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Medium of Endor: Bible

by Thomas W. Overholt

The story of Saul’s visit to the medium at Endor gives a clear picture of the purpose and dynamics of this type of divination. Eager to consult YHWH on matters of both personal and national importance (an impending military encounter with the Philistines), Saul asks his servants to seek out “a woman who is a mistress of a ghost” (v. 7; author’s translation). He visits this medium at night and requests that she “divine for [him] by means of a ghost,” specifically, the ghost of the dead judge Samuel, who had anointed Saul as king. Though we are not told exactly how she accomplishes the feat, the woman brings up Samuel’s ghost, which she refers to as a “god” (v. 13). Saul then communicates with this spirit and is profoundly disturbed by what he learns of YHWH’s intentions for him.

According to the narrative, Saul first had tried consulting YHWH by standard (accepted) methods of divination (dreams, Urim, and prophets; v. 6), but “the Lord did not answer him.” He then sought out this woman diviner, though the narrative says he had earlier “cut off the mediums and wizards from the land” (v. 9). Apparently, Saul had enough confidence in the ability of mediums to employ one when more acceptable forms of consulting the deity proved inconclusive. Deuteronomic polemics against divination notwithstanding (for example, Deut 18:9–14), this story suggests that various types of divination were well established in Israel, though only a few enjoyed official status within the Yahwistic establishment.

The narrative does not present it as remarkable that a woman is the medium recommended to Saul. Of all the various diviners forbidden in the Bible, mediums, wizards, and sorcerers are the only ones explicitly said to have been both female and male. Being a medium, which today is certainly a position outside mainstream culture, was an opportunity for women to have a professional role in ancient Israel.

Bibliography

Cryer, Frederick H. Divination in Ancient lsrael and Its Near Eastern Environment: A Socio-Historical Investigation. Sheffield, England: 1994.

Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.

Overholt, Thomas W. Cultural Anthropology and the Old Testament. Minneapolis: 1996.

More on: Bible

How to cite this page

Overholt, Thomas W.. "Medium of Endor: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 28, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/medium-of-endor-bible>.

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