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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

The medium of En-dor and the question of life after death

I argued recently that the New Testament conceives of any life after death in terms of the resurrection of the body and does not entertain the notion that some immaterial part of a person—the “soul”—survives the destruction of the body to be either rewarded in heaven or punished in hell. See “Why you won’t go to heaven when you die“ and “Resurrection from the dead”. In many ways this feels like a very un-Christian argument—and in a sense it is, because many layers of theological development need to be stripped away before we are able to discern the shape of the original Jewish conceptuality. So not surprisingly a number of biblical passages have been cited as evidence for a conscious intermediate state between death and resurrection. One of the passages is the curious story of Saul’s visit to the “medium of Endor” and his encounter with the dead Samuel (1 Sam. 28:3-24).

When Saul receives no word from the Lord before a battle against the Philistines at Gilboa, he disguises himself and visits a woman at En-dor who is a medium. The woman is reluctant to bring up anyone for him because the king had recently “cut off the mediums and necromancers from the land”. But Saul reassures her that she will not be harmed, and she brings up the recently deceased Samuel “out of the earth”. Samuel complains about having been disturbed. He tells Saul that “the Lord will give Israel also with you into the hand of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me”.

So what does this odd story tell us about the condition or location of the prophet Samuel after his death? Certainly not that he was in heaven or in some other blessed state. We can hardly hope to account for the incident from a modern rationalist perspective, but two things seem pretty clear.

First, Samuel is brought up from the earth—that is, from the grave, from the place of the dead, from Sheol. His ominous warning to Saul is that the next day he and his sons will be in the same place. They too will be dead. Far from being evidence of Jewish belief in an intermediate state the passage confirms the basic thought that the dead are just that—they are dead.

Secondly, he is brought up from the earth by necromancy. It takes an occult power to bring Samuel back to whatever form of life is indicated here. It is not the work of God.

The passage cannot, therefore, be adduced in support of the belief that the dead, whether righteous or otherwise, enjoy some sort of conscious existence between death and resurrection. So I reiterate my view that in the New Testament some of the dead—the martyrs—are resurrected prematurely and reign with the first martyr Christ in heaven throughout the coming ages. The rest of the dead are simply dead—though death may be conceived euphemistically and optimistically as sleeping—until the final resurrection.

Comments

I’ve agreed often enough that the bible by and large states that the destination of the dead is unconsciousness, and the promise of the resurrection is future-oriented, not immediately after death. And I agree that this story lends itself to that view.

But I hope the way you ask the question about this story tells us refers to what the author intended to convey and not anything to do with the actual location of Samuel after his death.

Stories such as this (or when Moses threw his staff that became a snake, an act that was matched by the court magicians. How would the priests of a non-existant god have such power?) are hard to believe as literal history. If anything, they point out that the belief in monotheism didn’t happen overnight, but came about gradually.

That’s why in the story there was a power other than YHWH that could raise the dead. In our thinking, there is no “occult power,” whatever that is, powerful enough to raise the dead. Such power is reserved for the Almighty. If not, what makes him almighty? He would be one of the mighties, not all of them.

And if took this literally, we would have to believe that any true medium could raise any dead person to life. But with what – the proper incantation or a truly magic wand?

Yes, we should ask what the text says, and we should ask whether what the text says actually happened. Both questions are legitimate, but we should not attempt to answer the second one without carefully considering the first one. At least, we must recognize that our determination of the truthfulness of a statement hangs upon our determination of the meaning of that statement—and our determination of the meaning of a statement should take into account not only the immediate context of the passage but also such matters as the genre of the text and the mesh of cultural expectations surrounding the text.

You wrote:

“Secondly, he is brought up from the earth by necromancy. It takes an occult power to bring Samuel back to whatever form of life is indicated here. It is not the work of God.”

i’ve always taken the witch’s shock/surprise as evidence that she never expected her necromancy to work; so when it actually did work, that tipped her off about who had really paid her a visit.  Thus, the necromancy wasn’t the actual cause of Samuel’s appearance.

Bottom line, the passage doesn’t seem definitively to support either view.  A person who believes in an intermediate conscious state can read “from the earth” as from the place where the intermediate conscious dead reside, and Saul and his sons would indeed be there shortly as Samuel stated.  i don’t see anything in the passage itself that necessarily excludes that view.

Guy, I take your point about the woman’s surprise—she is clearly taken aback by the appearance of Samuel. But I’m not sure there is any reason to think that it was not the woman’s power that brought Samuel up from the dead. Saul expected her to do it. The shade of Samuel accuses Saul of having disturbed him—he does not suggest that God had done this. The point is made more than once that God is refusing to speak to Saul—so why would he bring Samuel up from the dead to do just that? And the woman says later that she has obeyed Saul (28:21), which betrays no surprise on her part at the success of her necromancy.

In any case, the passage does not lead us to suppose that Samuel was in Sheol in the same conscious state in which he appears to Saul. True, the passage does not exclude belief in an intermediate, but it also cannot be cited as positive evidence for it.

We then have to look elsewhere for an account of the state of the dead, and I think the main point to make then is that Sheol is conceived as a gloomy, lifeless end. There is normally speaking no prospect of the souls of dead returning from Sheol or death to any sort of “life after death”, and is only ever animated poetically (eg. Is. 14:9). It is conceived in effect, I think, as a place of non-existence. That is why when eventually the need arises to reward the righteous with everlasting life, it must be in the form of resurrection.

(1) Oh, i see.  i had the dialectic backwards.  You’re right, if this passage is ultimate ambiguous, then it can’t be positive evidence for an intermediate conscious state.  i thought your treatment of the passage amounted to the claim that it must be seen as evidence against an intermediate conscious state. 

(2) The witch’s reaction i take to be far more important than Saul’s reaction because Saul can be as superstitious as we like or basically ignorant of the general craft of necromancy.  We have no reason to think he was intimately acquainted with how it works or what it was all about.  The witch, however, had experience and familiarity with witchcraft beyond tht of Saul, and more importantly she had an “insider’s” point of view of the practice.  The fact that she was shocked by it actually working is far more telling than Saul–a desperate man who frequently bent the rules to serve his reputational interests–expecting it to work.

First, Samuel is brought up from the earth—that is, from the grave, from the place of the dead, from Sheol.

Another passage, Isaiah 14:9, granted its poetic rhetoric, suggests that Sheol is more than the ‘earth’. ‘Sheol’ and ‘the dead’ are bracketed together, Sheol being described as ‘moved’, and the ‘dead’ as ‘stirred up’ to greet the King of Babylon. We could debate the relative metaphorical or literal force of the word here, but Sheol as a gathering place of the dead rather than simple elimination is, I think, suggested.  

This is not proof of a belief in an intermediate state; it is just evidence, along with the episode of the medium of Endor, that it is impossible to say that Jews did not believe in an intermediate state.

In  the incident of the medium of Endor, an argument in favour of the belief in a continuing existence of the dead is that nowhere in the episode is it suggested that it was impossible to communicate with the dead, or that this was contrary to Jewish beliefs or assumptions, even though a forbidden practice. None of the characters expressed (or were made to express) surprise at the idea that it was possible to communicate with the dead.

The argument about the intermediate state rumbles on and on. I seem to have brought a previous discussion thread on the belief in the NT to a grinding halt here.

It’s interesting that it is such a frequent and popular subject of discussion. Maybe we are concerned about what happens us when we die after all.

We could debate the relative metaphorical or literal force of the word here, but Sheol as a gathering place of the dead rather than simple elimination is, I think, suggested.

Well, yes, we have to debate the literary force of the description of Sheol being stirred up to greet the king of Babylon. Sheol as a “gathering place of the dead” is certainly not eliminated—in fact, that’s exactly how it is conceived. But I think it is still conceived metaphorically, which is why it lends itself to the sort of imaginative description that we have in Isaiah 14:9-10.

Notice, too, that a number of other statements are made about the fate of the king of Babylon in this passage that suggest that this is simply a figurative account of his foreseen humiliating death: “maggots are laid as a bed beneath you, and worms are your covers” (14:11); and whereas the kings of the nations lie in glory in their own tombs, the king of Babylon will lie unburied on the field of battle:

All the kings of the nations lie in glory, each in his own tomb; but you are cast out, away from your grave, like a loathed branch, clothed with the slain, those pierced by the sword, who go down to the stones of the pit, like a dead body trampled underfoot. You will not be joined with them in burial, because you have destroyed your land, you have slain your people. (Is. 14:19-20)

But even if we do suppose that the Jews attributed some sort of “weak”, lifeless shadowy existence to the dead in the collective “grave”, this still seems a far cry from later Christian ideas of a conscious disembodied existence in heaven or hell after death.

But even if we do suppose that the Jews attributed some sort of “weak”, lifeless shadowy existence to the dead in the collective “grave”, this still seems a far cry from later Christian ideas of a conscious disembodied existence in heaven or hell after death.

Agreed - because Christian ideas, in my view, presuppose an unbroken enjoyment of union with Christ - which I think means a conscious union.

What about the medium of Endor? Impossible, unheard of, or merely forbidden to communicate with the dead, in Hebrew thinking?