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Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Heretic of the Month: The Witch of Endor

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.

Preferring prophesies to spells, this biblical woman made her mark.

It's well known that Biblical Israel was never as neat as Biblical text pretends. From reading our sacred texts, one might get the impression that most Israelites were pious devotees of God, visiting Jerusalem thrice yearly, and heeding the Torah's stern warnings against the religions of the Canaanites. In fact, archeological evidence has shown, there was so much mixing between the 'Canaanites' and the 'Israelites' that some scholars doubt there was a real distinction between the two. Furthermore, in ancient Israelite sites, we have found altars in high places, shrines to household deities, even syncretistic statues of 'God and his Asherah.'

Clearly, ancient Israel was home to a great diversity of religious practices, many of them connected to the earth, to spirits, and to activities which today might be regarded as witchcraft. Of course, the Bible condemns all these and more. Rarely, however, do representatives of these scorned traditions speak for themselves in Biblical text. They were some of Judaism's earliest heretics, Israelites whose beliefs differed from the incipient orthodoxy of Biblical religion, and like most heretics, their words are not well preserved.

Except one: the witch of Endor.

Today, the word "Endor" is familiar only to Star Wars fans who know it as the home of the Ewoks. But Ein-Dor was also, apparently, a location in ancient Israel, and the home of a soothsayer consulted by King Saul before his fateful last battle with the Philistines. The setting is desperate: Saul has already learned that he has displeased God by failing to annihilate the Amalekites, and he knows that he is soon to be cast aside in favor of David. Now (in chapter 28 of the first book of Samuel), Saul is about to face the huge Philistine army, and God has stopped answering him. The prophet Samuel is dead, and, the Bible records, neither dreams nor prophets conveyed any message from the Divine.

In desperation, Saul violates his own edict against soothsayers by going to visit "a woman who consults ghosts" (as rendered in the JPS translation) and demanding that she raise the ghost of Samuel from the dead. At first, the woman demurs, citing the ban, but Saul insists, and -- after recognizing the disguised king for who he truly is - the "witch of Endor" conjures Samuel's ghost, who appears as an old man in a white robe, rising up from the ground.

The news is very bad: Samuel angrily confirms that Saul and his sons are about to die, and that the Philistines are about to defeat the Israelites. Anguished, Saul falls to the ground, and is only barely consoled by the witch, who gives him a meal and sends him on his way.

What do we learn from this encounter? The Biblical narrative is clearly more interested in the narrative of Saul than the character of the witch of Endor; she is a bit player in larger story. But we can discern a few aspects of her character and beliefs.

First, obviously, she is a woman -- one of the only women in a prophetic role in the whole of the Bible. Moreover, it was understood that women, not men, "consulted ghosts" in this way; Saul specifically asks to see a woman.

This conforms to a widespread pattern in world religions, in which men run public religion, but women maintain private, often marginalized, religious pieties -- and heresies -- far from official institutions. Scholar Susan Sered has written of how women in Sephardic communities still maintain this role today, keeping alive traditions of saint-veneration and magic that are scorned by mainstream religious authorities, and many of us have bubbes who maintain old "superstitions," like whispering kein ayin hora when they hear good news.

Second, the witch of Endor is connected to the earth. When she conjures Samuel, she says she sees "God coming up from the land." Some commentators explain that the pagan witch, confused by what she sees, calls Samuel's ghost a "god"; others translate the word as a "Divine being." But in non-normative Israelite religion, there may be little difference. The world is full of spirits, all are manifestations of God, and all are connected to nature and its energies. Real religion is location-specific; God in the tree appears different from God in the ground and God in the sky; and God in one place has different apparent characteristics from God in another. This is how we ended up with a "Holy Land" in the first place. It's only when it's abstracted into philosophical theology that religion loses touch with the energies of the earth.

Finally, the witch is, in the end, an agent of God. Today we might see soothsayers as charlatans, only in it for the money, and the best business is in providing prophecies which people want to hear. But the witch of Endor is a conjurer, not a saleswoman, and she (or the spirit she consults) tells what is true, not what is pleasing. Saul desperately wanted a message from God, so desperately that he violated his own law to get it. Well, he got one, but as Jack Nicholson would later say, he can't handle the truth.

Or maybe Saul had hoped that this non-normative prophetess would convey a different message from the one he already knew, perhaps even a message from a different god — kind of a Biblical version of asking mommy when you don't like daddy's answer. But this is precisely the mistake of a dogmatist: Saul assumes (or desperately hopes) that a "foreign" woman must have a different truth from the "orthodox" one. But actually, it's all the same truth, just accessed in different ways.

There is one difference, though, between the witch and the prophets: the witch of Endor provides comfort. After the judgment is delivered, she insists that Saul stay, eat, and gather what strength he can. Really, what else can one do in such a situation? There's no sugarcoating the unambiguous and dark prophecy of Samuel — but there remains the possibility of human comfort. (Some scholars believe the meal was actually part of a pagan rite, but the text does not suggest this.) Perhaps this is the biggest difference between the witch of Endor's religion and that of the prophets of Israel.

These are only hints; one chapter in the book of Samuel is not an ethnographic study, and is the classic case of one religious tradition representing, and thus likely misrepresenting, another. But it does offer a tantalizing glimpse into a religious world that was far more varied, magical, and, yes, strange than the literal Bible suggests.

NEXT HERETIC: From the pagans of the ancient world to the beats of the 20th century, we turn to Allen Ginsberg, the poet laureate of the liberated self.

Previous heretics include: Shabbetai Tzvi, Jacob Frank, Baruch Spinoza, Joseph Rabinovitch, and Anan Ben-David.

-- Text by Jay Michaelson / Photo courtesy of Encyclopedia Judaica

This is part of our Nov/Dec 2007 issue.
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