Imagine an old woman, in about the year 1007 BCE, living alone in the Jezreel Valley, with only a hillside burrow for a home. Some call her a witch. Others use the world medium; others a necromancer. King Saul has said mediums should be killed, but townspeople still sneak away to see her under the cloak of night. Most jobs are closed to females, but she exercises, illegally, one of the few vocations in biblical times where a woman can earn a few cents.
On a night unlike all others, an old man stumbles to her door, asking her to roust a friend from the afterlife. She refuses, telling him that the king has banned such activity. For all she knows, the man dressed in rags is employed by King Saul to find and arrest lawbreakers like her. And the injunction is no small matter, for Saul is quoting the law of Moses: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 20:27)
But seeing fear and fatigue in the man’s eyes, she does not slam the door shut.
“There will be no punishment,” he says. “Trust me.” For some reason, she does.
“Who is it you wish to speak with?”
“Samuel,” he says. “Samuel.”
Ah, the deceased Samuel: a holy man, judge, and prophet; the son of Hannah and Eliezar; the man who anointed Saul and helped bring him to power.
With a mighty burst of energy, the woman raises the spirit of Samuel. And then as Samuel’s angry spirit fills the space, she screams–for she realizes that the man who knocked on her door is King Saul himself. Suffering from mental illness and on the run from the Philistines, he is desperately searching for his old mentor.
Emotions rage. Samuel is furious that he has been raised from the dead and announces that death will take the king the very next day. On that cheery note, Samuel disappears.
Saul falls to the ground. He is also exhausted, for he has not eaten in over twenty-four hours.
The old woman’s deep compassion continues. She begs the exhausted monarch to stay for a bite of bread so that he might have strength for the morrow. First he refuse, then accepts. Knowing that by her hand will come Saul’s last meal, she prepares a meal that is indeed fit for a king, sacrificing a young calf.
As was foretold, Saul does indeed die the next day on the battlefield. Knowing that his life is to end and not wanting to perish by enemy hands, he falls on his own sword, thus ending the tenure of the first king of Israel.
Ostracized for most of her life, the witch of Endor has finally found a place where she can live in relative safety and practice her vocation. When the knock on her door comes, then, she is justifiably concerned, for she has learned who is trustworthy and who is not.
She could have ignored the knock. She could have sent the trembling old man away. But she did not. She ministered to Saul in a way that only she could: by summoning Samuel. And when his apparition arrived, no wonder she was terrified. Yet she stayed. She stayed with Saul and comforted him, giving him strength and courage for his last few hours on earth. Her healing gifts were both transformative and life-giving.
Like Mary of Bethany washing and anointing Jesus’ feet with priceless oil, (John 12:1-8) the woman offered Saul her most valuable material resource: a fatted calf. Like Mary, who gave Jesus the strength to walk to the cross, the witch gave Saul physical and emotional support during his last hours. Like the Last Supper, she fed his troops, providing the king and his men one last meal together.
What might we learn from the Witch of Endor?
- Be insistently generous.
- Sometimes we find the deepest healing in places we least expect it.
- Consider all gifts to be from God and use them wisely.
- The Witch of Endor had a range of God-given gifts. What were they?
- Why did Saul seek out this woman? Was it a reasonable thing for him to do? Do you think it was bravery on her part to conjure up Samuel or was she afraid for her life? Did God inspire them to come together? If so, why? If not, why not?
- The witch had two of the most powerful men in Israel standing with her, even though she had to practice her vocation on the edges of town, in the shadows. In some ways she is like a prostitute, visited by men under the cover of darkness. What does it mean that this witch and several prostitutes have such a strong presence in scripture?
- Have you ever agreed to help someone and then been terrified at the result? If so, why?
- Where was God in this encounter?
Excerpts from Bible Women, All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement, Scott Gunn photo.