I just came across this reading of the story of 1 Samuel 28, where Saul meets the witch of Endor. It is written by Rachael Starke, who was inspired by the recent book, Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible. While appreciating much of what she is trying to do, I was quite dissatisfied with her reading of the passage, so thought I’d quickly write up my own thoughts on it, along with some more general methodological concerns springing out of the textual discussion, but not particularly aimed at Starke (who is a person who is almost invariably smart, thoughtful, gracious, and worth reading, even though I often end up disagreeing with her—she also is admirably open to critical engagement, which is why I feel able to write this post).
When handling the story of 1 Samuel 28, we should recognize that the book of Samuel is a well-crafted literary work, with remarkably rich exploration and development of themes and skilful use of various devices. Anyone familiar with the book of Samuel will be highly alert to these things when approaching this passage.
The author employs lots of themes from earlier in Scripture, particularly from Genesis and Exodus, and it is important to pay attention to these. For instance, enemies can be presented as serpents: ‘Nahash’ means serpent and Goliath is clothed with scales and has his head crushed by David. The story of the capture of the ark replays the Exodus. The incident where Michal delivers David from Saul contains allusions to Rachel, Rebekah, and Rahab, and possibly more. David is presented as a new Jacob at numerous points in the narrative.
However, the imagery is used subtly. So, while Nabal is like Laban (note the names), who repays the Jacobite David evil for good, despite David’s protection of his property (25:21), David risks becoming like Esau, heading out to kill Nabal with four hundred men (25:13; cf. Genesis 32:6). Abigail is the one who plays the part of Jacob in Genesis 32 and recalls David to his true typological self, sending gifts on ahead to create peace.
1 Samuel 28 involves different themes. Notice the presence of fear throughout the passage. Saul, even though he is the king, has become characterized by fear since his earlier rebellion: he fears Goliath (17:11), he fears David (18:12, 15, 29), he is afraid of the Philistines (28:5), and he is afraid of his own death (28:20). Within the narrative with Michal, for instance, he is characterized as a figure like Laban (deceived by his daughter in an event involving a household idol), the king of Jericho (outwitted by a woman who lets down a wanted man through the window by a cord), and perhaps even Pharaoh (as his daughter protects the promised seed he wishes to destroy). Just as the Canaanites were struck with fear before the conquest, Saul knows that he is a doomed man. He is also like the serpent who, in an event of poetic justice, is deceived by the woman.
The story of Samuel’s life begins in a period of lack of revelation and with a man lacking in spiritual perception (Eli) and it ends that way too. 1 Samuel 3:1-3 tells of a threefold darkness: the lack of the light of the word of the Lord, the dimness of the high priest’s eyes (and, by implication, his spiritual perception), and the lamp of the Lord that was about to go out. That theme returns in 1 Samuel 28:6.
Saul’s robes are an important thing to notice too. He takes off his robes to disguise himself, last seen when Samuel tore them. This is a foreshadowing of his loss of kingly authority and his ‘divestiture’. Saul ends up suffering the same fate as Goliath. His body is stripped, it is decapitated, and his head is displayed in the land of his enemies as a grisly trophy.
The fact that everything happens at night is significant too. It is a time of doom and foreboding, a time when judgment falls and fates are sealed. In various other parts of Scripture we see darkness and night and the coming of light used as significant pointers to the character of particular periods. For instance, the sun goes down upon Jacob at Bethel (Genesis 28:11) and doesn’t truly rise on him until he limps away from the encounter with the angel at the Jabbok (32:31). Similar patterns occur at the Exodus (the sun rises when they cross the Red Sea at night and, when the sun rose, the waters descended on the Egyptians—Exodus 14:27). Likewise, from the departure of Judas from the Last Supper in John 13:30—‘and it was night’—until the glorious light of Christ’s rising on the first Easter, we are plunged into a period of metaphorical darkness.
The woman, as a medium is under the ban, to be expelled from the land. This should help to clue us in on some important themes that are being introduced, themes that, like the Jacob themes in the Nabal story, are artfully deployed. Saul comes to the women with two men in disguise. The woman declares the report of what Saul had done in cutting off mediums and spiritists from the land, much as Rahab declared the news of the victories of Israel and the fear they occasioned to the two spies who came to her in disguise. Like the spies who came to Rahab, Saul declares that no harm will come to the woman.
However, the Joshua story is inverted: the disguised visitors side with the person under the ban, rather than the person under the ban siding with the faithful people of God. Saul has been associated with the King of Jericho already in the narrative, but now he seals his union with the doomed Canaanites in the eating of the medium’s meal.
Just as the Rahab story has various Passover themes, so the story of the medium of Endor brings such themes to the fore. There is a meal of unleavened bread at night, which will be followed by the death of the firstborn. However, this is a table of demons and the firstborn doomed to die is Saul himself.
Broader Exodus themes are very significant in the wider context. Saul is associated with the doomed people of the land, but he also dies at the hands of the Philistines, who are associated with the Egyptians as descending from Mizraim (Genesis 10:13-14). It is important to notice that David’s story is purposefully being juxtaposed with that of Saul, which is why the chronology is slightly disrupted.
David, who had been deceiving and killing the Philistines (perhaps like Moses killed the Egyptian), being told to leave the battle by Achish. David and his men rise to depart early in the morning, the temporal reference contrasting with Saul and his servants rising to depart late in the night. They travel back to Ziglag, where they discover that their wives and children had been captured by the Amalekites. Unlike Saul, however, the Lord gives guidance to David through the ephod. They then cross the Brook Besor and pursue and slaughter the Amalekites. The rout of the Amalekites is hugely significant in the context: Saul lost the kingdom because he spared the Amalekites in chapter 15, while David seals his title to the crown by destroying them. Beyond that, however, we are also seeing the pattern of Israel leaving the land of Egypt (~Philistia), crossing over the Red Sea (~Brook Besor), and winning a decisive battle against Amalek (Exodus 17:8-16). David is replaying the movement of the Israelites out of Egypt, while Saul is descending from life in the land into the grave of Egypt. He joins himself to the doomed people of the land of Canaan, then dies at the hands of sons of Mizraim.
But there are further themes still that surface here. The book of Samuel has presented us with the serpents of Nahash and Goliath, foreign enemies of the people. Here, though, Saul is the one who plays the part of the serpent—the bridegroom of Israel turned viperous—deceiving the woman into committing a forbidden act, an act for which the death penalty existed. Saul ends up losing his head, like the serpent has his head crushed.
Endor, as Peter Leithart observes, means ‘spring of dwelling’ or ‘spring of generations’, suggesting an Edenic garden setting. Saul and the woman’s dialogue replays the story of Genesis 3. In crafty disguise, Saul challenges the divine command that he had been entrusted with as the husband of Israel. The woman repeats the command, but then Saul, like the serpent, flatly denies it: ‘you will not surely die…!’
Samuel appears to Saul—literally a ‘god’ ascending out of the earth—and questions him. ‘Why have you done this forbidden thing, Saul? You will surely die as a result, returning to the dust from which you came. You will be driven forth from the garden of the kingdom and one like an angel of God (cf. 29:9) will be put in it to guard and serve it in your place.’
The woman then has a significant interaction with Saul. The woman has obeyed the voice of the serpentine Saul, but now calls on him to eat of her food. He initially refuses, but finally listens to the voice of the woman and takes of the food that she gives to him. The repeated references to heeding and obeying voices in this context are charged ones. Samuel had said to Saul in 15:22-23:
Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,
And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
He also has rejected you from being king.
In Saul’s nadir in chapter 28, we hark back to early events in his life. In chapter 13, Saul’s impatience for Samuel led him to disobey God’s commandment. In chapter 15, he failed to destroy Amalek, but kept the fatted animals and spared Agag. In chapter 28, Saul resorts to the sin of divination to which his rebellion was earlier compared. The ‘heeding’ and ‘obeying’ is the woman’s obeying of Saul’s wicked request and the rebellious Saul’s heeding of the woman’s voice, which seems to echo Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17). The woman of Endor is a new fallen Eve alongside the Adamic (and serpentine) Saul. The fact that the medium is simply ‘the woman’ throughout makes possible the accentuation of her archetypal significance.
Saul is then served the fatted animal. Much as the gifts sent by Jesse to Saul with David and his music in 16:19-23 ironically recalled the signs of the kingdom given to Saul in chapter 10, so perhaps the fatted animal may recall Saul’s great sin.
Starke’s reading of this passage exhibits many of the problems with readings of Scripture that focus narrowly upon women’s stories, problems shared by several of the chapters of the book that inspired her rereading of the story, Vindicating the Vixens. Paying closer attention to the women of the Bible is seriously overdue in many conservative Christian quarters. We miss so much simply by not paying attention. However, there are two problems that vex the vixen-vindicators. The first is the tendency to narrow the frame of reference to spotlight the women’s stories, rather than paying closer attention to them as a form of greater attention to the entire story in which they are situated. The second is the tendency to approach the stories with the pressing concerns, questions, categories, and values of modern women, rather than being attentive to the stories on their own terms (and the problems with Starke’s reading are probably compounded by an evangelical rush to neat individual life application). As a result, very important things get missed and there is an unfortunate drift to over-simplification, sanitization, and distortion.
Moving beyond Starke’s article, in doing work on a theology of the sexes, something that I have continually had to return to is the importance of approaching that subject in the context of a much, much wider vision and without a fixation (I don’t come to this subject with the deep personal investment in the issues that many do: I am chiefly motivated by my desire to address some of the dangerous distortions that proliferate in the area and to acquaint people with a bigger picture that I am enthused about). The significance of this point has become increasingly clear to me as I have seen how so many people working in this area are driven by deep personal concerns to comment and fixate on a host of issues that have bearing on gender, while clearly lacking extensive knowledge of or attention to the operative fields where they do not have bearing on gender.
For instance, as soon as the doctrine of the Trinity touches upon the gender debates, everyone has strong opinions about it, while most people are oblivious or relatively indifferent to it otherwise. People who clearly haven’t given any sustained thought to the matters of ecclesiology or the pastoral ministry have very strong opinions on these matters the moment that we start talking about women in ministry. People who do not spend much time in deep exegetical scholarship or biblical research will be found to be quite dogmatic whenever one encounters a text that is at play in the gender debates. A fixation on gender issues—and usually a very particular understanding of gender issues—can easily come to determine people’s approach to Scripture and theology.
Such a fixation is a great way to disqualify us as careful students of these matters. Only as we broaden our peripheral vision (paying wide and close attention to the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, biology, and philosophy, for instance) and extend our knowledge of the wider realm of theology and Scripture will we be well-positioned to begin to understand male and female as they fit within that. Where that is lacking, we will be looking at the world and Scripture as if through a fisheye lens.
Relating this to our reading of Scripture and our interpretation of the significance of its characters, my friend Matt Colvin highlights the importance of listening to Scripture’s own indicators of the moral allegiances and symbolic value of its characters. Giving the example of Katharine Jefferts Schori’s interpretation of Acts 16, he points out the problems that can arise when we allow factors, values, and ideologies external to the text to determine the way we interpret its characters, against Scripture’s own characterizations. This is a peculiar danger for contextual theologians, who may try to read Scripture as women, feminists, black, queer, or post-colonial subjects (I’ve spent an hour or two today reading womanist midrash, so this is a subject on my mind at the mind). Even when these readings are ostensibly conservative and orthodox in their intent, insufficient attention to Scripture’s own characterizations and the importing of our own values and concerns can make it difficult to hear what Scripture itself is saying.
All of this is especially important to remember when reading the stories of women in the Bible, which often function as a deeply complexifying musical thread through Scripture in contrapuntal relation with its more dominant voices. Characters such as Sarah, Rachel, Tamar, Michal, Bathsheba, etc. are difficult and multifaceted ones, characters who can expose glaring flaws in the leading men, but who also have significant faults of their own. By paying the sort of close attention to their narratives that we should be, the dominant musical voices of Scripture will be heard differently. However, those dominant musical voices are not just displaced or invalidated, contrary to the positions of many feminist and womanist interpreters. Someone like David is still the text’s heroic protagonist, despite the appalling way that he treats the women in his life. The text, by placing female voices alongside dominant voices like David’s in counterpoint, reveals sinfulness and failing in him to the attentive reader and offers a different textual vantage point upon him. However, this never becomes pure subversion or invalidation of its dominant voices.
Despite my criticisms of it, the sort of reading that Starke is trying to advance is important. Far too many conservative theologians, for far too long, have read Scripture attending only to its dominant voices and passed over other voices without recognition. While contemporary theological scholarship can be deeply invested in subversion and the reclaiming of marginal voices to overthrow dominant ones, this impulse isn’t entirely lacking in value for those who are able to hold in union what God has made one, rather than tearing Scripture apart or setting it at war with itself.
Conservative Christians like Starke, who are committed to and seek to maintain the integrity of Scripture, are in many respects well-situated to aid us in recovering things we have lost. However, this is a task fraught with danger, one in which we are always at risk of merely relocating our attention, producing a different set of blind spots and developing narrow fixations, rather than deepening and extending our vision of Scripture, as the voices of the women within Scripture are finally heard in polyphonic union with the men’s.