Torah Portion of the Week: Forbidden Channels

Parashat Shoftim.

'The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul,' by Nikiforovich Dmitry Martynov, 1857.
Wikimedia Commons

The Bible relates the moving story of King Saul’s visit to the Witch of Endor. Samuel the Prophet is dead, Saul feels alienated from God, and the Philistines are preparing to wage war with his forces. Saul needs comfort and hope: “And when Saul saw the host of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord answered him not, neither by dreams, nor by Urim, nor by prophets” (1 Samuel 28:5-6). The Witch of Endor invokes Samuel’s spirit, but the prophet is enraged that Saul has disrupted his repose: He rebukes the king, informing him of his imminent death. In agreeing to help Saul, the witch risks her life because the king – whom she initially fails to recognize – has decreed a death sentence for witches.

This story teaches us three things about communication with spirits of the dead, at least as it appears in parts of the Bible. First, such communication does not constitute charlatanism; the author considers it to be an authentic, effective exercise. Second, although prohibited, it was widespread in ancient times. Third, conversing with the spirits of the dead is an alternative to direct communication with God – as are dreams, the priests’ Urim and Thummim and prophetic mediation. Although Saul violates the law he should be enforcing, the narrative looks upon him with compassion, understanding that desperate individuals, who feel alienated from God, may seek his word or try to see into their future even by means of forbidden methods.

The fear that a feeling of alienation from God could lead people to engage in practices that were common among residents of the region is expressed in the law of the prophet in Parashat Shoftim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9). Like many laws described in this book, this one is intended to prepare the Israelites for the new reality they will encounter upon entering Canaan.

On the one hand, Moses will no longer be with them and it is difficult to imagine the nation getting along without him. On the other hand, they will confront the influence of foreign cultures with which they did not have to contend in the past – so the narrative assumes – because of their nomadic existence in the desert. The law describes magical practices that were widespread in Canaan, which the Israelites are warned not to adopt. Although the prohibition is ostensibly issued by the literary figure of Moses, who never entered Canaan, the assumption of biblical scholars is that it was actually written centuries later for the Israelites who were already resident there and who, like Saul, were familiar with these practices and sometimes resorted to them.

Communication with the dead is only one of the practices cited, not all of which are recognizable today: “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that useth divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer” (Deut. 18:10-11). The alternative to these practices is “Thou shalt be whole-hearted with the Lord thy God” (Deut. 18:13): that is, Israel is commanded to trust the Almighty and not to rely on other methods to enlist divine assistance. The practical interpretation of this commandment involves the need to rely on God’s emissary, the prophet: “For these nations, that thou art to dispossess, hearken unto soothsayers, and unto diviners; but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not suffered thee so to do. A prophet will the Lord thy God raise up unto thee, from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken” (Deut. 18:14-15). Moses declares that his prophecy is not an isolated phenomenon and that other prophets will arise after him.

The story of Saul and the Witch of Endor shows that the difference between the forbidden practices and the only worthy one is not that the former are false while the latter is effective: After all, Saul does encounter Samuel and learns of his fate, although he used a forbidden path to make contact. The difference is that the prohibited practices do not fulfill the commandment, “Thou shalt be whole-hearted with the Lord thy God.”

When people initiate contact with hidden worlds, extracting knowledge of and perhaps developing an influence over reality – they are not in direct communication with God and are not expressing absolute trust in him. Individuals who feel alienated from God should understand the hint and not attempt indirect routes, as Samuel admonishes Saul: “Wherefore then dost thou ask of me, seeing the Lord is departed from thee?” (1 Sam. 28:16). Moses conveys a similar idea, but in a positive manner: You will not need to communicate with the spirits of the dead or use other prohibited methods because God will not abandon you after I die and will continue revealing himself to you when he chooses.

It’s true that one can claim that prophecy too is just mediation, not direct communication with God. But, as Moses explains in a flashback to the divine revelation at Horeb: “according to all that thou didst desire of the Lord thy God in Horeb in the day of the assembly, saying: ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, neither let me see this great fire any more, that I die not.’ And the Lord said unto me: ‘They have well said that which they have spoken. I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him’” (Deut. 18:16-18). It was Israel that initiated the creation of prophecy: God planned to reveal himself directly to them but, because Israel feared direct contact with the Almighty, he appointed Moses his prophet, thus institutionalizing this mediation.

Recognizing the distinction the law makes between magical practices and prophecy, we sympathize with Saul: In reality, the relationship between these two paths is more complex than what the law suggests. Although Saul consults a witch, not a prophet, he wants her to arrange a meeting with a prophet. Saul merges both approaches, using the forbidden method to access the permissible one. Although prophecy did not vanish with Samuel’s death, Saul considers him to be irreplaceable. Samuel appointed Saul king, training and guiding him. Despite succeeding him, Saul still relies on Samuel. Without him, the king feels lost – like Israel without Moses. Samuel did not prepare Saul for the day after his death, Moses, according to Deuteronomy, at least tried to prepare Israel for the day after his.