Aug 8

1 Samuel 28 – An Interpretational Curiosity

In First Samuel 28, Saul visits the witch (necromancer) of Endor in an attempt to gain Samuel’s counsel (who had been dead for some time). Interpreters are divided over whether this resulted in an actual appearance of Samuel or whether it was a demonic impersonation. My thoughts on this passage were sparked by a recent discussion with a church brother concerning a popular Taiwanese superstition.

August 7 (Wednesday) was the first day of “Ghost Month” on the Chinese lunar calendar. Traditional religious beliefs affirm that during this month the departed ancestors roam the earth. Observant Taiwanese offer food and drink, burn incense, baibai (worship) before the family god-shelf, and burn paper “hell” money in burn-pots for the ancestors to spend in the afterlife. These observances are most evident on the 15th day of the lunar month when people celebrate “The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts.”

As I was discussing these beliefs with the brother, the subject of Samuel’s appearance to Saul came up. After a few days of reflection, here are my more mature thoughts on this passage:

Verse 12 (“the woman saw Samuel”) and verse 14 (“Saul knew that it was Samuel”) and verse 20 (the message was “the words of Samuel”) all indicate that it was really Samuel who appeared to Saul (i.e. it was not merely a demonic deception). Even the woman necromancer was surprised by the result (v. 12). But how does this fact square with claims by many that according to Scripture the dead cannot return to the land of the living (eg. Heb 9:27, et al.)?

Samuel’s case, however, is not absolutely unique in Scripture. Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration (Luke 9:30). Moses, at least, had certainly died (cp. Deut 34:5-8, Jude 9). Furthermore, his appearance with Jesus was before the resurrection. Jesus himself seems to provide the answer to this question in the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31, especially vv. 26ff). The gulf between the wicked dead, on the one hand, and the righteous dead (and also the living), on the other hand, is an impassible gulf, but not the division between the righteous dead and the living. Abraham’s answer indicates that Lazarus could have returned to preach to the rich man’s brothers, but it would not have been of any use. Furthermore, it would have been a disturbance of Lazarus’ rest in Abraham’s bosom. So here also, Samuel’s return was a disquieting of his rest (v. 15), permitted by the Lord for the purpose of executing his judgment on Saul.

Conclusion: Obviously this was an unusual event. The dead in the Lord are now “rest[ing] from their labors”  (Rev. 14:13) and we do not expect in the normal course of things for God to allow their rest to be disturbed in order for them to deliver messages or to make appearances to people on earth. Also, we can categorically rule out the possibility of messages or appearances from those who have died without Christ. Satan is always ready and willing to play upon the gullibility of those not governed by the truth of God.

This is probably not the last word, but it offers something to think about. You are welcome to add your own comments below.

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