2016-06-30
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In this excerpt from Reading the Lines: A Fresh Look at the Hebrew Bible, Pamela Tamarkin Reis reinterprets the story of King Saul and the Witch of Endor, found in 1 Samuel 28 (read it). Reprinted with permission from Hendrickson Publishers.

The chapter describes a witch's conjuring and a meal she serves a (supposedly) witch-hating king. Why, in a tract that despises witches and prizes hospitality, is a witch shown to be both successful in materializing a prophetic ghost and hospitable in succoring her worst enemy?

The chapter in Samuel starts by telling us that King Saul had rid the land of mediums and wizards (1 Samuel 28:3). Now the Philistine army is threatening; the prophet Samuel is dead. King Saul gets no advice from dreams or from any supernatural source, and he is sore afraid of the Philistines. He asks his men to seek out a witch that he may inquire of her, and his men do so. Saul, in disguise, and two of his men go to the witch. Saul asks her to bring up someone that he will name, but she reminds him that King Saul has cut the witches and diviners out of the land and accuses him of laying a deathtrap for her. Saul swears by the Lord that no punishment will come to her and asks her to materialize the dead prophet, Samuel.

When the witch succeeds in calling Samuel forth from the dead, she recognizes that her customer is the king. She cries out that he is Saul and that she has been deceived. Saul commands her to tell him what she sees, and she describes an old man with a mantle. Saul knows that this apparition is Samuel, and he bows before the prophet. Samuel and Saul have a question-and-answer period that goes badly for Saul, and he falls to the ground in fear and in frailty, for he has been fasting all day and all night. The witch comes in to Saul, sees his terror, and suggests that, as she listened to him and took her life in her hands, he should now listen to her and have a morsel of bread to strengthen him on his way. Saul at first refuses, saying, "I will not eat," but his men and the witch convince him, and he rises from the earth and sits upon the bed. The witch quickly kills a calf, takes flour, kneads and bakes unleavened bread, and brings it before Saul and his servants. They eat and leave.

One professor has argued that the severity of the prophet was balanced by the tenderness and hospitality of the witch. ...To read the text his way seemed too pro-witch to me. Given the Bible's firm anti-witch stance ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," Exodus 22:17; "There must not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch," Deuteronomy 18:10), I could not believe the [Bible's] author intended to show the woman in so favorable a light.

That night in bed I thought about the witch/king rendezvous. "All right, Missy," I said to myself, "[the scholars are] wrong, so what is right?" In order to imagine myself as the witch, I fantasized that I was the last Jewish dentist in Berlin in the waning days of the Second World War. I chose Berlin because Saul had rid the land of witches, and Hitler had rid the land of Jews. I do not know why I chose to be a dentist except that I wanted to have an occupation wherein my most hated and feared enemy, Hitler, could need my help.

In order for me to survive in Germany, my clients protect me, maintain me, and keep quiet about me-just as the witch's clientele must have had to conceal her. I never venture out on the street, and I see only my regular patients. When three strange men arrive at my hideaway, I am terrified. Like the witch, I cry: "Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?" One of the men assures me that he is just there for a toothache and bids me do my job.

My mind is racing, "What to do; what to do? If I relieve the toothache, they'll need me no longer and kill me or turn me over to the Gestapo." Lest I provoke my visitors, I pretend to be calm and professional, as I try to steady myself enough to think. I seat the patient in my dental chair and examine him. It is Hitler in my chair! Just as the witch screamed when she recognized Saul, the nemesis of all her kind, I scream as I penetrate Hitler's disguise. Like Saul, he tells me to get on with my work and promises that no harm will come to me. Yeah, right.

First, as a dentist, I realize that I have the means to kill my archenemy. But then what will his two bodyguards do to me? I've survived this long; I want to go on living. I decide to tell him I'm giving him a temporary filling, and he'll have to come back. That way, he'll still need me; he won't kill me, and I'll buy a little time. Maybe I can get away, or the war will be over before he returns. Just then we hear the Russian guns very loud to the East. I realize, and from my patient's drained face I know he realizes, that the war will be over in a day. The temporary filling ruse is not going to work; he won't need me again. My fright is insuperable. Now I apprehend the jeopardy of my role model when Samuel prophesied that Saul would die on the morrow. The witch recognized that King Saul, assailant of necromancers, would need her services no longer. He had no reason to let her live, and she had been the medium of bad news-literally.

Just how hospitable was she feeling at this juncture? How kind? How tender? The witch somehow saves her life with that meal, but she is no beneficent Betty Crocker.

...The text, with gender-impartial objectivity, sees the witch as intelligent and adept--in less admirable terms, shrewd and crafty. And her pagan will prevails over her adversary's faltering monotheism. The author neither venerates the female nor condescends to the little lady. You might say that she is portrayed like a man.

The witch of Endor has cast a spell over biblical commentators. Despite God's virulent denunciations of soothsayers, Josephus says, "It would be well . . . to imitate the example of this woman" (Antiquities 6.14.4); Origen writes of her as a "type of Christ"; Jerome calls her "industrious and practical." Equally enchanted, the moderns extol her "pity" (Beuken), her "motherly care" (Fokkelman), her "generosity" (Ades), her "insight of an angel" (Simon). According to these exegetes, the bustling domesticity of this paragon of womanly solicitude results in a beneficent meal that revives King Saul's physical strength, relieves the torpor into which he has sunk, and fortifies his determination to face, courageously, certain death in battle.

I too am charmed by the witch of Endor, but I find her motivation to be self-preservation, not hospitality. She is not a model of motherly protectiveness but of mother wit, professionalism, resourcefulness, and daring. Although imperiled, she does not become petrified like Saul but, controlling her fear, manages to manipulate her adversary, protect herself, and do her job. She not only raises a ghost but offers a ritual meal that assures her survival. The God of Israel is a jealous God, and the infernal worship that secures the witch's life blasts what is left of Saul's. The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate by a close reading of the text that the meal the witch prepares for Saul has many functions other than nourishment. Firstly, it is a mantic sacrifice to the dead entailing the stringently proscribed eating of blood; secondly, it is an unholy but legally effective covenant between God's anointed and an idolatrous shaman; thirdly, it warrants Saul's consequent suicide; and lastly, it provides a contrast of Saul's perfidious complicity with David's later faithful integrity in an analogous situation. The witch does not set before the king so dainty a dish as has been hitherto supposed.

...The witch of Endor intends to survive. She instigates this meal because, as a covenant, it safeguards her life. She does not promote it in order to nurture her enemy by bolstering his declining strength. Nor does the author provide a calming breather for the reader; on the contrary, Saul's apostasy intensifies our apprehension. The loathsome conviviality of this prohibited sacrifice does not arouse our sympathy for Saul; rather, our contempt for him is increased. And it does not suggest that the witch is a ministering angel; it establishes that she is a clever, capable, determined woman.

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