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In 1st Samuel 28, Saul gets the witch of Endor to summon Samuel back from the dead. Is this really Samuel or some demon impersonating Samuel?

If it is the real Samuel here, how does this woman have the power to pull Samuel from Abraham's bosom (re: the story of Lazarus) back into this world?

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This is a very tricky set of verses to interpret. Some think it is the Devil taunting Saul, but others think God used the very vices that Saul sought in his guilt to reprove him and prophecy against him.

I prefer the second option, that is this apparition is not of the Devil, but quite contrary to the woman’s satanic powers God used the occasion to overwhelm Saul so that wherever Saul turned God’s frown would follow him as a horrid curse.

To wonder whether Samuel appeared objectively or by a vision, I would lean towards merely a vision because his soul appears to have come out of the earth in the vision. Naturally there was a belief that holy disembodied souls lived in heaven and if the vision was meant to be assumed as objective, the real soul of Samuel would probably have come from the sky down to the earth as that would have been more in keeping with how Enoch, Elijah and Jesus left the earth.


Contrary to what one might think today there were some Jewish beliefs before Christ of the soul going to paradise, or the Bosom of Abraham. The Sadducess did not probably hold this view but Jesus mentioning the Bosom of Abraham was probably in line with some of the views held in the traditios of the Pharisees.  In any case the famous Jewish historian says:

the carrying up of the soul of the righteous by Angels is certainly in accordance with Jewish teaching, though stripped of all legendary details, such as about the number and the greetings of the Angels. (Alfred Edersheim Life and Times of Jesus, P858)

As another sample, in the Hebrew writings of the Maccabess we have similar ideas in accordance with the jokes that people have today about Peter meeting us at the pearly gates:

For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us. (4 Maccabees 13:17)

Although it may be difficult to prove when the Hebrews started to beleive in paradise as recording in ancient rabbinic literature, there seems to be logical grounds for assuming very early on. It is plausable that before Isaac was born Abraham had faith that his soul would go to his ancestors when his body was burried. His belief that God could raise Isaac from the dead is described in the New Tetament as the reason why he was willing to kill him.

You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. (NIV Genesis 15:15)

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You are correct in describing Judaism of the late second Temple period, but not that of the story of Saul. – jackweinbender Aug 13 '12 at 16:43
@jackweinbender - I disagree but you are free to hold your own opinion. I added Gen 15 reference to further define mine, but its starting to get off topic, so I will leave it at that. Cheers and thanks for explaining your meaning better. – Mike Aug 14 '12 at 1:16

Mike gives two possible interpretations here. There's a third one as well: that "Samuel" here is... nobody at all.

Keep in mind that the witch is the only one who "saw" Samuel, and she had to describe him to Saul. Everything in the message could have been deduced as a good guess by anyone with a decent knowledge of the current political situation. This passage reads like like a classic description of a séance, a deception that hangs entirely upon the customer's willingness to believe.

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Yeah, except that the witch was surprised. If she was in control, as she expected to be, she would not have been surprised. – thursdaysgeek Aug 12 '12 at 0:05

The important thing to note about the story is that Saul 1) had just cast-out the mediums from the land, and 2) that Yahweh would not answer Saul "in dreams" etc. In other words, Saul's actions should be viewed as both hypocritical and circumventing Yahweh--In other words, it's showing Saul's depravity and separation from Yahweh.

As far as the actual seance is concerned, we, as the readers, have to decide what actually happened. While I myself am skeptical of how effectual seances are, etc., there was no such skepticism in most of the ancient world--including ancient Israel. I don't think there is any reason to suspect that the author thought it impossible that a medium could actually communicate with the dead. You might have a look at the bibliography in Brian Schmidt's Israel's Beneficent Dead if you are in to that sort of thing.

As far as Mike's comment is concerned, his statement that "Naturally there was a belief that holy disembodied souls lived in heaven" is unsupported by contemporary biblical scholarship. On the contrary, in the Hebrew Bible "heaven" is the abode of God. When humans die, they go to "Sheol" (the "grave" or "shadowy place") whence they shall be resurrected. You should check out Jon Levenson's book Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel if you want more evidence.

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Is your argument partly based on the belief that before Christ arose, everyone went to Sheol, but Sheol was divided into two parts (as in the rich man + Lazarus story), and only after Christ arose that the "good part" of Sheol was carried up into heaven? – user1694 Aug 10 '12 at 20:39
No, not really. In the Hebrew Bible, there is really no notion of an eternal "soul" as we conceive of it. So, when it says "sheol," "grave" is a nice translation because it doesn't bring with it all the platonic baggage of the Hellenistic period. This comports nicely with the notion of bodily resurrection. Even the New Testament generally agrees with this notion--we don't "go" to heaven when we die, we wait for the "resurrection of the flesh." – jackweinbender Aug 11 '12 at 19:13
As you used the exaggerated words 'patently false', which ironically is arguably 'false', I quoted a renoun 'Jewish historian' who says that many Jews believed in a disembodied soul going to Pariside after death. This would seem to cast doubt on your claim. I am sure there were those more critical like the Sadducees, but nevertheless there are often two opposing views. One of which you seem unaware (respectfully). cheers. – Mike Aug 13 '12 at 16:04
I wasn't trying to be rude--only emphatic. I assure you, I was and am aware that some Jews believed in an afterlife and disembodies souls. However, the "arguably false" part of your answer is that these disembodied souls go to heaven viz. where God lives. You have to remember that these beliefs developed over a very long period of time and under the influence of many other religious systems. By the time of the New Testament, Judaism had been strongly influenced by Mesopotamian, Persian, and Hellenistic religions. At the time of the writing of 1 Sam, this was not the case. – jackweinbender Aug 13 '12 at 16:32

I believe it really was Samuel coming to confront Saul. Whether the medium knew that she was dealing with demons to deceive those who came to her, or really believed that she was bringing up the dead, this was something she had never encountered before. She did not have the power to bring Samuel, or anyone else, back from the "bosom of Abraham." (In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham said someone returning from the dead would not convince the rich man's brothers, but never said someone could not return from the dead by God's power.) Mason points out that Saul could not see Samuel, but apparently they spoke to each oter (no mention is made of this conversation being conducted through the medium). Samuel makes prophecies that no one else could have done (the death of Saul and his 3 sons, and the defeat of Israel's army).

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