A Pastor, a King, and a Necromancer

A Pastor, a King, and a Necromancer: Lessons from the Forbidden Ground of spiritualism

This article makes a careful analysis of 1 Samuel 28 and also looks at the rituals of necromancy among the people of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

Luiz Gustavo S. Assis is pastor of eight churches in the city of Caxias do Sul, RS, Brazil.

Moses Hull was a man of many talents. Skilled in the tools of the English language, he was a persuasive speaker, an argumenta­tive debater, and one who was too sure of himself. He accepted the Adventist message in 1857 and was ordained as an Adventist pastor the following year.

Hull was an eloquent and convincing evangelist and soon became a popular and much sought after speaker from the northeast to Midwest United States. His linguis­tic abilities and debating skills drew large crowds, particularly when he was challenged to debates, which he generally won. He loved to debate with spiritualists, and usually demol­ished their arguments by pointing to the doctrine of the state of the dead and turning to logical flaws in spiritualism. But there was a flaw in the path of self-certainty that marked Hull’s life: the more he succeeded the more he depended on himself and the less on God. Ellen White warned him several times about getting too close to spiritualists and appealed to him to turn away from self and remain close to God. She even spoke of the dangers of meet­ing with spiritualists alone.1

In spite of such warnings, Hull continued to debate spiritualists. Noteworthy among these debates was one with W. F. Jamiesen, a spiritualist medium, in Paw Paw, Michigan. During this fateful session, he seemed confused, made some compromises, and finally lost the debate. That was serious enough, but Hull made a lethal statement: “From this day on I am a spiritualist.”

Although he confessed his error and remained in the Adventist minis­try for a time, he was never the same man. He preached his last sermon as an Adventist on September 20, 1863, and then became a leader in the ranks of spiritualism. He left his wife, and married a spiritualist medium named Mattie E. Sawyer. In 1902, Hull became the first director of the Morris Pratt Institute, a school specialized in training spiritualist mediums. Tragically, Moses Hull committed suicide in 1907 in San Jose, California.2

On the deadly nature of spiritual­ism, Ellen White wrote, “There are few who have any just conception of the deceptive power of spiritualism and the danger of coming under its influence. . . . But they venture upon the forbidden ground, and the mighty destroyer exercises his power upon them against their will. Let them once be induced to submit their minds to his direction, and he holds them captive.”3

Moses Hull was one of those cases that fell to the deceiv­ing power of spiritualism. Some 3,000 years before Hull, there was another sad story—that of Saul, Israel’s first king. By his own actions Saul distanced himself from God, and after the death of Samuel, the prophet, Saul had no one to guide him. When the Philistines laid siege against his army, he sought God’s will, but God did not answer him (1 Sam. 28:4–6). So he sought coun­sel from a spirit medium—something specifically prohibited by God (Lev. 19:31). Indeed, Saul had earlier “expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land” (1 Sam. 28:3).4 Still, he gave way to the evil one and sought out a woman who was a spiritist and asked her “to bring up Samuel” so that he may obtain the dead prophet’s counsel on how to proceed in the impending war against the Philistines.

We, as Adventists, reject Saul’s quest for counsel through the spirit medium for we do not share the teachings of spiritualism. We believe in conditional immortality of human beings; that is to say, human beings are not inherently immortal as many religions, philosophies, and some Christians advocate. Our faith-stand is based on the biblical position that after death no independent entity such as the spirit exists. Death brings to an end the existence of the human being, and the dead persons await the call of the resurrection in the last day either to perish in the judgment of fire or be saved to live with God forever. Living with God forever is the doctrine of conditional immortality.5

However, those opposed to Adventist belief in conditional immortality often use 1 Samuel 28 to argue against the Adventist position. They point out that the spirit medium in Endor apparently brought back Samuel from the grave and facilitated an apparent conversation between the dead prophet and Saul. How are we to understand the problematic passage in 1 Samuel 28 that shows the prophet Samuel came back from the dead and communicated with King Saul?6 Spiritualism often uses this text as its main support.

This article will make a careful analysis of the biblical text and also look at the rituals of necromancy among the people of Mesopotamia and Canaan. 

Saul and the necromancer

The city of Endor was approxi­mately five miles from Gilboa, where the Philistine camp was assembled (1 Sam. 28:4). Andrew Fausset sug­gests that due to its location, Saul probably passed by the enemy camp before going to the necromancer.7 Ellen White provides the same infor­mation,8 which makes sense when we read that Saul disguised himself before the meeting (v. 8). Saul took the risk just to find someone who could ease his fear through a spirit-medium session.

The biblical text does not pro­vide details about the ritualistic processes that occurred during the psychic session. We only have the dialogue between the necromancer and Saul. When asked about what she saw in her trance, the medium of Endor replied, “gods rising I see” (literal translation). Interestingly, the noun ‘elohim in this passage is used to refer to a dead spirit. The reason for this usage can be better appreci­ated when we remember that in the ancient Near East, ancestors used to be worshiped as gods.

In Mesopotamian texts, for example, the noun ilu, the Akkadian word for “gods” is used broadly to refer to the dead. Theodore Lewis demonstrated the same phenom­enon in the Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Hittite, Phoenician, and Ugaritic texts.9 The same is also true in Canaan if we compare Numbers 25:2 that says that the Israelites ate the sacrifices of the gods of Moab and Psalm 106:28 that says that they ate the sacrifices of the dead (‘elohim). These texts suggest that among the people of Canaan the dead were called gods (‘elohim). An honest interpretation of 1 Samuel 28 cannot lead to the conclusion that the appearance of Samuel to Saul was of divine origin, since the text clearly says that God did not answer the king through any of the familiar methods of revelation (v. 6). What we have in 1 Samuel 28 is a pagan ritual completely contrary to the commandments of God (cf. Deut. 18:9–13).

Saul seems to ignore the fact that the medium was seeing many gods/ spirits of the dead, and changes from plural to singular with the ques­tion “ ‘What does he look like?’ ” (1 Sam. 28:14). Perhaps fearing for her life (cf. v. 9), she appealed to Saul, saying she was seeing “ ‘an old man wearing a robe’ ” (v. 14). What led Saul to identify this “elder” as Samuel as found in verse 14? The cover (me’il) was a feature of the prophet’s garment (cf. 1 Sam. 15:27; 2:19). Still, it is difficult to see any connection between the “old man” and Samuel.

This matter may be clarified by looking at a textual problem in verse 14. P. Kyle McCarter Jr., from the Near Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, noticed that a difficulty exists in accepting the translation “elder” or “old man” (‘ish zaqen) based on the Greek version of the Old Testament, the LXX.10 Instead of zaqen, “old” in Hebrew, the original form of the word was zaqep, meaning “erect” or “upright,” but in this text it should mean “surprising.”11 The difference between the last part of these two words is minimal, since the final form of the letters n and p is very similar in Hebrew.

If this reconstruction of the text is correct, the spirit medium of Endor was not frightened when she saw an old man, but was scared when she saw an unexpected crea­ture. Her identification between this being and Samuel may have been motivated by the fear that Saul would not keep his word to preserve her (v. 9).

Saul and Samuel

What causes some discomfort to Adventists comes from what we read in two verses (vv. 15 and 16): “Samuel said. . . .” Although the prophet was dead (1 Sam. 25:1) how can he be said to come up and speak in the trance? Grenville J. R. Kent, an Adventist theologian and Old Testament specialist, responds by comparing the situation to the narrative of Dagon in 1 Samuel 5, in which the descriptions of this Philistine god sound the same as of a human being. Verses 3 and 4, for example, say that Dagon had “fallen on his face,” a description common only to humans, not to an idol of wood or metal. Kent argues that “Samuel said,” or that Dagon had “fallen upon his face,” is a liter­ary technique in which the biblical author presents the character’s point of view, whether or not they were pagans.12

Finally, the Endor episode ends with a pessimistic speech about the fate of Israel. Although the medium was transmitting the words as though Samuel spoke them, the biblical position on the state of the dead and the Bible’s teaching that God’s people should have no link with any medium pretending to speak for the dead should for­ever keep us in a mode of caution. Indeed, 1 Samuel 28:16–19 must not be seen as Samuel speaking, but rather as Satan’s attempt to drive Saul into further hopelessness. Ellen White says, “It was not God’s holy prophet that came forth at the spell of a sorcerer’s incantation. Samuel was not present in that haunt of evil spirits. That supernatural appear­ance was produced solely by the power of Satan. He could as easily assume the form of Samuel as he could assume that of an angel of light, when he tempted Christ in the wilderness.”13

Final considerations

The tragic end of Saul’s life should serve as a warning to a generation of Christians surrounded by spiritualism’s influences that are contrary to the Word of God. To enter in the territory of the enemy may temporarily satisfy the curiosity of the supernatural, but it will demand an extremely high cost. “Among the most successful agen­cies of the great deceiver are the delusive teachings and lying won­ders of spiritualism. Disguised as an angel of light, he spreads his nets where least suspected. If men would but study the Book of God with earnest prayer that they might understand it, they would not be left in darkness to receive false doc­trines. But as they reject the truth they fall a prey to deception.”14 Saul and Moses Hull. A king and a pastor. Two men separated by nearly 3,000 years fell into the same deception, deceived by the first lie uttered by the devil in Eden: “ ‘You will not surely die’ ” (Gen. 3:4). Paul was right when he said, “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” (1 Cor. 10:12).

1 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 1:428.

2 James R. Nix, “The Tragic Story of Moses Hull,” Adventist Review, August 1987, 16.

3 White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), 558.

4 All biblical passages in this article are from New International Version.

5 See Seventh-day Adventists Believe . . . A Biblical Exposition of Fundamental Doctrines (Silver Spring, MD: Ministerial Association, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005), 387–401.

6 For further information about the history of interpretation of this passage in Jewish and Christian literature, see K. A. D. Semelik, “The Witch of Endor: 1 Samuel 28 in Rabbinic and Christian Exegesis Till 800 A.D.,” Vigiliae Christianae 33 (1997):160–179.

7 Andrews Fausset, Bible Encyclopedia and Dictionary Critical and Expository (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 205.

8 White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2002), 679.

9 Theodore J. Lewis, “The Ancestral Estate in 2 Samuel 14:16,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110 (1991): 4:600, 601.

10 P. Kyle McCarter Jr., I Samuel: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1980), 421.

11 Theodore Lewis mentions two Akkadian documents in which the word zapaqu, the same root of zapeq, was used to refer to the act of snakes becoming upright, when about to attack, and, curiously, another text talking about the ghost of a dead person that made one’s hair stand on end. “In both of these instances the notion is a sudden or startling action associated with fear.” Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1989), 116. Therefore, the translation of zapeq in 1 Samuel 28:14 must assume this etymological background.

12 Grenville J. R. Kent, “Did the Medium at En-Dor Really Bring Forth Samuel?” Gerhard Pfandl, ed., Interpreting Scripture: Bible Questions and Answers, Biblical Research Institute Studies, v. 2 (Silver Spring, MD: Biblical Research Institute, 2010), 199.

13 White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1890), 679.

14 White, The Great Controversy, 524.

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Luiz Gustavo S. Assis is pastor of eight churches in the city of Caxias do Sul, RS, Brazil.

December 2011

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