The account of the witch of Endor summoning Samuel from the dead is recorded in 1 Samuel 28:7–20. It is the only biblical account of a séance. There are differences of opinion regarding the story: did Samuel himself truly appear, was this an illusion perpetrated by the witch, or was it a demonic deception?
King Saul’s encounter with the witch of Endor took place at the very end of his reign as king. The Philistines had arrayed themselves for battle against Israel, and Saul “was afraid; terror filled his heart” (1 Samuel 28:5). Samuel was dead, so Saul sought direction from the Lord through other means, “but the Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.” God’s silence was a consequence of Saul’s disobedience against God (verse 6).
Having no word from God, Saul sent his servants to find a medium, and they told him of one in the town of Endor (1 Samuel 28:7). Saul had previously expelled all the spiritists and mediums from the land (verse 3), but obviously some remained. By divine law, mediums and spiritists were banned from Israel (Deuteronomy 18:11). That the king, in desperation, would seek wisdom from an occult source that he himself had outlawed shows his hypocrisy and indicates how far he had fallen from God’s grace.
King Saul fasted all day, disguised himself, and visited the witch of Endor with two of his servants. Saul told her, “Consult a spirit for me, . . . and bring up for me the one I name” (1 Samuel 28:8). The woman, wary of a trap, balked at the request. Saul swore an oath that she would not be punished (verse 10), and he indicated that he wished to speak to Samuel. During the séance the prophet appeared: “When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, ‘Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!’” (verse 12).
Saul, who did not see what the woman saw, told her not to be afraid and to describe what she saw (1 Samuel 28:13). The witch said, “I see a ghostly figure a coming up out of the earth,” further describing him as “an old man wearing a robe” (verses 13–14). “Then Saul knew it was Samuel, and he bowed down and prostrated himself with his face to the ground” (verse 14).
In the ensuing conversation, “Samuel said to Saul, ‘Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?’” (1 Samuel 28:15). The king explained about the Philistines and how God was no longer answering him (verse 16). Samuel then gave Saul a chilling message:
Why do you consult me, now that the Lord has departed from you and become your enemy? The Lord has done what he predicted through me. The Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hands and given it to one of your neighbors—to David. Because you did not obey the Lord or carry out his fierce wrath against the Amalekites, the Lord has done this to you today. The Lord will deliver both Israel and you into the hands of the Philistines, and tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. The Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.Upon hearing of his fate, Saul was very afraid. The witch prepared a meal for Saul, who had not eaten all day, and she and Saul’s two servants prevailed upon to partake of what was probably his last meal (1 Samuel 28:20–25). The next day, in battle, Saul and his sons died (chapter 31).
(1 Samuel 28:16–19)
(1 Samuel 28:16–19)
The passage does not give any indication that the apparition the witch of Endor saw was anything other than Samuel himself. We know that the medium was not producing an illusion because she screams in surprise when she sees Samuel (1 Samuel 28:12). Also, the spirit rising from the earth is called “Samuel.” The text does not say that the spirit “appeared to be Samuel” or that the medium “thought it was Samuel”; the text directly refers to the spirit as “Samuel.” Further, the spirit spoke the truth; the message Saul received was accurate.
The witch of Endor was likely expecting to hear from her “familiar spirit” (a demon) during the séance, and that explains her startled reaction to seeing Samuel. It seems that, in this case, God allowed Samuel to return in order to give King Saul the news of his coming defeat and death.
The story of the witch of Endor summoning Samuel does not imply that séances are effective in conjuring the dead or that witches or mediums genuinely speak with the spirits of dead individuals. When a person dies, his or her soul is taken to either heaven or hell. There is no wandering the earth, conveying messages to the living, or making return visits (see Luke 16:19–31). Any claim of contact with departed loved ones is a demonic deception (see 2 Corinthians 11:14–15).
God condemned necromancy, channeling, and the work of mediums, and those who practiced such things in ancient Israel were to be put to death (Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:10–12). In Saul’s case, God allowed Samuel to return to pronounce a final judgment on the disobedient king. Saul, who had refused to listen to Samuel when the prophet was alive, sinfully sought a word from Samuel after he was dead. And that was part of why Saul was judged (1 Chronicles 10:13–14).