Q&A: Witchcraft?

Witchcraft?

Question

In 1 Samuel 28, Saul visits the witch of Endor who conjures up Samuel's spirit. While I do not doubt that witchcraft is real/powerful, I am surprised that it is used here in Scripture to communicate with the spirit of a prophet. I furthermore think, unlike some conservatives I know, that if Saul were hallucinating, Scripture would indicate this. The story is unsettling to me. How do I reconcile the general attitude of Scripture toward witchcraft with God's use of this "medium" to communicate with Saul?

Answer

I do not believe this to have been a hallucination or a mere apparition. In my opinion, it was the "real" Samuel that appeared. I note this for several reasons:
(1) [T]he consternation of the medium upon seeing Samuel indicates that his appearance had nothing to do with her magical arts (which may not have even commenced) nor with such "familiar spirits" within her experience, (2) the narrator himself referred to the figure simply as Samuel (see also vs. 14), and (3) the subsequent words of Samuel were fully in keeping with his pronouncements while alive (especially in chapter 15). It seems that the real Samuel appeared, although his return could not in any sense be credited to the necromancer, but could only be the result of the Lord's sovereign action. (The word necromancy is derived from the Greek for dead and divination.)
- The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible.

When God desires to speak, he uses what is available (Balaam's ass, etc) and as it pleases him. In my opinion, God was making a righteous mockery of Saul's continual rebellion (1 Sam 15:23). Even when Saul "goes to the other side," God beats him at his own game!

No ritual is recounted ... Samuel beats the woman at her own game by coming up as a prophet of the living God before she could conjure up a dead ghost.
- Ralph W. Klein, Word Biblical Commentary: Vol. 10, 1 Samuel, 271. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.

"When the woman saw Samuel, she cried aloud" at the form which appeared to her so unexpectedly. These words imply most unquestionably that the woman saw an apparition which she did not anticipate, and therefore that she was not really able to conjure up departed spirits or persons who had died, but that she either merely pretended to do so, or if her witchcraft was not mere trickery and delusion, but had a certain demoniacal background, that the appearance of Samuel differed essentially from everything she had experienced and effected before, and therefore filled her with alarm and horror. The very fact, however, that she recognized Saul as soon as Samuel appeared, precludes us from declaring her art to have been nothing more than jugglery and deception.

- Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 2:542 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).