The very strange story of the witch of En-dor


I Samuel 28 has a remarkable story that is clearly contrary to the current thinking of most Jews about the Torah, unless they read things into the wording of the chapter that are not there. The following is the chapter with my comments in the notes. I will be emphasizing that the story could be read as a trick by the witch or, as seems by the way the story is told and the fact that there is no clear indication that Saul was tricked, as an actual rising of Samuel from the dead. What is also significant is that the story presents many ideas about life after death that is contrary to the current belief of most religious people.


1 It happened in those days that the Philistines gathered their forces to fight against Israel. Achish[1] said to David, “You must understand that you and your men will accompany me in the army.”

2 David said to Achish, “Then you will know for yourself what your servant will do.” Achish replied to David, “Very well, I will make you my bodyguard for life.”

3 Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had mourned for him and buried him in his own town of Ramah;[2] and Saul had expelled the mediums and spiritists[3] from the land.

4 The Philistines assembled and came and set up camp at Shunem, while Saul gathered all Israel[4] and set up camp at Gilboa.

5 When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart.

6 He inquired of the Lord,[5] but the Lord did not answer him[6] by dreams or Urim or prophets.[7]

7 Saul then said to his attendants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.” His attendants said to him, “There is a medium in En-dor,” they said.

8 So Saul disguised himself, dressed in other clothes, and he and two men went and came to the woman at night.[8] “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.”

9 But the woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul did. He cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?”[9]

10 Saul swore to her by the Lord,[10] saying: “As surely as the Lord lives, you will not be punished for this.”

11 Then the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” “Bring up Samuel for me,”[11] he said.

12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and the woman said to Saul, saying: “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”[12] 

13 The king said to her, “Don’t be afraid. What do you see?” The woman said to Saul: “I see a powerful figure[13] coming up out of the earth.”

14 “What does he look like?” he asked.[14] “An old man wearing a robe is coming up,”[15] she said. Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground.

15 Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”[16] “I am in great distress,” Saul said. “The Philistines are fighting against me, and God has departed from me. He no longer answers me, either by prophets or by dreams. So I have called on you to tell me what to do.”

16 Samuel said, “Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy?

17 The Lord did what he said through me. The Lord tore the kingdom out of your hand and gave it to your neighbor, to David.[17]

18 Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, therefore, the Lord did this to you today.[18]

19 The Lord will also deliver Israel with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow[19] you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hand of the Philistines.”[20]

20 Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground.[21] He was filled with fear because of Samuel’s words. His strength was gone, for he had eaten nothing all that day and all that night.[22]

21 The woman came to Saul and saw that he was greatly shaken. She said to him: “Look, your servant has obeyed you. I took my life in my hand and did what you told me to do.

22 Now please listen to your servant and let me give you some food so you may eat and have the strength to go on your way.”

23 He refused and said, “I will not eat.” But his attendants joined the woman in urging him, and he listened to them. He got up from the ground and sat on the couch.

24 The woman had a fattened calf at the house. She hurried and butchered it. She took flour, kneaded it, and baked unleavened bread.

25 Then she set it before Saul and his attendants, and they ate. They got up and left that night.[23]



[1] Achish was a Philistine ruler. He tried to persuade David and his 600 warriors to join him in the forthcoming battle against King Saul and the Israelite forces. David responded ambiguously. He may have not made up his mind whether he would fight against his own people. In chapter 29, the solution is made for him. Other philistines did not trust that he would fight for them and persuaded Achish not to allow him to come.

[2] This statement is also in the first half of verse 25:1.

[3] The Hebrew for these two professions are ovot and idonim. We no longer know the meaning of these names or how these people functioned. There are numerous opinions on the subject. JPS, for example defines the terms as “divined by a ghost” and “a familiar spirit.” What is clear is that Leviticus 20:27 and Deuteronomy 18:11. Leviticus states they should be killed. Deuteronomy calls them an abomination and states they should be driven out of the land. Why does the Bible change its punishment? In my book “How the rabbis and others changed Judaism,” I explain that even the rabbis recognized that at the end of the close to forty-year desert trek, when the Israelites were moving from a close desert environment to a dispersed urban situation, Moses felt the need to change many laws to fit the new situation.

[4] As usual, the Bible speaks with hyperbole. Saul did not assemble all of Israel, only his military force.

[5] The word “Lord” appears seven times in the chapter. The number seven is used frequently to highlight something that is important.

[6] What did Saul want to know? Was he afraid of dying and wanted assurances that he would not die? Did he need to know if God wanted him to go to war or surrender? Was he so frightened that he simply wanted some kind of assurance? We do not know. The Bible does not answer this question. The Bible is generally obscure or ambiguous in its narratives.

[7] The Urim is mentioned in Exodus 28:30, Numbers 27:21, Deuteronomy 33:8, as an instrument whereby the Israelites could communicate with God, but it does not appear in Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, except in 28:6. This is an indication that the author of these books did not know about the Torah. While 28:6 mentions that the Urim could be used to divine God’s will, there is no suggestion that it was used. In fact, I Samuel 10:19–24 states that Saul was chosen as king by lots and 14:42 has King Saul using lots. Lots rather than the Pentateuchal Urim was the means of communication. Joshua used it in Joshua 7 to determine who was a guilty party, and Jonah’s guilt was established by frightened sailors in Jonah 1:7 by lots. The ancient Greeks also used lots, as seen in Odyssey 6:6, Plato’s Laws 5, 745, and other places. See Hayyim Angel, “The Theological Significance of the Urim Ve-Thummim” in Tanakh Companion, The Book of Samuel,” Ben Yehudah Press, 2006.

[8] Many mediums prefer to do their work at night rather than during the day because the darkness of the night makes it easy to trick clients with their fraud.

[9] It is significant that neither the Bible in verse 3 nor the witch here state that the command is biblical, and say instead that it is a decree by Saul, as if neither the author of Samuel nor any character in the book, including Samuel knew about the existence of the Torah.

[10] This is a characteristic oath used throughout the Bible and even placed by biblical writers into the mouth of non-Israelites who worshiped idols, as in Genesis 24:31 and in I Samuel 29:6.

[11] Two things are of interest here. (1) Saul tells the witch to bring up Samuel and even though there were many Samuel’s who died, he did not identify him other than the one name. (2) Saul’s concept of death was that a person is below, therefore he requested that Samuel be brought up.

[12] We have no real idea why the “appearance” of Samuel caused the witch to recognize Saul. If we accept the rational view that this was a trick and the witch recognized Saul when he first appeared, it would seem that this was part of her trick to show her alleged power: I have not only raised Samuel but I am now able to see that you are Saul. Therefore, you have good reason to accept what I tell you that I see.

[13] The Hebrew is elohim. The term is used to describe God. As mentioned previously, the word el, in my opinion, means “power,” and was used by other ancient Semitic nations to describe their gods. The plural signifies most powerful, and was an apt description for the Israelite God. However, the Bible also uses it to denote powerful people, as in Genesis 6:2 for wise men, and in Exodus 22:6 and 27 for judges. Here, the witch uses it to describe the appearance of a powerful person.   

[14] It is significant to note that Saul does not see the Samuel. This supports the view that the witch was tricking Saul.

[15] How did the identification of an old man with a robe identify the apparition as Samuel? This is another indication that the event was the witch’s fabrication. However, the same Hebrew word is used to describe what Samuel wore in 2:19 and 15:27; perhaps he always wore such a robe. Additionally, in Saul’s last encounter with Samuel, he tore Samuel’s robe when he tried to hold him back from leaving him.

[16] This is a remarkable obscure hint about existence after death. The rest of the Bible does not speak about this subject. The verse seems to be saying that after death people do not want to be disturbed. Why? What do people do after death that they do not want to be disturbed from doing? Are they conscious? We do not know. The verse seems to be saying that Samuel knew about the current situation on earth and what God desired. Did he know it before he appeared? Should we understand that Samuel knew nothing before he came and responded based on what Saul told him and that Saul wanted Samuel’s advice based on what he, Saul, told him and not knowledge Samuel acquired in the grave? It is also significant that the witch reports that Samuel arose out of the earth, not heaven or anywhere else.

An additional significant question is: Why does the Bible seem to indicate with this story that witchcraft works and it is possible to restore the dead to life? Opinions differ on the subject. There are talmudic rabbis who accepted the notion that what is described is true and it is possible to do these things (BT Sanhedrin 65a). The Talmudic view is accepted by Rashi, Radak, Altschuler, Malbim, and others. Maimonides, ibn Ezra, Gersonides, Samuel ben Hofni Gaon disagree and contend the witch tricked Saul into believing what she showed him was Samuel. This view may be supported by the chapter saying that Saul asked her what she saw (verse 13); he saw nothing and accepted the ruse as the truth. Saadiah, Hai Gaon, and Nachmanides took a middle path: God allowed this exceptional miraculous one-time event to occur.

People who are convinced that despite the Torah saying the Israelites may not use witchcraft Saul did no wrong, say that he was allowed to violate the Torah prohibition because of horaat shaah, the perilous exigencies of the time. They ignore that I Chronicles 10:13-14 states that one of the reasons for Saul’s death is that he consulted this witch.

[17] 15:28. Samuel did not reveal there that David would be king because he feared that Saul would kill him. Since he was now dead, he no longer had this fear.

[18] The episode is narrated in chapter 15. Samuel does not denounce Saul for using divination, but only repeats what Saul already knows from their encounter in chapter 15. I Chronicles 10:13 states that Saul was killed because he transgressed against God’s command and because he used witchcraft in this instance. Why doesn’t Samuel reprimand Saul for violating Leviticus 20:27 and Deuteronomy 18:11 here? Did Samuel not know the Torah law?

[19] If “tomorrow” is taken literally, this episode with the witch of En-dor belongs before chapter 31 since Saul was not killed the next day. However, “tomorrow” can be understood as “soon.”

[20] No explanation is given why God wanted the death of many Israelite soldiers and even Saul’s son Jonathan who had been consistently kind to David. It is also unclear what Samuel means by “with me.” Today, many people believe that after death, the good and bad go to different places, and Samuel was good and says Saul was bad. Needless to say, those who hold this view say that Saul repented before his death.

[21] Arnold Ehrlich explains that he fell faint.

[22] It is possible that he intentionally fasted as a preparation for the séance.

[23] One can gain much insight by comparing every event, intention, act, and reaction in this tale to the tale of Abraham and Sarah receiving predictions from angels in Genesis 18.