Cut-out witches are everywhere this time of year. You see them carved into pumpkins, stuck into trees. But deep in the pages of the Hebrew Bible, about the year 1007 BC, is the story of a real witch—a woman who could have been killed for responding to the ragged, scared man at her door. Turns out that man was the King of Israel, King Saul. On the run because mental illness had finally forced his hand, he was desperate to talk to his old mentor, Samuel, for advice. (For full story, see 1 Samuel 28.)

Problem: Samuel was dead. And how to reach a dead man? Saul had come to the right place…but the woman of Endor was hesitant to respond. After all, the penalty for practicing witchcraft was death. For all she knew, the man dressed in rags was employed by Saul to find and arrest lawbreakers like her. After hearing the man’s dilemma, she refused to help–but only for a moment.

“There will be no punishment,” says Saul. “Trust me.”

“Who is it you wish to speak with?”

“Samuel,” he says. “Samuel.”

The woman raises the spirit of Samuel—and then screams—for she realizes that she is standing between two of Israel’s most powerful men—one alive, one dead.

Angry that he has been roused, Samuel does not lighten the mood. Instead, he announces that death will take the king the very next day. Samuel disappears, and Saul falls to the ground. In addition to hearing the bad news about his forthcoming death, he is also exhausted, for he has not eaten in over twenty-four hours.

With deep compassion, the old woman 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.

As was foretold that night because of her action, Saul dies the next day on the battlefield. Knowing that his life is to end and not wanting to die by the hands of Philistines, he falls on his own sword, thus ending his tenure of the first king of Israel.

Consider this

Ostracized for most of her life, the witch of Endor had finally found a place where she could live in relative safety and practice her vocation. When the knock on her door came, she was justifiably concerned, for she had learned who was trustworthy and who was not. Most people were not.

But kindness won out. She used the gift God had blessed her with: intuition, clairvoyance, and an apparent ability to reach those in the next life. And even though the interaction must have seemed terrible stressful, the women did not throw Saul out the door when she was done.

Like Mary of Bethany washing and anointing Jesus’ feet with priceless oil, (John 12:1-8) the witch offered the king her most valuable material resource: a fatted calf. Like Mary, who gave Jesus the strength to walk to the cross, she gave Saul physical and emotional support during his last hours. Like Martha of Bethany fed the disciples, 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.
Consider all gifts to be from God and use them wisely. Give what you can while you can.
People who seek healing are often hungry, in more ways than one.

For reflection

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?

Photo: Marla Hanley