Shemuel Alef Chapter 28

The Reading

The Summary

Shemuel Alef Chapter 28

This chapter is probably one of the most infamous and unusual in the entire Hebrew Bible. The Pelishtim are poised to attack Israel and the odds seem to be strongly in their favor. Shaul is panicked and seeks out Hashem’s word to advise and guide him in his conduct of the battle. He receives no response; Shemuel, his trusted prophet, has died, and none of the other means of divine communication are providing any response. Although Shaul himself had fulfilled the Torah’s command to eliminate necromancers, witches and other practitioners of the occult from the land of Israel, he now felt that he had no other recourse but to consult with one.

Apparently, despite the official position of his government against these practices, there was a thriving black market of diviners and necromancers and Shaul’s men recommend a particular woman in Ein Dor who can provide the necessary services. Shaul disguises himself and visits the woman at night, requesting that she raise someone from the dead on his behalf. She resists, citing the campaign of Shaul against such activity and accusing her anonymous customer of trying to entrap her. He swears that no harm will come to her and she agrees to summon Shemuel from the netherworld. When she perceives the apparition, she describes him to Shaul and Shaul confirms that she is seeing Shemuel; the woman then realizes that she has been duped and that her client is none other than the king himself.

Shemuel speaks to Shaul, first admonishing the king for disturbing his rest and then explaining that Hashem’s providence has withdrawn from Shaul ever since he failed to observe the commandment of destroying Amaleq. The Pelishtim will defeat Israel and battle and by tomorrow Shaul and his sons will be with Shemuel.

When the spirit of Shemuel departs, Shaul is visibly shaken and lying on the ground; in addition to the emotional upset he is experiencing, he also hasn’t eaten all day. The necromancer pressures him to eat; at first he resists, but after some additional cajoling from the woman and the men who had accompanied him, he relents and the woman prepares and serves him an impressive meal. Shaul and his men leave that night and return to their camp.

On the surface, this story seems to lend credence to the idea that occult practices are actually efficacious; in other words, it appears as if the effort to raise Shemuel from the dead really worked. Some Rabbis subscribe to this view and take the story as a literal account of black magic. How can we reconcile this with the more mainstream position of the Geonim and Maimonides that such activities are foolish and nonsensical and most definitely do not work?

Before we address this issue, let us examine the narrative more carefully and attempt to understand the lesson being taught. As I have mentioned before, the preferred approach in studying Tanakh is to focus on the principles and ideas and to consider the historical details and questions to be secondary to the prophetic message. What is the prophetic author trying to convey through this story?

King Shaul left behind the idea of seeking and living by the word of Hashem a long time ago. Ever since Shemuel informed him that he had been rejected as the leader of the Jewish people, he never made another attempt to communicate with Hashem. Not only does he neglect the pursuit of closeness to the Almighty (in contrast to David, who is continually basing his conduct on the direction of God), Shaul goes so far as to massacre the Kohanim who represent Torah and Divine Service. Even when he invokes the name of the Almighty in an oath, Shaul rarely, if ever, honors his word.

Shaul has withdrawn from Hashem’s truth and sunk more and more deeply into his own paranoia and depression, allowing his emotions of jealousy and aggression to hijack his intellect. When he faces a desperate situation of conflict with the Pelishtim that looks like it will end disastrously, he is finally moved to seek help. When his petitions for help from God were denied, he should have looked into himself and sought the cause of the trouble; he should have engaged in sincere repentance. Instead, in a manner reminiscent of the Jews at the beginning of the Book of Shemuel who believe that the Holy Ark will magically save them in spite of their corruption and distance from Hashem, Shaul believes that the answer to his problem will arrive magically through occult means.

Not only does Shaul fail to engage in any semblance of self-reflection or teshuva, he ceases his efforts to connect with the Creator and reaches out to a human being, Shemuel; this is similar to the response of the Jews in the wilderness who, when faced with the uncertainties and insecurities that developed in Moshe’s absence, decided to fill the void of his charismatic presence not with a deeper connection to Hashem but with idolatry, leading them to build the Golden Calf. Shaul can no longer resist the fears and anxieties that are gripping him, but rather than reject the primitive tendency to seek an illusory, magical solution, rather than attempt to develop a deeper and more genuine relationship with Hashem, he grasps at nonsense in an attempt to provide himself with some certainty about the future.

When we look at the story from this perspective, we see the final stage of the tragic descent of Shaul from a wise and trusting servant of Hashem to a person so emotionally distraught and needy that he was willing to chase after the empty reassurances offered by occult practices that he knew, at least intellectually, were meaningless and silly. Shaul has lost his way; he has taken leave of whatever remained of his grip on reality and allowed illusion and fantasy to completely dominate him.
When we read between the lines we can see that his interaction with the necromancer in Ein Dor is a farce. The appointment with her had to have been arranged in advance and we have every reason to believe she knew who her customer was from the beginning. When she protested that Shaul had forbidden these practices and that she was risking her life by providing her services, she was purposely feigning ignorance of his identity as a part of her ruse. Otherwise, it is impossible to explain why she would first mention the illegality and riskiness of her business, yet be so willingly to disregard all of that concern moments later, merely on the basis of an oath from an anonymous client who promised to protect her from the consequences of her actions.

Why should the medium trust this person whom she doesn’t even recognize? How can he guarantee her safety? We can only assume that she knew who Shaul was from the outset; her false protests were meant to flatter and honor the king who she realized was hearing them and to confirm that he was granting her an exemption from any penalties associated with her criminal activities.

Support for this interpretation of the text can be drawn from the fact that we are never told how exactly the necromancer “became aware” of Shaul’s true identity when Shemuel rose from the dead. After all, she herself acknowledges that she cannot hear the verbal message that was perceived by Shaul and might have contained that information. The simplest understanding of the situation is that her sudden “realization” that her client is Shaul was faked; her surprise is itself a part of her act.

Nowadays, when a psychic or clairvoyant secretly acquires background information on his or her client and pretends to “discover” things in the course of his/her work, it is referred to as a “hot reading” (this is as opposed to a “cold reading”, where the psychic tries to pick up clues and hints about the customer through the use of carefully worded and vague questions). A “hot reading” is precisely what is being described in the story of Shaul and the medium in Ein Dor.

Let us examine the details of the account a bit further. Only the woman allegedly “sees” the apparition of Shemuel rising up from the ground and only Shaul hears its voice; the medium’s vague claim that she is observing an impressive-looking old man in a cloak is enough for Shaul to buy into the “séance” experience he is being sold and to begin hearing the voice of Shemuel speak to him.

Of course, we can see that “Shemuel” doesn’t tell Shaul anything more than what he already knows or believes to be the case – namely, that he has been rejected by Hashem and will be defeated by the Pelishtim. It is a confirmation of the paranoia, pessimism, fear and fatalism that has already gripped the psyche of Shaul – nothing more, nothing less. Shaul has simply projected and externalized his own thoughts, feelings and inner turmoil, “hearing” them as if they are being spoken by another.

When we read that Shaul was physically exhausted and famished and can barely lift himself off the ground it confirms our suspicion that he is merely hallucinating, facilitated by the antics of the necromancer who knows her trade all too well. Reports of modern-day “mediums” and preachers who allegedly facilitate communication with dead relatives or other trance-like spiritual experiences demonstrate that these fraudulent rituals have not changed much in the past 4,000 years.

Shaul was duped by the “hot reading” of the medium at Ein Dor, and he was only fooled because he allowed himself to be fooled and he wanted to be – he had fallen into the trap of seeking reassurance, validation and security not only from the opinions of others (as was often the case throughout his career) but from the realms of fantasy, imagination and illusion that the wise commandments of the Torah have taught us to reject.