Saul & the Witch: Imagination – Not Magic

Moshe Ben-Chaim

I received this letter a few years ago:
"I do personally believe the story described in Samuel I (of the Baales Ove – witch – who raised Samuel from the dead). Even the Egyptian conjurers performed miracles, and Moses’ Torah said that a Prophet or a dreamer of dreams might do miracles and wonders and the miracles and wonders would come to pass or come true. Still, if they taught us to follow other gods, we should not listen to them. In other words if they performed miracles but gave us new laws, statutes and judgments different from those that Moses gave us from God, they were not a true Prophets."

Although the Torah tells us not to follow the signs of a false Prophet instructing us in Torah violations, his signs are not “magic.” Sforno states that “signs” in this case refers to heavenly signs, i.e., natural phenomena, predicted based on their observable and repeating natures. There exists no true “miraculous” sign of those deviant souls opposing God. God will not deceive innocent people, granting false Prophets the ability to predict and/or enact true miracles. Far be it. Sforno says further, “Don’t investigate his words to determine validity in some of it, for beyond any doubt, they are all lies, made up from his own heart.” It is clear that false Prophets cannot produce miracles, and their words are lies. These are the words of the Rabbis.

Saadia Gaon states that the Egyptians – and anyone for that matter – possess no power other than what each man’s sleight of hand can manipulate. In Egypt, the astrologers and magicians were no different than today’s sleight of hand performers. Ibn Ezra said the Torah does not prohibit that which is real and true, rather, only lies are prohibited. God desires that we recognize the truth, and not ignore what is real. Thus, the reason necromancers, witches, enchanters, warlocks, psychics, et al. are prohibited is because they have no powers. Had they any powers in Egypt, why couldn’t they remove God’s plagues? Why couldn’t they at least use their own magic and conjure up some sort of defense? Why did they not even try, if they truly possessed powers of any kind? This lack of any attempt by Egypt to remove the plagues clearly unveils the truth: they knew they possessed no powers. Pharaoh too must have realized this, for we find nowhere in the Torah any demand by Pharaoh on his astrologers and magicians that they remove Moses’ plagues. Pharaoh always addressed Moses when he desired the plague to end. Your mind must find some satisfaction in this point. This is Egypt’s confession: they possessed no powers.

Egypt was quite entrenched in the mystical, similar to today’s phony mystics who believe in alien, unproven forces. All of these are idolatrous, as they all imagine forces other than God. These forces are not real, and have never been witnessed. Psychics are today’s permutation of Egyptian astrologers.
Now, the witch did nothing, and if you will study that area, you will learn from the verses that she knew very well this was King Saul seeking Samuel. Therefore she feigned that she saw Samuel. Everything that she “predicted” that came to pass afterwards, i.e., that Saul died, was because Saul lost his own confidence due to his own imagined daydream of Samuel reiterating his previous rebuke, when Saul left Agag alive, ignoring God’s commands that he slay him. Man – when not confident – will err in his activities, and unfortunately, Saul’s next activity was war. Saul truly believed he heard Samuel foretell his imminent death at war, along with his son, and the Jews being captured. This was not Prophetic, but Saul’s own imagination. This was all a daydream, as one who is desperate to speak to someone of greatness like Samuel, may actually believe to be doing so.

Saul previously displayed great insecurity a number of times; when appointed as king, he was hiding, (Sam. I, 10:22) and upon capturing Amalek, he succumbed to the people’s opinion to save the good cattle and the king, Agag. And throughout his relationship with David, Saul was paranoid of David, and sought to kill him. Again with the witch, Saul demonstrated a great insecurity, and was so distressed that he sought an idolatrous and useless means of contacting the dead Samuel: “When Saul saw the Philistine camp, he was greatly afraid and his heart trembled greatly (Samuel I, 28:5).” Out of his horror, Saul resorted to useless idolatry. This event must be explained in the context of King Saul’s personality. Instead of assuming forces which have never existed, we must explain this account metaphorically, “as if” Saul contacted Samuel. Here, the Torah employs metaphor to convey just how real Samuel was in Saul’s insecure mind. This is precisely the message in the Torah’s literal presentation of the witch raising the dead Samuel. Here, Torah uses a literal presentation of what all wise people know is impossible, but does so to emphasize Saul’s belief in the witch. This teaches us about Saul.

I feel it appropriate at this point to stress what care must be taken when interpreting the Torah. Without years of tutelage under Rabbis trained in understanding the Torah, we cannot read an area and assume we understand it. God wrote the Torah. Therefore, much trepidation must accompany any reading of all portions: be it Torah, Prophets, or Writings. Certainly, if the Rabbis openly stated that an area is metaphoric, we are wise to understand their heavy words, and not abandon their authority in favor of our assumptions, relatively limited knowledge and analytical skills. It takes decades to master competent, Torah skills. Only after this amount of training can one approach the Torah’s intended meanings.

Returning to Saul and the witch, Radak said that “the witch saw but heard nothing; Saul heard but saw nothing; and the two men with Saul neither saw nor heard.” Radak teaches that the witch made believe she saw; out of his desperation Saul believed her so much, he thought he heard Samuel’s voice, but the men who cared nothing about witches or Saul’s quest, were indifferent and were unaffected by any hallucination or daydream.
You must understand that just as King Solomon said in his opening words to Proverbs, the Rabbis “speak in riddles,” this case of Saul and the witch is also a riddle of sorts. The Torah described the witch “as if” she raised Samuel from the dead, to teach how real Saul imagined this daydream to be. The Torah presented Saul’s fantasy as if it were reality, because it desired to teach how far man will believe his own imagination when he is desperate, as was Saul in this case.

Radak (Samuel I, 28:25 towards the end):
…although the implications of the words of the Rabbis - blessed their memory - indicate from the Talmud that the (idolatrous) woman resurrected Samuel, we do not accept these words when our intelligence tells us the opposite.