Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The witch of Endor was the woman who was consulted by King Saul and who brought up the prophet Samuel from the dead, as told in I Samuel 28.
Interpretations from the Geonim
The problems connected with the story were discussed in the period of the Geonim. Samuel ben Hophni, Gaon of Sura (d.1013), father-in-law of Hai Gaon, was asked whether the story was to be taken literally, and whether the witch actually succeeded in raising Samuel from the dead.
Samuel ben Hophni replies that he finds it impossible to believe that God would have made a witch the instrument of raising Samuel. The true meaning of the story is that the witch, by trickery, persuaded Saul that she had succeeded in bringing up Samuel. The words attributed to Samuel in the narrative are the words the witch put into Samuel’s mouth in order to convince Saul that she had succeeded.
In that case, it can be asked, how is it that she forecast so accurately that Saul would die in battle? To this the Gaon replies that she either knew it because Samuel had so prophesied while he was still alive, or it was pure guesswork which by coincidence happened to come true. If God had really desired to inform Saul of his impending death in battle, He would have done so through a prophet, not through a witch.
The Gaon adds that while he is aware that earlier teachers, namely the Talmudic Rabbis, did understand that story literally, we are in no obligation to follow them when what they say is contrary to reason.
Both Saadiah Gaon and Hai Gaon, on the other hand, refuse to accept Samuel ben Hophni’s rationalistic interpretation. According to both these Geonim, God really did bring Samuel up from the dead. The witch, not having enjoyed such miraculous powers hitherto, was consequently astonished, as Scripture implies, that she had been successful.
The Talmudic Rabbis clearly understood the story to mean that it was Samuel who spoke to Saul, not the witch in Samuel’s name. Scripture states that Samuel said: ‘tomorrow shalt thou and thy sons be with me,’ upon which the Rabbis (Berakhot 12b) comment: with me–in my section in Paradise. If it was the witch who said these words, how could she possibly have known such a mystery?
This whole debate is significant over and above the particular instance of the Witch of Endor. Reading between the lines, it becomes clear that important theological issues were at stake.
The first concerns the authority of the Talmudic Rabbis. It is one thing to be guided by common sense where the Talmudic Rabbis disagree among themselves. Here, Hai states, he is prepared to favor what appears to be the most reasonable view. It is quite another to reject, in the name of reason, what appears to be the unanimous view of the Rabbis, even though the matter does not concern Jewish law.
Samuel ben Hophni is prepared to go to the lengths of preferring his rationalistic interpretation to the unanimous view of the Rabbis. The other Geonim could not agree to go so far.
The second point at issue, and this is stated explicitly by Samuel ben Hophni and the other Geonim, is the attitude the Jew should adopt towards Scripture as a whole. What was at stake was not simply the correct interpretation of a single chapter. If, as Samuel ben Hophni has argued, the scriptural references to Samuel ‘saying’ this or that mean no more than that someone imagined him as saying it, what guarantee is there that other scriptural references to someone ‘saying’ something are authentic; for example, when Moses ‘said’ something or when God ‘spoke’ to Moses?
In the whole debate problems emerge about which Jews agonized in later periods, such as the question of reason versus revelation; the way in which Scripture is to be interpreted; whether Aggadah is to be understood in as rigorous a fashion as Halakhah; and the whole question of biblical criticism.
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