The Witch of Endor

Debate about this biblical story raises key theological issues.

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Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The witch of Endor was the woman who was consulted by King Saul and who brought up the prophet Samuel from the dead, as told in I Samuel 28. 

Interpretations from the Geonim

The problems connected with the story were discussed in the period of the Geonim. Samuel ben Hophni, Gaon of Sura (d.1013), father-in-law of Hai Gaon, was asked whether the story was to be taken literally, and whether the witch actually succeeded in raising Samuel from the dead.

Samuel ben Hophni replies that he finds it impossible to believe that God would have made a witch the instrument of raising Samuel. The true meaning of the story is that the witch, by trickery, persuaded Saul that she had succeeded in bringing up Samuel. The words attributed to Samuel in the narrative are the words the witch put into Samuel's mouth in order to convince Saul that she had succeeded.

In that case, it can be asked, how is it that she forecast so accurately that Saul would die in battle? To this the Gaon replies that she either knew it because Samuel had so prophesied while he was still alive, or it was pure guesswork which by coincidence happened to come true. If God had really desired to inform Saul of his impending death in battle, He would have done so through a prophet, not through a witch.

The Gaon adds that while he is aware that earlier teachers, namely the Talmudic Rabbis, did understand that story literally, we are in no obligation to follow them when what they say is contrary to reason.

saul and the witch of endorBoth Saadiah Gaon and Hai Gaon, on the other hand, refuse to accept Samuel ben Hophni's rationalistic interpretation. According to both these Geonim, God really did bring Samuel up from the dead. The witch, not having enjoyed such miraculous powers hitherto, was consequently astonished, as Scripture implies, that she had been successful.

Talmudic Authority

The Talmudic Rabbis clearly understood the story to mean that it was Samuel who spoke to Saul, not the witch in Samuel's name. Scripture states that Samuel said: 'tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me,' upon which the Rabbis (Berakhot 12b) comment: with me--in my section in Paradise. If it was the witch who said these words, how could she possibly have known such a mystery?

This whole debate is significant over and above the particular instance of the Witch of Endor. Reading between the lines, it becomes clear that important theological issues were at stake.

The first concerns the authority of the Talmudic Rabbis. It is one thing to be guided by common sense where the Talmudic Rabbis disagree among themselves. Here, Hai states, he is prepared to favor what appears to be the most reasonable view. It is quite another to reject, in the name of reason, what appears to be the unanimous view of the Rabbis, even though the matter does not concern Jewish law.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.