Toward the end of King Saul’s reign he went to a witch to have her conjure up the Prophet Samuel. I thought that once a person died they were no longer available to those of us still in our bodies and that any so called contact was really demonic. Yet in scripture it seems as though the witch contacted the ACTUAL Prophet Samuel—not just a demon spirit impersonating him. Can you explain this to me?
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Is contacting the dead possible? (Part 1)
Contacting the dead, called necromancy is strictly forbidden activity in the Bible. God does not tell us it is not possible; what he does say is DON’T DO IT. Saul was well aware of the biblical law forbidding it. “Now a man or a woman who is a medium or a spiritist shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 20:27) “There shall not be found among you anyone…who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.” (Deuteronomy 18:11)
King Saul had previously reinforced God’s law on this matter and had outlawed mediums and spiritists in the land. Yet when he was in big trouble and couldn’t seem to hear from God for himself he broke his own rule. Not surprising. Saul’s reign was always marked by compromise and weak character and Samuel had told him early on that God would remove the kingdom from him in favor of David.
I agree that the scripture makes it sound as if this apparition was the real Samuel. The witch’s description of the conjured spirit definitely caused Saul to believe it was so. The “ghost” spoke like Samuel and confirmed the things Samuel had already told Saul while he was on earth. So—was it really him? We don’t know.
Here are some possibilities. Perhaps it was Samuel. If we accept that we are simply accepting the scripture as stated and cannot be faulted for doing so. If that is true God allowed it yet we may not conclude that God therefore approved it. God allows us to exercise our free will and sin even though he does not approve of sin at all.
Perhaps it was actually a demon disguising itself as Samuel. The witch may have had access to demonic spirits she controlled and who to some degree controlled her. They could have conjured up Samuel’s likeness and repeated back all Samuel’s words to Saul in his lifetime. Why would they want to confirm God’s word to Saul? Demons desire to intersect with our world wherever possible. Perhaps they get something out of doing so that we don’t fully understand.
Handling things that don't fit (Part 2)
The story of Saul and the witch or medium of Endor is one of those passages that it is difficult to wrap our minds around. Our theology often sticks things in strict slots that we like so everything stays neat and tidy. What then do we do when there are loose ends and messy details that don’t fit our belief system?
Does this passage indicate the dead are accessible to us? If Samuel were God’s prophet why would he submit to being called back? Who’s in charge, a witch or God? If this happened once, might it happen again, in our modern times? If a person dies and goes immediately to either heaven or hell, how could they be hanging around close enough to be contacted?
All these questions are legitimate but not necessarily answerable because there are times when scripture doesn’t give enough information to satisfy our curiosity. We are left with mysteries. But we shouldn’t stop asking questions. We should keep digging into God’s Word because often a mystery will surprisingly settle for us over time as we seek God’s wisdom.
There is an approach I like to take when I find a hard passage of scripture and I’ll share it with you. The first thing I do is look it up and read it in as many other translations as possible. To that I might add a paraphrase such as The Message. (A paraphrase is not a strict translation from the original language but a loose rendering which tries to capture the sense of the passage.)
I use every available study note and cross reference that each Bible supplies. Bible scholars who have asked the same questions frequently offer up solutions or possibilities I have never considered. They have taken into consideration customs of the day and archeological finds and word meaning nuances that are extremely helpful.
Beyond the Bible itself there are Bible dictionaries, Topical Bible studies and commentaries with a wealth of information to aid in understanding. Even as I researched this question of yours, I used all of the above. That’s how I know it has been much asked and debated over time.
Finally, praying for understanding actually works. In fact, I think it is often the Holy Spirit who inspires our curiosity in the first place. Submit mysteries to him and wait. They WILL be answered, either here or in eternity.