After Samuel's death and burial with due mourning ceremonies in Ramah, Saul had driven all necromancers and magicians from Israel. Then, in a bitter irony, Saul sought out the witch, anonymously and in disguise, only after he received no answer from God from dreams, prophets, or the Urim and Thummim as to his best course of action against the assembled forces of the Philistines. The prophet's ghost offered no advice but berated him for disobeying God, as well as predicting Saul's downfall as king and Israel's defeat in battle the next day. Saul was shocked and afraid, and the next day the army was defeated. He committed suicide after being wounded.
In Judaism, some rabbis taught that the spirits of the dead hovered around the body for a year after a person died; this made the spirit of the dead person amenable to being truly summoned during this time, and indicated that the spirit so summoned truly was Samuel, and that Samuel was indeed supernaturally summoned by the witch.
The Church Fathers and some modern Christian writers have debated the theological issues raised by this text, however. If one interprets the Bible literally, it would appear to affirm that it is or was possible for humans to summon the spirits of the blessed dead by magic. Medieval glosses to the Bible naturally suggested that what the witch actually summoned was not the ghost of Samuel, but a demon taking his shape. The modern Christian author Hank Hanegraaff argues that although it is impossible for humans to summon the dead, Samuel did appear before Saul and the witch by a sovereign act of God. Hanegraaff interprets the passage to mean that the witch was surprised by these events.
Regardless of the reality of the witch's power, the story can be seen as a satire on Saul. Once Saul was the righteous king who upheld God's law by his sword; having fallen from God's favour, he is reduced to participating in forbidden rituals. He is given no counsel from the ghost of Samuel, who instead appears to confirm his doom.
In Popular Culture
In Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Alec d'Urberville cries out to her, "You temptress, Tess, you dear damned witch of Babylon!" The witch of Babylon being another way of saying the Witch of Endor, though the expression died out and went back to Babylon later in the 19th century
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- Medium of Endor: From the Jewish Encyclopedia
- Visiting the Medium of Endor — Revisiting Adventist Thnetopsychism: A reflection of the Catholic perspective that Samuel actually appeared to Saul