Things That Go Bump in the Night

1 Samuel 28 is an odd biblical story in so many ways. See my previous postings: Transfiguration and Snarks where I’ve referenced the passage before. The first and largest question usually relates to Samuel’s ghostly appearance, when Saul consults a medium (or necromancer; KJV: witch). The Bible elsewhere forbids calling up the dead (see Leviticus 19:31, for instance)–which would, perhaps, imply that it is something that can be done–as it was done in Samuel’s case. Of course, many Christians wonder if Samuel was really called up. Which raises a spectrum of questions: Is this really Samuel? Or is it a demon? Did the medium actually call him up, or did God send him? Are ghosts real? Can mediums actually communicate with the dead?

There is a tendency in Christian theology to wave one’s hands about and simply explain it all away—sort of like when the Wizard of Oz says “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”.

Lots of good that does, of course. The reality is, most readers of the story would prefer just to turn away from it and pretend as if it’s not there. It’s not the only passage in the Bible that doesn’t quite fit prevailing theology. Of course, what this passage (and other uncomfortable bits of the Bible) fundamentally means from a practical point of view is simply that our theology is obviously woefully inadequate. As Shakespeare points out,

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio

My take on this is that we might want to hold off on an utter rejection of the possibility of ghosts, and posit the slim possibility that mediums just might, on rare occasions when they aren’t just charletons, contact the dead and not demons. It seems the most natural reading of the biblical text in this case is that Samuel actually comes back from the dead and talks to Saul. If you accept the Bible as God’s word, you can’t just ignore what it’s saying, after all.

But the weirdness of the passage does not begin and end with Samuel as a ghost. This chapter just keeps on giving. Look at 1 Samuel 28:13:

The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?”
The woman said, “I see a ghostly figure coming up out of the earth.”

Focus on the phrase “ghostly figure” (NIV 2011). If you look at other translations you’ll find “a divine being” (NRSV, NASB) and “a spirit” (NIV 1984, CEV). The LXX–the ancient Greek translation–has Θεοὺς (theos) “a god”. The KJV has “gods” and in this instance, the KJV most literally translates the underlying Hebrew, since the Hebrew word appearing in 1 Samuel 28:13 is indeed the word אֱלֹהִים (‘elohim), and the verb translated “rising” is a masculine plural participle, so it is indeed to be rendered as the plural “gods” rather than as most commonly in the OT, “God” in the sense of Yahweh. But when Saul demands to know about what she sees, “gods” becomes singular: an old man. Given the range of translation, it is obvious that the translators find the wording of the passage problematical, since obviously Samuel is not a god, let alone a group of them.

Bear in mind though that polytheism is rampant in the Israel of this time. Saul’s daughter Michal had an idol handy that she used to help David escape from Saul (see 1 Samuel 19:13). Most Israelites worshiped other gods in addition to Yahweh, having a much less than firm grasp on the whole concept of monotheism. Ashera (a female deity somewhat equivalent to Venus or Aphrodite—a goddess of love—mentioned regularly in the OT in relation to the Ashera poles—phallic symbols—that various kings would occasionally cut down) was widely believed by the Israelites to be Yahweh’s wife. Thus, the medium’s initial description of what she saw—“gods”—would fit the commonly held world view of the average Israelite.

Unfortunately for us, we are still left with the appearance of a ghost, raised by the actions of a medium. The only real problem for us, of course, is that it is simply not something we want to believe in. Perhaps we need to adjust what we think is so; after all, the Bible, for Christians, is our authority for faith and practice, not those things that comfortably fit our pre-existing notions of how things are.

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About R.P. Nettelhorst

I'm married with three daughters. I live in southern California and I'm the interim pastor at Quartz Hill Community Church. I have written several books. I spent a couple of summers while I was in college working on a kibbutz in Israel. In 2004, I was a volunteer with the Ansari X-Prize at the winning launches of SpaceShipOne. Member of Society of Biblical Literature, American Academy of Religion, and The Authors Guild
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