Commentary on Luke 1,33)

Firstly, it should be noted that St. John Chrysostom believed the spirit of Samuel was a demonic apparition. However, he differs with the others in that he believes the demon was speaking under the divine command of God. I put him in this list because even though he may not believe it is Samuel, he ultimately affirms that Samuel was not there to deceive Saul, but to speak the truth under God’s command. When speaking on why God spoke to the Magi using a star (Homily 6 on Matthew), Chrysostom argues that God condescended to even His enemies, speaking truth to them in the pagan ways they would understand. It is within this context that Chrysostom references Paul reasoning with the Greeks from a pagan altar and quoting their poets. After this, he references God condescending to Saul by using the witch of Endor, which became the only remaining means by which Saul would hear truth.

Origen argues it necessarily must be Samuel because the text says it’s Samuel. Since the text is inspired scripture, it could have easily said it was a demon that took the form of Samuel.

St. Justin said that Saul’s encounter with the witch is precisely why we pray for the souls of those who die, that they may not fall under demonic forces:

I have shown to you from the fact that the soul of Samuel was called up by the witch, as Saul demanded. And it appears also, that all the souls of similar righteous men and prophets fell under the dominion of such powers, as is indeed to be inferred from the very facts in the case of that witch. Hence also God by His Son teaches us for whose sake these things seem to have been done, always to strive earnestly, and at death to pray that our souls may not fall into the hands of any such power. –St. Justin the Philosopher (Dialogue with Trypho, 105)

Despite being the minority view, the idea that the spirit of Samuel was actually summoned from hades isn’t without scriptural support, which no doubt influenced the likes of St. Justin and Origen:

And after this Samuel slept, and he made known to the king the end of his life, and he lifted up his voice from the earth in prophecy to blot out the wickedness of the nation. (Sirach 46:20)
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