Saul then said to his attendants: “Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her.” “There is one in Endor,” they said.
The passage from the Torah where a ‘witch’ of Endor summons the prophet Samuel’s spirit at the demand of King Saul is in parts both troubling and stimulating.
The first thing to point out is that the Hebrew clearly talks about the “woman” of Endor, but over time she has become a witch.
While ’witch’ has negative connotations for us, Mediterranean societies from which the Bible came were generally more tolerant of witchcraft than northern European societies.
In the story, the voice of Samuel berates Saul for disobeying God and says he and his entire army will perish in battle the next day.
A terrified Saul leads his army to defeat at the hands of the Philistines, as predicted, and then commits suicide.
An account in 1 Chronicles tells us: “Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the Lord, because he did not keep the word of the Lord, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance.”
So why did Saul engage with such magic, which after all was both a threat to the monotheistic all-powerful God and a capital offence in Saul’s own kingdom?
For me, it was a cry for help. Saul’s main support, instrumental to his reign, had gone and when he tried to get advice from God, there was no answer.
So, in desperation, he turned to forbidden practices.
This tale is therefore, perhaps, less about the dark art of witchcraft and more about the difficulty and loneliness of leadership and the lengths we sometimes go to in order to find a trusted voice.
Rabbi Sandra Kviat is rabbi at Crouch End Chavurah
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