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(1 Samuel 28:1-25) The Philistines Invade the Land with a great Force—Saul’s Fear—His Secret Visit to the Witch of En-dor, to Consult the Shade of Samuel.
EXCURSUS L: ON WHAT HAPPENED AT EN-DOR? (1 Samuel 28:0).
In all times the question taken as the title of this Excursus has excited deep interest—What happened at En-dor? We will divide our general question into three parts.
(1) Did Samuel, the prophet of the Lord, really appear? and if so, what power brought him up from the realm of departed spirits?
(2) Granting that something did appear and speak, can we assume that the appearance was not Samuel, but a demon or evil spirit assuming Samuel’s name?
(3) Is it possible that there was no appearance at all, and that the whole scene was a well-played piece of jugglery on the part of the woman? or, in other words, that the whole scene was merely a delusion produced by the woman, without any background at all.
On the last (No. 3), which assumes the whole scene at En-dor to have been a piece of jugglery on the part of the woman, we may observe that it is an hypothesis adopted by some great names, apparently by the illustrious Jewish commentator, Maimonides, who wrote in the twelfth century after Christ; by the majority of the less orthodox modern writers from the seventeenth century downwards, and even by such true divines and scholars as Dean Payne Smith It is, however, a purely modern hypothesis, and receives no support from the early Church writers. Dean Payne Smith admirably puts forth the best arguments employed by the defenders of this supposition in these word: “We cannot believe that the Bible would set before us an instance of witchcraft employed by the Divine sanction for holy purposes; but we can clearly believe that the woman would gladly take a bitter revenge on the man who had cruelly put to death all persons reported to have such powers as those to which she laid claim. . . . She reproached him for these crimes, announced to him what now all were convinced of, that David was to be his successor, and foretold his defeat and death.”—Dean Payne Smith, in Pulpit Commentary on 1 Samuel 28:17-19. No. 2 assumes that there was an apparition, but that what appeared was not Samuel, but an evil spirit, which showed itself in the character of Samuel. Not a few of the fathers, with the great Protestant reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, have preferred this view. Ephrem Syrus explains the phenomenon by stating that “an apparent image of Samuel was presented to the eye of Saul through demoniacal arts.” Luther plainly writes: “The raising of Samuel by a soothsayer, or witch, in 1 Samuel 28:11-12, was certainly merely a spectre of the devil . . . for who could believe that the souls of believers which are in the hand of God (Ecclesiastes 3:1), and in the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:23), were under the power of the devil and of simple men?”—Luther, Abuses of the Mass, 1522. Calvin similarly tells us: “It is certain that it was not really Samuel, for God would never have allowed His prophets to be subject to such diabolical conjuring. For here is a sorceress calling up the dead from the grave.”—Calvin, Horn. 100, in 1 Sam. No. 1 still remains. Did the spirit of Samuel the prophet himself really appear in the witch of En-dor’s house to Saul? Now, without doubt, the ordinary reader would so understand the history. Everything before and after the incident is simple and natural. The woman herself is appalled at the sight, whatever it was, and describes it as resembling the dead seer. Whether or not Saul saw the spectre is uncertain, but he certainly heard the voice, which spoke a too true and mournful prophecy: nothing fierce or vindictive, as we have noticed in our comments on the scene—rather the contrary. The words, so simple and gentle, and yet unutterably sad, were no mere words of a juggling old woman; still less were they the utterances of an evil or malicious spirit.
We thus confess our full belief that the shade of Samuel was seen by the woman (perhaps by Saul; but this is uncertain from the narrative), and that his voice was certainly heard by King Saul; and this has been the common belief in all times. Bishop Wordsworth’s note here is most learned and exhaustive, and he fully endorses this view (here styled No. 1). The bishop marshals an array of witnesses who support this, which I venture to call the plain, common sense interpretation of the history. He begins with the ancient Hebrew Church, and quotes Sir. 46:20. The writer of that book evidently believed that Samuel himself appeared; and so did the LXX., who plainly express the belief in their addendum to the Hebrew text at 1 Chronicles 10:13. Josephus affirms the same in Antt. vi., 14, 2. Among the early Christian fathers, Justin Martyr, Trypho, § 105; Origen, tom. II., 490-495; St. Ambrose in Luc, 1 Samuel 1:0; St. Basil, Ep. 80; St. Gregory Naz., Orat. III.; Theodoret, Qu. 63, hold the same belief that the shade of Samuel appeared at En-dor and spoke to Saul. Among the famous mediæval writers holding the same view, we may instance Cajetan, Lyra, and à Lapide; later, Waterland may be added to the list; in our own days, Bishop Hervey, in the Speaker’s Commentary, and Bishop Wordsworth and the German writers, O. von Gerlach and Keil. Assuming, then, that the soul of Samuel did appear on earth that night at En-dor, we have still to deal with the question: By what power was he brought up from the realm of departed spirits? Here the narrative if carefully read, will supply us with the correct answer. Far from having herself, by any incautstion she had used, brought Samuel back again to earth, the witch is represented as crying with a loud voice from very terror when the shade of the prophet appeared, so little apparently was she prepared for what she saw. We may, therefore, with Theodoret, dismiss the idea as unholy, and even impious, that the witch of En-dor, by any power or incantation of which she was mistress, conjured up the prophet Samuel; and we may affirm with considerable certainty that it was by the special command of God that he came that night to speak with King Saul at En-dor. Keil and Bishops Hervey and Wordsworth all agree in the main with this theory.
The above conclusions respecting the reality of the circumstance detailed in this remarkable episode in the history of Saul being, as we have seen, in strict harmony with the judgment of the ancient Hebrew Church (comp. the passage referred to above from Sir. 46:20; the LXX. addition to 1 Chronicles 10:13; Jos. Antt. vi. 14, § 2, besides the general sense of the more mysterious comments in the Talmud), are a most important contribution to our knowledge of the ancient Hebrew teaching concerning the state of the soul after death in the earliest Prophetic Schools, as early as the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon.
We gather, then, that these old Hebrews held that after death the soul continued in a state of self-conscious existence; that it was capable of feeling and expressing grief and sorrow; that it retained the memory of transactions in which it had taken part when on earth; that it was—at least, in the case of a servant of God like Samuel—in a state of rest, from which it evidently had no wish to be summoned to share again in the fret and fever of this life—“Why hast thou disquieted me to bring me up?”
Of the abode of the souls of the departed we can gather but little from this passage. It was evidently not Heaven—the Heaven where is the throne of God, and where dwell the heavenly powers. The language used, though popular, and adapted to the ordinary conception of Sheol, or Hades, the unseen place or lodging of the disembodied souls of men, clearly distinguishes between the abode of souls like Samuel and the abode of the heavenly powers. Throughout the history the soul of Samuel is represented as coming up, instead of coming down or descending, which would be the popular language used of an angel of God.
The testimony which this history gives to the ancient Jewish belief in the existence of the soul after death fully accounts for the prominence which the compiler of the book has given to this episode. It is, besides, an important contribution to our knowledge of the complex character of the first great Hebrew monarch, so splendidly endowed by God, tried, and, alas! found wanting. The En-dor incident, besides, clearly and incisively gives us God’s judgment on necromancy, and generally on all attempts to hold converse with the souls of the departed.
In every age these attempts have had an extraordinary fascination for men. In our own day necromancy, unfortunately, is not a lost art among ourselves. Men and women of education, as Dr. Fraser well observes in the Pulpit Commentary, are not ashamed or afraid to practise arts and consult “mediums” that are referred to in the Old Testament as abhorrent to God, and utterly forbidden to His people.
“How pure in heart and sound in head,
With what Divine affection bold,
Should be the man whose thought would hold,
An hour’s communion with the dead.
“In vain shalt thou on any call
The spirits from their golden day,
Except, like them, thou too canst say,
My spirit is at peace with all.
“They haunt the silence of the breast,
Imaginations calm and fair,
The memory like a cloudless air,
The conscience as a sea at rest.”—TENNYSON.
(1) The Philistines gathered their armies together for warfare.—This was evidently, as Jose-phus remarks, a great effort on the part of the Philistines. It was no ordinary raid or border incursion, such as seems to have been so frequent all through the reign of Saul. Since their defeat in the Valley of Elah, which followed the single combat between Goliath and David, no such Philistine army had been gathered together. We are struck at once with the presence of the enemy in the heart of the land, no longer choosing the well-known and often-contested “Marches,” or border districts. The Philistines are now strong enough to strike a blow at the centre of the kingdom, and to challenge a battle on the plain of Jezreel. or Esdraelon, north of Ephraim and Issachar. They probably marched along the sea-border of Canaan, collecting their forces as they advanced from each of their well-known military centres, and then, turning eastward, invaded the land by the Valley of Jezreel, or Esdraelon. They marched still eastward, and took up a strong position on the slopes of one of the groups of mountains that enclosed the broad plain of Jezreel toward the east, near the town of Shunem. King Saul, quickly assembling the fighting men of Israel, marched in pursuit, and coming up with them in the Esdraelon plain, took up his position opposite the Philistines—only a few miles parting the two hosts—on the slopes of another group of mountains, known as Mount Gilboa, lying to the south of the Philistine frontier. (There is a map of the Plain of Esdraelon in Stanley’s Jewish Church, vol. ii., Lecture 21, illustrative of this closing scene in Saul’s career, well worth consulting.)
And Achish said.—David soon found into what a grievous error he had fallen by taking refuge with the hereditary foes of his people. Want of faith and patience had urged him to take this unhappy step. The sixteen months he had spent in Phihstia had been certainly successful, inasmuch as they had strengthened his position as a “free lance” captain, but nothing more. They had been stained by bloodshed and cruelty. His life, too, was a life of duplicity and falsehood. The results of his unhappy course of action were soon manifest. His nation sustained a crushing and most humiliating defeat, which he narrowly escaped being obliged to witness, if not to contribute to. His own general recognition as king was put off for nearly seven years, during which period a civil war hindered the development of national prosperity; besides which, during this time of internal divisions the seeds were too surely laid of the future disastrous separation of Judah and the south from the northern tribes—a division which eventually took place in his grandson’s time, when his strong arm and Solomon’s wisdom and power were things of the past.
The summons of Achish to his great military vassal was perfectly natural: indeed, Achish had no reason to suspect that such a campaign as the one the Philistines were about to undertake against King Saul would be in any way distasteful to the wronged and insulted David. Not improbably the presence of David and his trained force—including, as the wily Philistine well knew, some of the bravest souls in Israel—encouraged Achish and the other Philistine lords to this great and, as it turned out, supreme effort against Israel. The King of Gath and his colleagues in Philistia saw that, in the divided state of Israel, their chances of success were very great, and it is highly probable that they looked forward to establishing their friend and follower David on the throne of Saul as a Philistine vassal king.
(2) And David said to Achish.—Sorely perplexed, David temporises. He dares not refuse; and yet, the idea of commanding a Philistine division in a war with Israel was to him a terrible alternative.
And Achish said to David, Therefore will I make thee keeper of mine head for ever.—The King of Gath, like so many others with whom the winning son of Jesse came in contact in his career, seems to have been completely won by his loveable, generous character, and would not see any ambiguity in David’s reply, but at once offers him in the coming campaign a most distinguished appointment in the army of Gath—the command of the body-guard: for this is what Ewald understands the offer of King Achish to signify.
But, as we shall see, the blind confidence of the king was not fully shared in by the Philistine chieftains; jealousy of the distinguished stranger captain opened their eyes to David’s real feelings. (See 1 Samuel 29:3; 1 Samuel 29:11.) It is also quite conceivable, too, that whispers respecting David s expeditions during the past year were current in some Philistine quarters. The eyes of the king, thought these more far-seeing nobles, were blinded by his partiality for his military vassal. (See Note on 1 Samuel 29:3.)
(3) Now Samuel was dead.—A statement here repeated to introduce the strange, sad story which follows. The LXX., followed by the Vulg. and Syriac Versions, omitted it, not understanding the reason for its repetition.
And Saul had put away those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land.—This statement is also inserted explanatory of what follows. In other words, the compiler says: “Now Samuel, whom Saul was so anxious to see, was dead and buried, and the possessors of familiar spirits, whose aid Saul was about to invoke to carry out his purpose, had long since been put out, by his own order, from the land.” “Those that had familiar spirits”—those that had at their command ôboth, rendered “familiar spirits,” the plural form of ôb, a word which has never been explained with any certainty. Scholars think they can connect it with ôb, to be hollow, and ôb is then “the hollow thing,” or “bag;” and so it came to signify, “one who speaks in a hollow voice.” It hence appears to mean the distended belly of the ventriloquist, a word by which the LXX. always render ôb. It thus is used to designate the male or female ventriloquist, as in 1 Samuel 27:3; 1 Samuel 27:9, and Deuteronomy 18:11, &c., and also the spirit which was supposed to speak from the belly of the ventriloquist; in this sense it is so used in 1 Samuel 27:8-9, and Isaiah 29:4. This is the explanation given by Erdmann in Lange, and the Bishop of Bath and Wells in the Speaker’s Commentary.
The wizards.—Literally, the wise people. These are ever connected with the ôboth, “those that had familiar spirits.” The name seems to have been given in irony to these dealers in occult and forbidden arts. The Mosaic command respecting these people was clear and decisive: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch.(or wizard) to live” (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27). Saul, in his early zeal, we read, had actively put in force these edicts of Moses, which apparently, in the lax state of things which had long prevailed in Israel, had been suffered to lie in abeyance.
(4) And pitched in Shunem.—As has been already described in the Note on 1 Samuel 27:1, the Philistine army had penetrated into the heart of Palestine, and, marching across the Valley of Jezreel, took up a strong position on the south-western slope of “Little Hermon,” near to the village, or town, of Shunem, a little to the north of Jezreel. Shunem is known in Biblical history as the home of Abishag (1 Kings 1:3), and the dwelling-place of the woman who entertained Elisha, and whose dead son he raised to life (2 Kings 4:0).
It has been identified by modern travellers. Conder speaks of it as being at present only a mud hamlet, with cactus hedges and a spring; but the view, he says, extends as far as Mount Carmel, fifteen miles away. It is now called Sutêm.
And Saul gathered all Israel together, and they pitched in Gilboa.—Saul’s position was only a few miles distant from the camp of his enemies, on the slope of the hills opposite Shunem, but parted by the deep Valley of Jezreel. From the high ground by his camp Saul could plainly see the whole of the Philistine army. Mount Gilboa is the name given to a range of lofty hills, rising 1,500 feet above the sea, and consisting of white chalk.
(5) He was afraid.—There is no doubt that Saul was discouraged when he viewed the enemy’s ranks from the eminence of Gilboa. They were far more numerous than he had expected. But the real reason of his trembling must be looked for in the consciousness that God had forsaken him. Many of the well-known Israelite warriors had, during the late events, taken service with his dreaded rival, David, and David, he knew, was now the vassal of Achish, a Philistine king. We may imagine Saul, the forsaken of God, as be stood on the white chalk hill of Gilboa, gazing on the long lines of Philistine tents pitched on the opposite hill of Shunem, wondering if his old friend was there, with his mighty following, in the division of Gath.
(6) And when Saul enquired of the Lord.——The question has been asked, How was the enquiry made? for since the massacre at Nob, the high priest, or, at least, the priest in possession of the sacred ephod and the breastplate, with the Urim and Thummim, was, we know, in the camp of David, and we shall soon hear of a solemn use being made of the sacred gems. (See 1 Samuel 30:7-8.) It has been suggested by eminent Biblical scholars that after the murder of Ahimelech and the flight of Abiathar to David, Saul removed the national Sanctuary from desecrated Nob, and established it at Gibeon, where, during the first year of David’s reign, we find the Tabernacle, with Zadok, son of Ahitub, of the house of Eleazar, acting as high priest—probably placed in that office by Saul. This would account for the frequent reference in the time of David to two high priests, Zadok and Abiathar: Zadok, the high priest appointed by Saul, for a considerable period alone in charge of the Tabernacle; and Abiathar, who fled from Nob with the ephod and the sacred Urim, acknowledged by David as high priest, when the kingdom was restored eventually under one head. These two seemed to have divided the honours and responsibilities of the high priesthood. (See 2 Samuel 8:17; 2 Samuel 15:24; 2 Samuel 15:29; 2 Samuel 15:35; 1 Chronicles 15:11; 1 Chronicles 18:16.)
This Zadok, we may assume, “enquired” for Saul:·some suppose by means of an ephod made in imitation of the ancient breastplate with the Urim in possession of Abiathar; but, as may be readily imagined, no response was received. It is also likely enough that some “prophets”—so called—trained, not improbably, in the school of Samuel, were present with Saul. These, too, of course, received no Divine message, either by voice or in dreams.
(7) Seek me a woman that hath a familiar spirit.—He was left alone to himself, and now the last spark of life, the religious zeal which he had once shown even to excess, then also vanished; or, rather. as must always be the case when it has thus swerved from the moral principle which alone can guide it, was turned into a wild and desperate superstition. The wizards and familiar spirits, whom in a fit of righteous indignation he had put out of the land, now became his only resource—
Flectere si nequeo supcros, Acheronte movebo.
STANLEY: Jewish Church, vol. ii., Lect. 21
Behold, there is a woman that hath a familiar spirit at En-dor.—One of these women, mistress or possessor of an ôb, or familiar spirit, who apparently was well known, dwelt at or was left at Endor. “East of Nain is a village of mud-huts, with hedges of prickly pear. This is En-dor, famous in connection with the tragic history of the death of Saul. The adventurous character of Saul’s night journey is very striking, when we consider that for the king to get to En-dor he had to pass the hostile camp, and would probably creep round the eastern shoulder of the hill hidden by the undulations of the ground.”—Conder: Tent Life in Palestine. The distance from the camp of Israel on Gilboa to En-dor was about ten miles further, owing perhaps to the circuit they would have to make round the camp of the Philistines. Jewish tradition speaks of the “two men” who accompanied Saul as Abner and Amasa, and further mentions that the witch of En-dor was the mother of the great Abner. If this be true, it would account for her having escaped the general pursuit after witches mentioned above in the early days of Saul.
(8) And Saul disguised himself.—The disguise and the time chosen for the expedition served a double purpose. The king would, he thought, be unknown in the darkness and disguise when he came to the witch’s dwelling, and there was, too, a far greater probability of his escaping his Philistine foes, whose army lay between him and the village of En-dor.
Divine unto me by the familiar spirit.—Literally, divine unto me by the ôb. Keil’s remark is interesting: “Prophesying by the ôb was probably performed by calling up a departed spirit from Sheol, and obtaining prophecies—i.e., disclosures—concerning one’s own fate through the medium of such a spirit.” No other commentator touches on the ôb here, and Keil leaves it in doubt as to whether he considered the ôb was some special spirit devoted to the service of the mistress of the ôb, or the spirit or soul of one already dead, who, through some occult power, was to be brought back again for a season to this earth. As far as we can judge of these old mysteries, the sorcerer or sorceress possessed, or was supposed to possess, a “familiar.” Through the aid of this “familiar,” the departed spirit was compelled or induced to re-visit this world, and to submit to certain questioning. The Hebrew rendered “divine unto me” is of Syriac origin, like most of those words describing illicit vaticinations.—Speaker’s Commentary. This miserable power, if it did exist, was one of the things the Israelites learned from the original inhabitants of Canaan. These “black” arts, as they have been called, have, in all ages, in every degree of civilisation, always had an extraordinary fascination for men. It is well known that even in our own “cultured age” similar pretensions are put forth, and the dead are still invoked, summoned, and questioned, as they were in the half-barbarous age when Saul and his companions, in their desperate strait, sought the witch of En-dor.
And bring me him up.—The popular idea has always been that Sheol, the place of departed spirits, is somewhere beneath the ground or earth on which we live, just as heaven, the abode of God and His holy angels, is in a region above the earth. St. Paul speaks in this popular language (Ephesians 4:9), where he refers to the lower parts of the earth as the abode of departed spirits. Hence we have here, “bring me him up.” The Christian Church, Bishop Wordsworth reminds us, has adopted this language into her creeds, where she says that Christ in His human soul descended into hell (Hades). Keil well remarks on this human idea of what is “above” and “below”: “With our modes of thought, which are so bound up with time and space, it is impossible to represent to ourselves in any other way the difference and contrast between blessedness with God and shade-life in death.”
(9) What Saul hath done . . .—The law, re-enacted by Saul in earlier days, which made the practice of these dark arts a capital offence, was evidently still in force. Sorcerers and witches, like the woman of En-dor, had, no doubt, been often hunted down by means of informers. The woman possibly at first suspected that something of the kind was intended now. The old tradition, however, which represents the two companions of the king as Abner and Amasa, would preclude such a supposition. Still, in any event, the act of summoning the dead was a capital offence, and the woman would be on her guard, even in the presence of her near relatives, which the old tradition asserts Abner and Amasa to have been. She may, too, by enhancing the peril in which she stood, have thought a larger present would be extorted from the stranger who sought her aid.
(11) Bring me up Samuel.—A remarkable passage in the Babylonian Talmud evidently shows that, at all events in the Rabbinical Schools of a very early date, the bringing up of Samuel was looked upon as owing to the witch’s power.
“ A Sadducee once said to Rabbi Abhu, ‘Ye say that the souls of the righteous are treasured up under the throne of glory; how then had the witch of En-dor power to bring up the prophet Samuel by necromancy?’ The Rabbi replied, ‘Because that occurred within twelve months after his death; for we are taught that during twelve months after death the body is preserved, and the soul soars up and down, but that after twelve months the body is destroyed, and the soul goes up, never to return.’”—Treatise Shabbath, fol. 88, Colossians 2:0.
Another Rabbinical tradition, however, seems to limit this near presence of the departed spirit to the body to four days:—“It is a tradition of Ben Kaphra’s. The very height of mourning is not till the third day. For three days the spirit wanders about the sepulchre, expecting if it may return into the body. But when it sees that the form or aspect of the face is changed [on the fourth day], then it hovers no more, but leaves the body to itself. After three days (it is said elsewhere), the countenance is changed.”—From the Bereshith R., p. 1143: quoted by Lightfoot, referred to by Canon Westcott in his commentary on St. John 11:39.
Saul’s state of mind on this, almost the eve of his last fatal fight at Gilboa, affords a curious study. He felt himself forsaken of God, and yet, in his deep despair, his mind turns to the friend and guide of his youth, from whom—long before that friend’s death—he had been so hopelessly estranged. There must have been a terrible struggle in the proud king’s heart before he could have brought himself to stoop to ask for assistance from one of that loathed and proscribed class of women who professed to have dealings with familiar spirits and demons. “There is,” once wrote Archbishop Trench, “something unutterably pathetic in the yearning of the dis-anointed king, now in his utter desolation, to exchange words once more with the friend and counsellor of his youth; and if he must hear his doom, to hear it from no other lips but his.”
(12) And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice.—Nothing is more clear from the narration than that the woman of En-dor saw something she never dreamed of seeing. Whatever did appear that night was different from anything she had seen before. Whether or not she was an impostor matters little to us. From the severe enactments in the Mosaic code respecting these practices, it would seem as though in the background there was something dark and sinister. At all events, on this memorable occasion, the witch was evidently amazed and appalled at the success of her enchantments. Ewald supposes that she burst into a loud cry on seeing Samuel’s shade, because it ascended with such frightfully threatening gestures, as it could have used only against its deadly enemy, Saul; and she then saw that the questioner must be Saul. This can, however, only be taken as an ingenious surmise. There is a singular passage in the Chaggigah Treatise of the Babylonian Talmud (quoted below), which—contrary to the usual interpretation of the word rendered “gods” (1 Samuel 28:13)—assumes that a second form “came up” with Samuel; and one Jewish interpretation tells us that these were “judges”—so rendering the Elohim of 1 Samuel 28:13—judges robed in their judicial mantles; and it was the sight of these awful ministers of justice which appalled the consciously guilty woman. Deeply interesting, however, as are these traditions and comments, handed down probably from a school of expositors which flourished before the Christian era, we hardly need anything more to account for the cry of terror which burst from the woman than this appearance of the venerable seer, evidently by her quite unlooked for.
And the woman spake to Saul.—At this juncture the woman recognised in the unknown stranger King Saul. For a moment remembering his stern, ruthless procedure in such cases of sorcery as the one in which she was then engaged, she thinks herself betrayed, and given over to a shameful death of agony; and she turns to the king boeide her with a piteous expostulation, “Why hast thou deceived me?” The question now comes up, How did she come to recognise Saul in the unknown? Ewald’s ingenious suggestion has been mentioned above. Keil suggests that the woman had fallen into a state of clairvoyance, in which she recognised persons who, like Saul in his disguise, were unknown to her by face. Josephus (6:14, 2), no doubt writing from traditional sources, asserts that Samuel had most likely revealed the presence of Saul to the witch. “Samuel saw through Saul’s disguise, which had deceived her whom Saul came to consult, as he spoke to Saul as Saul. So Ahijah the prophet, though blind by age, saw through the disguise of the wife of Jeroboam (1 Kings 14:2; 1 Kings 14:6).”—Bishop Wordsworth.
On the whole, Josephus’s explanation is probably the true one. It was some word—probably spoken by Samuel—not related here which betrayed the king’s identity to the woman. There is one other possible supposition, but it, of course, belongs to the realms of fancy. We know it was night, and Saul was disguised; no doubt his face was partially covered. Is it not to be imagined that with the appearance of the blessed prophet, with or without a companion, a light filled the dark room of the En-dor house? This would fall upon the king’s face, who, in the agitation of the moment, would likely enough have thrown off the cape or mantle which shrouded his features. Something of the awful supernatural “light” Tennyson describes when he writes of the Holy Grail:—
“ A gentle sound, an awful light!
Three angels bear the Holy Grail:
With folded feet in stoles of white,
On sleeping wings they sail.”—Air Galahad.
(13) I saw gods ascending out of the earth.—The king at once calms the witch’s fears for her life, and impatiently, as it would seem, asks what she saw which called forth the cry of fear and terror. “Gods”—this is the rendering of the Hebrew word Elohim. The English Version, however, follows the majority of the Versions here. The Chaldee translates the word by “angels.” Corn, à Lapide and the best modern scholars, however, reasoning from Saul’s words which immediately follow—“What is his form?”—suppose the Elohim to signify, not a plurality of appearances, but one God-like form: something majestic and august. The feeling, however, of antiquity seems to have been in favour of more than one supernatural form entering into the En-dor dwelling on that awful night. Besides the testimony of the Versions above referred to, the passage in the Babylonian Talmud treatise Chaggigah, quoted below, speaks of two positively spirit forms-Samuel and another.
(14) An old man Cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle.—The “mantle;” Heb., m’il. The garment so named was not a peculiar one, and bore no official signification; still, its mention here in this place would seem as though the woman recognised the well-known m’il which the prophet used to wear in life.
But it has been asked, How could a spirit bear the semblance of an old man? and further, How could such a being be clothed? Rabbi Moses Maimonides of Cordova (twelfth century), surnamed the “Eagle of the Doctors,” in his Yad Hachazakah, admirably replies to these queries when discussing certain similar expressions used with regard to the Holy One, who is a Spirit without a body or a frame. “We find,” says Maimonides, “such expressions as ‘under His feet,’ written with the finger of God,’ ‘the eye of the Lord,’ &c. Of Him one prophet says, ‘That he saw the Holy One—blessed be He !—whose garment was white as snow’ (Daniel 7:9); whilst another saw Him ‘like a warrior engaged in battle.’ Compare the saying of the sages in the Yad Joseph on Exodus 15:3 :—’On the sea He was seen like a man-of-war, and upon Sinai like a reader of prayers, wrapped (in a surplice); and all this though he had neither similitude or form, but that these things were in an apparition of prophecy, and in a vision.’”—Yad Hachazakah, bk. I., ch. 1 “God designed,” says Bishop Wordsworth, “that the spirit of Samuel should be recognised by human eyes; and how could this have been done but by means of such objects as are visible to human sense? Our Lord speaks of the tongue of the disembodied spirit of Dives in order to give us an idea of his sufferings; and at the Transfiguration He presented the form of Moses in such a garb to the three disciples as might enable them to recognise him as Moses.”
And he stooped . . . and bowed himself.—It Seems probable that at this juncture the king saw the form before him when he did obeisance. It is, however, not clear, from the language here used, whether this strange act of reverent homage did not at once follow the description of the woman.
(15) And Samuel said to Saul, Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up?—Erd-manu, in Lange, argues from this that the incantation of the witch of En-dor had brought about the result, viz., the calling up of the shade of Samuel, and that hence the appearance of the prophet was not due to the command of God. Keil, however, rightly concludes that these words by themselves do not decide the question as to what power called up the “spirit.” They simply assert that Samuel had been disturbed from his rest by Saul, and ask the reason why. In the Babylonian Talmud there is a remarkable comment on these words of the shade of the departed prophet. “Rabbi Elazar said, when he read this Scripture text, ‘Why hast thou disquieted me?’ If Samuel the righteous was afraid of the Judgment (to which he thought he was summoned when thus called up), how much more ought we to be afraid of the Judgment? And whence do we infer that Samuel was afraid? Because it is written, ‘And the woman said unto Saul, I saw mighty ones [or perhaps judges]—Elohim—ascending out of the earth: olim, ascending (a plural form), implies at least two, and one of them was Samuel; who, then, was the other? Samuel went and brought Moses with him, and said unto him, ‘Peradventure I am summoned to Judgment-God forbid! O stand thou by me; lo! there is not a thing which is written in thy Law that I have not fulfilled.”—Treatise Chaggigah, fol. 4, b.
I am sore distressed.—“O, the wild wail of this dark misery! There is a deep pathos and a weird awesomeness in this despairing cry, but there is no confession of sin, no beseeching for mercy—nothing but the overmastering ambition to preserve himself.”—Dr. W. M. Taylor, of New York: “David.”
For the gallant warrior Saul thus to despair was indeed strange, but his gloomy foreboding before the fatal field of Gilboa, where he was to lose his crown and life, were sadly verified by the sequel. Shakespeare thus describes Richard III. heavy and spiritless, with an unknown dread, before the fatal Bosworth field:—
“I have not that alacrity of spirit
Nor cheer of mind that I was went to have.”
King Richard III.
So Macbeth is full of a restless, shapeless terror at Dunsinane before the battle:—
“There is no flying hence, no tarrying here;
I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun.”—Macbeth.
Neither by prophets, nor by dreams.—Why does Saul omit to mention here the silence of the “Urim,” especially mentioned in 1 Samuel 27:6, and which seems also in these days to have been the more usual way of enquiry after the will of the Eternal King; of Israel? The Talmud, treatise Berachoth, xii. 2, gives the probable answer. Saul knew the Urim was no longer in his kingdom. It had been worn by one whom he had foully murdered—Ahimelech, the high priest. Deep shame at the thought of the massacre of Ahimelech, and afterwards of the priests at Nob, stayed him from uttering the word “Urim” before Samuel.
Therefore I have called thee.—The Hebrew word here is a very unusual form, which apparently was used to strengthen the original idea, “I have had thee called “; in other words, “Hence this pressing urgent call to thee from thy rest.”
(16) Seeing the Lord is departed from thee.—In other words, If Jehovah have left thee, why comest thou to consult me, His servant and prophet? The Hebrew word here translated “enemy” is only found in Psalms 139:20 and has been assumed to be an Aramaic form—ain for tsadde. There are, however, no other Aramaic forms in this book, which is written in pure “classical” Hebrew. The letter ain, or the first letter in the text here, through a very slight error of the copyist, could easily have been altered from tsadde, the first letter of the usual word for “enemy.” The LXX. and Vulg. Versions apparently had another reading before them, for they translate the last clause of the verse, “and is with thy neighbours.”
(17) And the Lord hath done to him.—Render, as in margin of the English Version, the Lord hath done or performed for Himself. The LXX. and Vulg. here needlessly change the text into, “the Lord hath done to thee.”
And given it to thy neighbour . . . David.—An evil spirit personating Samuel would not have spoken thus; he would not have wished to help David, “the man after God’s own heart,” to the throne of Israel; nor would an evil spirit have spoken in such solemn terms of the punishment due to rebellion against God.—Bishop Wordsworth, who argues against the supposition that the shade of Samuel was an evil spirit.
(19) Moreover the Lord will also deliver Israel . . . into the hands of the Philistines.—Three crushing judgments, which were to come directly upon Saul, are contained in the prophet’s words related in this 19th verse. (a) The utter defeat of the army of Israel. (b) The violent death of Saul himself and his two sons in the course of the impending fight. (c) The sacking of the Israelitish camp, which was to follow the defeat, and which would terribly augment the horrors and disasters of the rout of the king’s army.
“This overthrow of the people was to heighten Saul’s misery, when he saw the people plunged with him into ruin through his sin.”—O. von Gerlach.
To morrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me.—The Hebrew word here rendered “to morrow,” machar, need not signify “the next day,” but some near future time. In saying “thou shalt be with me,” Samuel does not pronounce Saul’s final condemnation, for he had no mission to do so, but rather draws him by his tenderness to a better mind. He uses a mild and charitable expression, applicable to all, good and bad, “Thou shalt be as I am: no longer among the living.” In the vision of the world of spirits, revealed to us by our blessed Lord, the souls of Dives and Lazarus may be said to be together in the abode of the departed spirits, for Dives saw Lazarus, and conversed with Abraham, though there was a gulf fixed between them. “If Samuel had said to Saul, ‘Thou shalt be among the damned,’ he would have crushed him with a weight of despair, and have hardened him in his impenitence; but by using this gentler expression, he mildly exhorted him to repentance. While there was life there was hope: the door was still open.”—Bishop Wordsworth.
“Shalt thou be with me” does not refer to an equality in bliss, but to a like condition of death.—St. Augustine. Augustine here means that to-morrow Saul would be “a shade,” like to what Samuel then was; he says, however, nothing respecting Saul’s enjoying bliss like that which he (Samuel) was doubtless then enjoying.
The host.—“Host” here should be rendered camp. The meaning, then, of the whole verse would be: first, there would be a total defeat of the royal army; secondly, Saul and his sons would fall; thirdly, the rout would be followed by the sack of the camp of Israel, and its attendant horrors.
(20) Then Saul fell straightway all along on the earth.—Up to this period we must understand Saul listening to the prophet’s words in that attitude of humble reverence which he assumed when he perceived that he was in the presence of Samuel (1 Samuel 28:14); but now, on hearing the words of awful judgment, crushed with terror and dismay, and previously weakened by a long fast and the fatigue of the rough night walk from Mount Gilboa to En-dor, he fell prostrate to the earth.
(21) And the woman.—The story is completed in these few concluding verses (1 Samuel 28:21-25) in a most natural and unaffected style. The witch, though a grievous sinner, is struck with a woman’s pity for the stricken king, and with kind words and still kinder acts does her best to recover him from the death-like swoon into which the hapless Saul had fallen. Her whole behaviour contradicts the supposition that she was moved by a bitter hatred against Saul (see Excursus L at end of this Book) to desire the appearance of Samuel, and to imitate his voice by means of ventriloquism. Firstly, she was herself terrified at the apparition; and secondly, she was saddened by the effect of the dead seer’s words on the king, and did her poor best to restore him to composure and strength again. We read in the next verse how the woman, with Saul’s servants, used even a gentle compulsion to induce the king to take the nourishment he was so sorely in need of.
(23) And sat upon the bed—That is, upon the divan, or cushioned seat, which usually runs round the walls of rooms in Eastern dwellings. There is nothing in the narration to support the common idea, represented so often in painting, that the scene above related took place in a cave. The witch probably lived in a dwelling of her own at En-dor. There is nothing either in the narrative to indicate that she was living in a place of concealment.
(24) Unleavened bread.—There was no time to be lost; so she did not wait to leaven the dough, but at once baked it, and set it before the king.
(25) Went away that night.—The same night they retraced their steps, and returned to Gilboa. “Saul was too hardened in his sin to express any grief or pain, either on his own account or because of the predicted fate of his sons or his people. In stolid desperation he went to meet his destiny. This was the terrible end of one whom the Spirit of God had once taken possession of and turned into another man—of one who had been singularly endowed with Divine gifts to enable him to act as the leader of the people of God.”—O. von Gerlach.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 28". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany