Halloween seems like an appropriate time to review what is perhaps one of the strangest events recorded in the scriptures: the account of King Saul’s encounter with the Witch of Endor.
The Impending Battle
In his preoccupation with the pursuit of his rival David, King Saul had neglected the growing Philistine threat to Israel. Meanwhile, the Philistines undertook a new strategy and marched into the Jezreel Valley where they could use their chariots to advantage, thus cutting Saul off from the northern tribes. (This same valley is destined to be the site of the future battle of Armageddon.) The Philistines were encamped at Shunem, a city in the Valley of Jezreel situated on the south slope of the Hill of Moreh. The Israelite forces were camped five miles to the south at Mount Gilboa.
When Saul saw the Philistine army he was so afraid that his heart “greatly trembled.” He was gripped with fear. Saul inquired of the Lord, but there was no answer. The prophet Samuel was dead. No encouraging word from the Lord would be forthcoming.
Consulting the Witch
With the heavens silent, Saul sought out a medium to enable him to determine the outcome of the battle with the Philistines. God had commanded Saul to rid Israel from those delving in the realm of the occult. However Saul was informed by his servants that at Endor, between Mount Tabor and the Hill of Moreh, there lived a medium who had escaped the purges. The Old Testament law forbade occultic practices of any kind and called for the death penalty on any who would consult mediums. This would be fulfilled literally in the case of Saul himself.
Saul disguised himself and traveled under the cover of darkness to Endor to consult the medium. Assuring her that she would not be punished for practicing her forbidden profession, he requested that she bring up Samuel from the dead. The medium carried out Saul’s instructions, but rather than using the tricks of her trade to deceive Saul, she herself was shocked to see an old man appear, whom Saul identified as Samuel!
Some have suggested that the appearance of Samuel was psychological – in the mind of Saul. However, the woman also saw Samuel, and Saul actually talked with Samuel. Some of the early church fathers held the view that a demon impersonated Samuel and appeared to Saul. But the message in 1 Samuel 28:16-19 would have hardly come from a demon.
Still others have concluded that the medium was a fraud and tricked Saul into thinking that he saw Samuel. Yet the medium was surprised herself by Samuel’s appearance and that would not have been the case if it were a contrived trick.
The Rabbinical View
The traditional rabbinical view is that these verses record a genuine appearance of Samuel that God Himself brought about. There are at least five arguments that favor this view:
1) The medium was surprised, indicating that something happened that she was not expecting;
2) Saul identified the figure as Samuel and bowed down in respect for the prophet. It is unlikely that Saul, who knew Samuel so well, would have been easily tricked by an impersonation;
3) The message that Samuel spoke was clearly from God;
4) The Biblical text itself says that the figure was Samuel. It is clear that the intent of the Scripture is for the reader to understand that Samuel actually appeared to Saul.
5) A similar appearance of one returned from the dead occurred at the Transfiguration – when Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus.
The Prophet’s Counsel
Samuel proceeded to remind Saul that the kingdom had been taken from him because of his disobedience in the Amalekite war, and then predicted Israel’s defeat and the deaths of Saul and his sons at the hands of the Philistines. Samuel never really answered Saul’s initial question, “What should I do?” There was nothing that could be done. Because of his disobedience, his fate was sealed.
Saul was understandably terrified because of the message of doom that Samuel had communicated to him. Judgment was imminent and certain. All that had been Saul’s as king would soon be lost because of his rebellion and contempt for God’s will.
The Defeat at Mount Gilboa
The battle was a disaster from the beginning. Saul’s army was quickly routed, then slaughtered, including Saul’s sons: Jonathan, Abinadab and Melchishua. The king himself was wounded by an arrow. In agony, Saul begged his armor-bearer to thrust him through with a sword but he refused. In desperation, Saul fell on his own sword and ended his life in ignominy.
So great was Israel’s defeat that many of the cities in northern Israel were abandoned as their citizens fled to regions safe from the Philistine menace. As a result, the Philistines were able to occupy many Israelite cities. When Saul’s body was found by the Philistines, they dishonored it by cutting off the head, stripping off the armor and hanging the naked body on a wall in the open square of Beth-Shean. The armor was put on public display in a temple. The inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead, whom Saul had helped early in his reign, at great risk removed the bodies from the wall of Beth-Shean and gave them a proper burial. A week of fasting as a sign of public mourning for the king was observed.
Saul appeared to be full of promise as a young man, but proved impulsive, prideful, and ended his own life in disgrace. The great failure of Saul as king was his lack of obedience to the will and Word of God.
The Dark Side of Halloween
There is a great deal of controversy about whether or not Christians should celebrate Halloween. On the surface Halloween appears to be a harmless celebration defined by costumes, candy, pumpkins, and other fun family traditions. Those traditions may seem very innocent, but we cannot forget that Halloween has a dark side. Satan is an expert at parading as an “angel of light.” If he did not make evil look attractive, people would not be deceived and drawn in by it. Witchcraft is practiced in the real world today and it has been made to look appealing. However, the Bible absolutely condemns witchcraft and sorcery, consulting with “familiar spirits” or attempting to contact the dead. The Bible clearly says:
“There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord: and because of these abominations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).”