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Makestraightpaths.com examines the teachings of the religious group variously known as “the Family,” “The Family International,” the “Children of God,” or the “Family of Love,” and evaluates these teachings from a Christian perspective.

This page is one in a series on the Family practice of contacting the dead, who are said to act as 'spirit helpers.'

 

Saul and the Witch

1 Samuel 28

One of the most controversial Family teachings concerns their long-standing belief that Christians may freely communicate with “spirit helpers.” To the Family, spirit helpers are  people who have died, or angels, or other spiritual beings who are active in the ‘spirit world,’ an unseen dimension that coexists with the visible material world. According to the Family, these beings are unrestricted by human limitations and actively assist Christians in their work for the Lord. For a general summary of Family teaching regarding spirit helpers and an introduction to this series, click here.

The Bible recounts that on the night before his final battle, King Saul went to a witch in order to contact the prophet Samuel, who had died some time before. The Family claims that this story sets a precedent for contacting people who have died, especially as Samuel was a godly man, a true prophet of God. In general, the Family does not condone going to witches, but this passage is used in the Family as proof that contacting the dead is in fact possible.

This page examines the story of Saul and the witch in light of the Family practices of contacting the dead.

 

King Saul and the witch

King Saul was in trouble. Israel had been fighting the Philistines for many years, and now they were invading again. The prophet Samuel was dead (1 Sam 25:1) and it seems there was no replacement.

1 Sam 28:1,3,4,5 Now it came about in those days that the Philistines gathered their armed camps for war, to fight against Israel. 3 Now Samuel was dead, and all Israel had lamented him and buried him in Ramah, his own city. 4 So the Philistines gathered together and came and camped in Shunem; and Saul gathered all Israel together and they camped in Gilboa. 5 When Saul saw the camp of the Philistines, he was afraid and his heart trembled greatly.
NASU

Under the anointing of the spirit of God, Saul had been a fearless king. But when God "rejected him from being king" (1 Sam 15:26), the spirit of God departed (1 Sam 16:14) and Saul's courage also departed. The two armies were camping only a few miles from each other, and the Philistines looked formidable.

Saul needed assurance that he would not face defeat in the forthcoming battle. He first attempted to talk to the Lord.

1 Sam 28:6 When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by prophets. NASU

The Lord, however, was not responding. He had rejected Saul and already chosen David to be his successor (1 Sam 16:13). It seems Saul did not try very hard to inquire of the Lord, because in another account of the same story, the record categorically states that He "did not inquire of the Lord" (1 Chron 10:14). Regardless of his effort on this occasion, however, Saul had never been keen on full obedience to God, sometimes only partially obeying God's instructions, and sometimes giving a show of obedience, while disobeying the key commands.

It did not take long for Saul to disobey the Lord again. After his cursory attempt to inquire of the Lord was unsuccessful, he immediately began looking for spiritual help from another direction.

1 Sam 28:7 Then Saul said to his servants, "Seek for me a woman who is a medium, that I may go to her and inquire of her." And his servants said to him, "Behold, there is a woman who is a medium at En-dor." NASU

He had to ask his servants for help, because he himself had cleansed Israel from this sin, probably under the prophet Samuel's direction. Saul had decreed that all mediums were to be put to death (1 Sam 28:9).

1 Sam 28:3 And Saul had removed from the land those who were mediums and spiritists. NASU

His servants knew of a witch at End-dor. En-dor was several miles into Philistine territory, so to get there, Saul had to make a dangerous journey in disguise past the enemy camp into the land of his enemies.

1 Sam 28:8 Then Saul disguised himself by putting on other clothes, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said, "Conjure up for me, please, and bring up for me whom I shall name to you." NASU

Apparently mediums were those who consulted the spirits of the dead, whether through occultic practices or through deception. The NIV has Saul saying, "Consult a spirit for me" and the NKJV says "Conduct a seance for me."

The woman was concerned for her safety, knowing King Saul's decree, even though she was in Philistine territory.

1 Sam 28:9-10 But the woman said to him, "Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who are mediums and spiritists from the land. Why are you then laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?" 10 Saul vowed to her by the Lord, saying, "As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing." NASU

After receiving a personal guarantee of safety, the woman was obliging.

1 Sam 28:11 Then the woman said, "Whom shall I bring up for you?" And he said, "Bring up Samuel for me." NASU

Saul wanted to speak to Samuel. He desperately wanted some assurance that the forthcoming battle would go well for him.

1 Sam 28:12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, "Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul." NASU

Apparently the woman was successful, for not only did she see Samuel, she saw through the king's disguise.

Was this really Samuel? The MacArthur Study Bible says:

Though questions have arisen as to the nature of Samuel's appearance, the text clearly indicates that Samuel, not an apparition, was evident to the eyes of the medium. God miraculously permitted the actual spirit of Samuel to speak. Because she understood her inability to raise the dead in this manner, she immediately knew 1) that it must have been by the power of God and 2) that her disguised inquirer must be Saul.

The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament says:

The woman then commenced her conjuring arts. This must be supplied from the context, as v. 12 merely states what immediately ensued. "When the woman saw Samuel, she cried aloud," sc., at the form which appeared to her so unexpectedly. These words imply most unquestionably that the woman saw an apparition which she did not anticipate, and therefore that she was not really able to conjure up departed spirits or persons who had died, but that she either merely pretended to do so, or if her witchcraft was not mere trickery and delusion, but had a certain demoniacal background, that the appearance of Samuel differed essentially from everything she had experienced and effected before, and therefore filled her with alarm and horror. The very fact, whoever, that she recognised Saul as soon as Samuel appeared, precludes us from declaring her art to have been nothing more than jugglery and deception; for she said to him, "Why hast thou cheated me, as thou art certainly Saul?" i.e., why hast thou deceived me as to thy person? why didst thou not tell me that thou wast king Saul?

David Guzik says:

When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice: Why the medium so shocked? Probably she was a fraud, and most of her dealings with the spirit realm were mere tricks. Now, Samuel really appears from the world beyond, and she is completely surprised to have a real encounter with the spirit realm.

In addition, we can say that this medium was familiar with the presence of demonic spirits, the presence of the Holy Spirit was probably completely unfamiliar to her. The holy presence of the Holy Spirit may have seemed terrifying to her. "The indications are that this was an extraordinary event for her, and a frightening one because she was not in control." (Baldwin)

What is going on here? This strange incident is controversial, and several different approaches have been used to understand this passage. Here are four of the most commonly suggested possibilities.

Some believe that this was a hallucination of the medium. But this doesn't make sense, because it doesn't explain why the medium was so frightened. It doesn't explain why Saul saw Samuel also, and why Samuel spoke to Saul, not to the medium.

Some believe that this was a deception by the medium. But this also isn't an adequate explanation, for the same reasons given to the previous suggestion.

Some believe that this was a demonic impersonation of Samuel. It is possible that the medium, with her occultic powers, summoned a demonic spirit that deceived both her and Saul. But this suggestion is also inadequate, because it does not speak to the issue of motive. After all, what advantage does Satan gain by "Samuel's" words to Saul?

Some believe that this was a genuine (but strange) appearance of Samuel. This is the best explanation, because it is supported by the reaction of the medium, who got more than she bargained for. It is also supported by the truth of what Samuel said (and the text says that Samuel said it). Some may say that it is impossible for Samuel to reappear in some way, coming from the world beyond back to this world. But Moses and Elijah also came from the world beyond back to this world when they appeared with Jesus at the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3).

Clarke makes an additional valuable point: "I believe that the woman of En-dor had no power over Samuel; and that no incantation can avail over any departed saint of God, nor indeed over any human disembodied spirit." Samuel really came, but not because the medium called for him. Samuel appeared because God had a special purpose for it.

What was God's purpose in sending such a strange appearance of Samuel? This appearance of Samuel accomplished two things: it re-confirmed the coming judgment upon King Saul's in a dramatic way, and it taught the medium a powerful lesson about the dangers of her occultic craft.

"I believe Samuel did actually appear to Saul; and that he was sent by the especial mercy of God to warn this infatuated king of his approaching death, that he might have an opportunity to make his peace with his Maker." (Clarke)

When we close our ears to God, He will find unusual - and perhaps uncomfortable - ways to speak to us. "That he did appear to Saul, there can be no question, but he did not come in response to her call. He was sent of God, for the express purpose of rebuking Saul for his unholy traffic with these evil things, and to pronounce his doom." (Morgan)

From David Guzik's Bible commentaries

To the great surprise of the witch, King Saul actually got the person he had asked for.

1 Sam 28:13-14 The king said to her, "Do not be afraid; but what do you see?" And the woman said to Saul, "I see a divine being coming up out of the earth." 14 He said to her, "What is his form?" And she said, "An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe." And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage. NASU

As if Saul was not scared enough already, Samuel utterly terrified him with a stinging rebuke of condemnation and judgement.

1 Sam 28:16-19 Samuel said, "Why then do you ask me, since the Lord has departed from you and has become your adversary? 17 "The Lord has done accordingly as He spoke through me; for the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. 18 "As you did not obey the Lord and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the Lord has done this thing to you this day. 19 "Moreover the Lord will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Indeed the Lord will give over the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines!" NASU

Samuel's prediction was precisely fulfilled: his sons were killed in the battle, Saul himself was gravely wounded, and afraid of torture he committed suicide (1 Samuel 31:1-6).

 

Saul sinned by consulting the witch

It is at this point that Family theology diverges from mainstream Christianity:

  • In general, Family members do not consult witches.

  • Family teaching says that the fact that Samuel himself did really appear is proof that the spirits of departed people may visit the earth to communicate with the living.

  • The Family teaches that any believer may make contact with the spirits of the dead and that these spirits may deliver genuine messages from the Lord. After all, Samuel's prediction did come true.

Regarding the first point, it is relevant to mention that the founder of the Family, Berg/Dad published his own account of visiting a witch, and indicated that he believed that the message he received from her was genuine. Therefore, although consulting witches is not generally encouraged in the Family, the founder himself did so on at least one occasion.

Regarding the second point, the Family is guilty of drawing conclusions unwarranted by the text: there is no indication that this incident sets a precedent for the actions of either living believers or dead saints. The Family's teaching on this topic is therefore either ignorantly incorrect or intentionally manipulative.

Regarding the third point, the Bible is unambiguously clear: Saul's action is strongly condemned. The parallel account of the books of Samuel and Kings, the books of Chronicles, contains this epitaph for Saul:

1 Chron 10:13-14 So Saul died for his trespass which he committed against the Lord, because of the word of the Lord which he did not keep; and also because he asked counsel of a medium, making inquiry of it, 14 and did not inquire of the Lord. Therefore He killed him and turned the kingdom to David the son of Jesse. NASU

The NET Bible says:

1 Chron 10:13-14 So Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord and did not obey the Lord’s instructions; he even tried to conjure up underworld spirits. 14 He did not seek the Lord’s guidance, so the Lord killed him and transferred the kingdom to David son of Jesse. NET

God killed Saul because:

    • He was unfaithful to the Lord

    • He disobeyed the Lord

    • He wanted to get counsel from the medium instead of from the Lord.

As pointed out above, the account says that at first Saul tried to inquire of the Lord (1 Sam 28:6), but when he received no answer, he decided to go to the witch. Therefore, the fact that Saul asked counsel from the witch completely negated his earlier attempt to ask the Lord. It seems that the Lord was less concerned with Saul's initial intentions than with his actions. His actions were wrong, and for those actions, God sentenced him to death.

 

Application

Saul's action to consult the witch was a sin. It did not matter that the person he wished to contact was Samuel, a true prophet of God. It did not matter that the spirit of Samuel actually appeared. It did not matter that the apparition gave a prophetic message from the Lord. It did not matter that the predictions given during this encounter came true. It did not matter that the medium showed kindness to Saul (1 Samuel 28:20-25). It did not matter that Saul promised impunity to the witch before she called up the spirit of Samuel.

Let us draw some parallels:

  • Saul received a message from the spirit of a dead man; the Family receives many messages they claim come via the spirits of dead people.

  • Saul contacted a godly prophet; the Family has claimed to contact the spirits of godly people.

  • Saul ultimately wanted counsel from the Lord; this is also the Family's claim.

  • Saul used the holy name of the Lord Yahweh; the Family uses the holy name of Jesus.

  • Saul did in fact receive a message from the Lord via Samuel; the Family makes similar claims.

  • The prediction Saul received came true; the Family claims that predictions they receive in prophecy via spirit helpers also come true.

  • Saul went to a medium to facilitate this encounter; the Family teaches that each member may communicate with their personal spirit helpers. Some Family members have actually been called 'mediums.'

  • Saul's action was sin. The Family's actions are also sin.

 

Conclusion

Contrary to Family teaching, this story does not prove that it is possible to contact the spirits of departed saints. Rather, it unambiguously condemns the practice as sin.

The Family has made a grave error in accepting and promoting this practice, and Family members who participate by "hearing from spirit helpers" or "getting messages from beyond" are sinning against the Lord.

There is no justification for this practice; it is evil in the sight of the Lord.

 

See also

Hearing from Spirit Helpers

The Transfiguration

Messenger in Revelations

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Angels and Demons

The great cloud of witnesses

God forbids calling on the dead

Trying the spirits

 

 

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