Monday, August 23, 2021

Anonymous Asks (159)

“Why did King Saul consult a witch?”

The account of King Saul and his visit to the witch of En-dor in 1 Samuel 28 is one of those passages that gives rise to all manner of questions. Short summary: Unable to hear the voice of God and about to enter battle with the armies of the Philistines, Saul seeks direction from the dead prophet Samuel by consulting a medium, a practice forbidden by God and outlawed earlier in his reign by Saul himself. A spirit appears to the medium and confirms that Israel will lose the battle, and that Saul and his sons are to die the very next day.

Not the most encouraging tale, but one that arouses considerable curiosity among readers of the Old Testament.

The Witch of En-dor

The questions bandied about are numerous:

  • Why would God suddenly decide to speak to Saul through a medium when he had refused to speak to him earlier?
  • For that matter, why would God speak through a medium at all, since he had forbidden necromancy in Israel?
  • The old man in a robe came up out of the earth. Does that mean Sheol is literally below us?
  • Did Saul hear the voice of a demon? Or did the witch fake Samuel’s appearance? Or did Saul suffer a hallucination?
  • When Samuel tells Saul, “Tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me,” does that mean they would all be in heaven?
  • Samuel appeared in a robe. Does this mean we will all wear clothes in heaven?
  • If it was the real Samuel that appeared, does that mean mediums today really have the ability to contact our dead loved ones?

There are more. Lots more. You can get good and silly with it. And since none of the answers to these questions are given us in the passage, all we can do is consult other scriptures for whatever clarification we can find, or else speculate wildly. Internet commentary on the chapter is mostly of the latter sort.

Why, Oh Why?

One question I haven’t run into before is why Saul would consult a witch in the first place. Motivations are complex things, and it is possible to have more than one at any given time, but 1 Samuel 28 gives us strong clues about the primary source of Saul’s concern:

“When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets.”

Saul was scared. He saw a large army in front of him, and he had previously been told that God had determined to strip him of his kingdom and give it to someone else. Perhaps this was finally the moment. He inquired of the Lord, as you or I might do in prayer, and he got no answer. He tried other legitimate methods of communicating with heaven. All failed.

Now, if Saul had repented of his previous follies as king and had determined to seek the mind of the Lord and do whatever pleased God no matter the outcome, we might think God a little unfair for not giving him an answer to his question. But this was not the case at all. Saul had demonstrated time and time again that he possessed an almost infinitely flexible moral code. When an idea struck him — such as ordering the genocide of a racial minority, getting rid of a pesky rival to the throne (in this case his loyal son-in-law), or even murdering God’s priests en masse when he feared they might be disloyal — he simply went ahead and did whatever he wanted. He had no established pattern of consulting God to seek wisdom or guidance, and a very well-established pattern of headstrong self-will imposed on the world by whatever means necessary.

Obedience or Data?

So, we can be pretty sure that whatever Saul was looking for here, it wasn’t wisdom, forgiveness or direction. He was scared, and he was after information. The question on his mind was “What should I do?” That’s what he asked Samuel when he finally got the chance. This is not because he wanted to pursue the most righteous course of action in the eyes of God, but simply because he wanted to know which set of choices was most likely to preserve his own life and kingdom.

How can we be sure self-preservation was first and foremost on Saul’s mind? We can’t with absolute certainty, but the way in which the ghost of Samuel answers Saul is a bit of a giveaway: “Tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me.” Samuel discerned exactly what was on Saul’s mind and answered the question the king didn’t ask him directly.

You can be sure it didn’t make Saul any happier to get his answer.

A Few Thoughts

We can learn a few things from Saul’s bad example here if we are so inclined:

  1. Nothing is gained by asking God questions he has already answered. “Why then do you ask me?” says the frustrated old-man-who-was-probably-Samuel’s-ghost. When God has spoken, the appropriate response is acceptance and obedience, not repeating our inquiries until we get the answer we want. The latter outcome is pretty unusual, and generally a mistake.
  2. Bad ways of acquiring knowledge do not become good ways just because this time we really, REALLY want an answer. God had clearly expressed his hatred of mediums and necromancers. Knowing this, Saul had banished them from Israel. What possible good could come from exploring the answers they were able to provide? Sometimes it’s actually better NOT to know.
  3. You don’t solve a disobedience problem with more disobedience. Saul started “trembling” and ended “terrified”. He started in uncertainty and ended up flat out on the ground in horror. He started with “rebellion, which is as the sin of divination” and ended … in actual divination. Not an improvement on any front.

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