Rethinking Traditional Interpretations Series
The Bible mentions several women who, despite living in ancient patriarchal times, are uniquely praised.
Rahab, a prostitute, is upheld as an example of faith (Josh. 2:1-7,15-24; 6:12-25; Heb. 11:31; James 2:25). She married Salmon of Judah and became the mother of Boaz (Ruth 4:21; Matt. 1:5).
Ruth, a widow from the cursed clan of Moabites (Deut. 23:3; Ruth 1:4,22; Isa. 15; Zeph. 2:9), approached Boaz, who married her (Ruth 2-4) and together continued the human lineage of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).
Deborah, a prophet and the only female judge of Israel, advised Barak to attack the commander of the Canaanite army, Sisera, whom she prophesied a woman would kill (Judges 4). That woman was Jael (4:21-22).
Miriam and Huldah were also prophets (Ex. 15:20; Judg. 4:4; 2 Kings 22:14-20).
Another woman is an even greater outlier yet is recounted favorably in the Scriptures. This is the woman of Endor, a medium.
As part of the Rethinking Traditional Interpretations Series, I want to take another look at her story. Please set aside hackneyed traditional interpretations and seek something fresh with me.
Traditional take on mediums in the Bible
In Evangelical and Pentecostal circles, the woman of Endor is consistently vilified and constantly referred to as a “witch,” although this word appears nowhere in the Bible text.
The legal code of Leviticus frowned on the ancient Israelites consulting mediums (Ex. 22:18; Lev. 19:31; 20:6,27; Deut. 18:9-15). This is because, in the land of Canaan the Israelites were to possess, such mediums—and the inhabitants in general—worshiped other gods using detestable practices, which the Israelites were forbidden to follow (Deut. 18:9-10).
Such proscriptions were not unique to Israelite law. The Code of Hammurabi (1728–1686 B.C.) prohibited sorcery and prescribed the death penalty for those who practiced it. (Lawrence O. Richards, “Magic,” Zondervan Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, [Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 1991], 425.)
Today in Papua New Guinea, although illegal, villagers still kill those accused of using sorcery against others (In Papua New Guinea’s Sorcery Wars, A Peacemaker Takes On Her Toughest Case). The kind woman of Endor, though, is not identified as a sorceress, but a medium.
Isaiah 8:19-20 advises against consulting mediums on behalf of the living. Instead, “You should follow the teachings and the agreement with the Lord [(Look) to the law/instruction and to the testimony]. The mediums and fortune-tellers … [If they do not] speak the word of the Lord [according to this word], … [they are spiritually blinded…]” (EXB).
Basically, for Israelites, any message from a medium must agree with the Law. This stricture also applied to Israel’s own prophets (Deut. 13:2-3; 18:18; Ezek. 2:7; Jer. 27:16).
Seeing the unorthodox with new eyes
However, we must remember that God led and showed favor to foreign sorcerers and astrologers—elsewhere criticized in Scripture (Isa. 47:13-15; Dan. 2:2-12)—who came to worship the Christ child (Matt 2:1,11-12).
The Nicene Creed upholds the “communion of the saints,” which includes those who have passed into the next life.
Teachers of the Law and Pharisees dragged a woman caught in adultery to Jesus for judgment, but He treated her differently (John 8:2-11). Can we likewise see this woman, the medium of Endor, through Jesus’ eyes?
First Samuel 28 tells the story of this woman who lived in the eleventh century B.C. The account opens with a description of Saul, Israel’s first king, whose monarchy is failing during imminent war with the Philistines.
Saul in trouble
3 Now Samuel had died, and all Israel had lamented for him and buried him in Ramah, in his own city. And Saul had put the mediums and the spiritists out of the land.
4 Then the Philistines gathered together, and came and encamped at Shunem. So Saul gathered all Israel together, and they encamped at Gilboa.
5 When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly.
6 And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by the prophets.
–1 Samuel 28:3-6 NKJV
The great prophet Samuel had prophesied that the kingdom of Israel would be torn from Saul because of his disobedience and delivered to David instead (1 Sam. 15:10-29). This was Samuel’s final prophetic message to the rebellious Saul.
Soon afterward, Samuel died, and Saul had no one to turn to for counsel. Things went downhill for him and the nation.
Concerning the situation with the Philistines, Saul desperately inquired of the Lord, but God did not answer him.
The king received no dreams. He consulted the high priest, who used the Urim and Thummim, a divinely sanctioned casting of lots (Ex. 28:30; Lev. 8:8; 1 Sam. 14:41-42). He approached other prophets, probably those whom Samuel had schooled (1 Sam. 19:19-24).
All to no avail. The Lord remained silent.
Some time before, Saul had expelled all the spiritists and wizards from the land (v. 3) and did not kill them as the Law required. Since he had exhausted all avenues of guidance, Saul broke his own rule and visited a medium at Endor.
The woman of Endor
Then Saul said to his servants, “Find me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her.” And his servants said to him, “In fact, there is a woman who is a medium at En Dor.”
–1 Samuel 28:7 NKJV
This Bible translation calls her a “woman” and a “medium.” The subheadings of some translations call her a “witch.” But the Hebrew text refers to her only as a woman (‘ishsha, Strong’s H802) with a familiar spirit (‘ôb, Strong’s H178).
Why the woman remained in the area after Saul had driven out the spiritists (v. 3) is not revealed. Perhaps she was an Israelite herself and therefore a follower of YHWH.
“Endor” comes from a combination of the words Eyn and Dor. Eyn means a revolution of time, a generation, or a dwelling place. It comes from the word ‘ayin, which means eye, mental or spiritual faculties, or a spring or fountain. It means “fountain of the circle” or “fountain of habitation.” Endor was about twelve miles northeast of Mount Gilboa.
(I still ponder whether Sabrina’s mother-in-law on the TV show Bewitched was named “Endora” after this biblical figure. In name only, for the woman of Endor was kind, and Endora was anything but!)
8 So Saul disguised himself and put on other clothes, and he went, and two men with him; and they came to the woman by night. And he said, “Please conduct a seance for me, and bring up for me the one I shall name to you.”
9 Then the woman said to him, “Look, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off the mediums and the spiritists from the land. Why then do you lay a snare for my life, to cause me to die?”
10 And Saul swore to her by the LORD, saying, “As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.”
–1 Samuel 28:8-10 NKJV
God had already given Saul a decisive prophetic word through the prophet Samuel that Saul would not accept: “‘You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!’” (1 Sam. 15:10-29).
Saul’s self-will and disobedience in his position of leadership met with irreversible consequences. In the end, he ignored God, Prophet Samuel, and his own law.
Yet he assured the woman that no harm would come to her if she practiced her mediumistic abilities.
What happens when she does? We’ll see—next time.
The Kind Woman of Endor, part 2