Tanakh Notes: 1 Samuel 28

The “witch” of Endor summons the ghost of Samuel to appear to Saul.

For many years, a group of UCLA faculty has been gathering weekly to study Hebrew texts: for many years the Book of Deuteronomy, briefly the tractate Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers), currently the two Books of Samuel in Alter’s translation as “The David Story.”

The group, now called the Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group after the much-lamented Jack Hirshleifer, a great economist and for many years our guiding spirit and note-taker, embraces a mix of disciplines and levels of textual, linguistic, and traditional knowledge; occasionally we are joined by the learned and great-souled UCLA Hillel rabbi, Chaim Seidler-Feller. As the least learned in the group, I have somehow become the replacement note-taker.

Last week we read 1 Samuel 28.

If we were to think of the two books of Samuel in terms of familiar “Bible Stories,” we might name these six: the apparition to the child Samuel, David and Goliath, the Witch of Endor, David and Jonathan (with David’s lament for Samuel and Jonathan), David and Bathsheba (including Nathan’s rebuke of David), and David and Absolom (with David’s lament for his son). Of these, 1 Sam 28 contains the story of the Witch of Endor.

Alter uses “ghost-wife” in place of the familiar “witch.” The unnamed woman does not seem to be a “witch” in the broomstick-and-graymalkin or evil-eye sense, nor yet an herbal healer or Goddess-worshipper, which are the usual associations of that term in English. Nor is the phrase used in 1 Sam. 28 בַּעֲלַת-אוֹב אֵשֶׁת, literally “a woman mistress of a pit,” related to the word מְכַשֵּׁפָה “sorceress,” translated as “witch” in the injunction in Ex. 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Apparently the “pit” was used in summoning up the dead.) Only Saul calls her this; from then on, she is merely “the woman.”

Saul’s request is for a “woman” and a “mistress,” so the function was clearly identified with femininity, and perhaps with women’s religion more generally; after his death, Saul’s armor is brought to a temple of Astarte. In Greek religion the chthonic is associated, though not exclusively, with goddesses (especially Persephone) and priestesses.

The text assumes that divination by “a ghost or familiar spirit” is possible, though forbidden. Saul has enforced that ban, but now seeks to evade it as all the licit means of divination &#8212 dreams, the Urim, and prophecy &#8212 have failed him.

Saul’s suppression of this divinatory activity seems to have been incomplete, since his servants know that there is a diviner at En-dor. Still, when he appears in disguise, the woman suspects that he is there to entrap her, after the manner, as Alter notes, of an undercover drug enforcement agent or informant. But she accepts his oath by HaShem that she will come to no harm, and asks whom he wants summoned, to which he replies, “Samuel.” She asks no reward; was the fee fixed and known, or is her activity a spiritual function which she fulfils gratis?

Nothing is said of the ritual. Does Samuel appear as soon as Saul names him, or has the narrator suppressed the details in order not to tempt the reader to illicit practice?

When Samuel appears, the woman screams, and at once knows that her client is Saul. How so? If Samuel speaks to her, the text does not report it. Is it that she recognizes Samuel, and knows that he would not appear at the behest of anyone but the king?

Saul, as usual in spiritual matters, is blind. He does not see Samuel, but rather asks for a description. The woman says she sees (elohim, the same word sometimes used for HaShem — though not usually in Samuel, which is mostly a “Y” text rather than an “E” text — but also the plural form of but also the plural form of אל [“god”], although confusingly it usually takes a singular verb) — thus, “a god” or “gods” “rising from the earth.” Saul asks for more description, and the woman says she sees an old man in a robe. Only then does Saul know that it is indeed Samuel, and he prostrates himself .

Samuel is annoyed, as he usually is with his unsatisfactory puppet Saul, and, with no greeting, demands to know why Saul has disturbed him. Saul says that his ordinary means of divination have failed, and Samuel (who as a child delivered the bad news to Eli only reluctantly) lets him have it with both barrels: HaShem has become his adversary, has replaced him with David because of his failure to slay Agag, and tomorrow will deliver Saul, his sons, and the entire people up to the Philistines.

“Tomorrow,” says Samuel with apparent satisfaction, “you will be with me, you and your sons.” That is the last we hear from, or of, Samuel.

Saul, understandably, collapses (literally, “measures his stature on the ground,” which Alter reminds us takes us back to the first description of Saul in terms of his size, then marking his dignity but now his indignity). He has been fasting a day and a night. (Is this for ritual reasons, as before the battle in which Jonathan breaks the fast, or simply because he is too upset to eat?)

The woman, having been the agent by which he received the bad news, presses him to eat “a bit of bread,” reminding him of the risk she has taken for him and on his request, and reminding him too that he will need his strength for the coming battle. His two companions urge the same thing, and he finally agrees.

What happens next is unclear. The woman has a stall-fed calf to hand, and (in the Hebrew, though not in Alter’s translation), sacrifices it to HaShem. She then makes matzoh, and Saul and his servants eat and leave.

What is it that they eat? Alter takes it that she makes a feast of the calf, and that her reference to “a bit of bread” is merely the modesty of a hostess. But the reference to eating follows the baking of the matzoh, not the sacrifice. Perhaps the sacrifice is purely to propitiate a possibly offended Deity (divination by spirits is, after all, forbidden) and only the matzoh is eaten.

In addition to its role in the narrative, the chapter is of interest for what it tells us about Israelite beliefs about the afterlife, which is not (as far as we could find) otherwise mentioned in the Tanakh. Samuel rises from the earth; he does not descend from Heaven. And when he says that Saul and his sons will be joining him, he doesn’t seem to intend it as good news. Samuel appears to be a ghost, like the ghosts of Achilles and the others summoned up by Odysseus in Book XI of the Odyssey, where Achilles says that he would rather be the slave of a vagrant than the king of all the dead. Samuel’s words to Saul foreshadow David’s words on the death of his first child by Bathsheba, the unnamed older brother of Solomon: “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”

The early Christian texts suggest that by the first century of the current era Jews had come to believe in an afterlife of reward and punishment. (In the story of Dives and Lazarus, Heaven and Hell are treated as background assumptions, not offered as new doctrine.) But the Talmud is no more communicative on the topic than is the Tanakh. One customary belief holds that the dead are “in the earth” only for a year after their death; thus the unveiling of the grave marker in the thirteenth month after the funeral.


Recently one of the non-Jewish members of the group gently reminded me that Jack Hirshleifer always included a joke with the week’s notes, and that I had been deficient in that regard. But Samuel’s grim warning to Saul reminded me of one:

Samuel’s grim words to Saul suggest this week’s joke:

Morrie and Hymie, friends from childhood, retire to the same home for the aged, where softball forms their favorite pastime. They mutually promise that whichever dies first will come back to bring tidings to the other of the life Beyond.

Hymie dies, and Morrie mourns him. One evening, he hears a voice:


“Hymie, is that you?”

“Yes, Morrie, it’s me, Hymie.”

“Well, Hymie, tell me: what’s it like?”

“Morrie, I can’t even tell you: it’s too wonderful!”

“Hymie … is there softball there?”

“Well, Morrie, on that I have good news and bad news.

The good news is: Yes, there’s softball here.

The bad news is: You’re pitching tomorrow afternoon.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com