— by Herbert Levy, congregation president
People tend to forget that the Bible was written about real people and that it reveals astonishing psychological acuity in the text. Take, for example, the description of the last night in the life of Saul, the first king of Israel, and his encounter with the ‘witch of Endor,’ to whom he goes to conjure up the ghost of the prophet Samuel, who had originally anointed him as a royal ruler of the tribes of Israel. The Philistine soldiers were gathered at Mt. Gilboa and daybreak promised a decisive battle that would end in a terrible defeat, with death coming to Saul and his sons. Saul had lost his nerve and he sought comfort from Samuel. The text continues (First Sam. 28:8):
“And Saul disguised himself … and went [with two men]; and they came to the woman at night.” Saul asks her to conjure up a ghost. The woman is afraid and says: “…you know what Saul has done;” he kills those who do such things. Why you asking me to risk my life? Then Saul swears, “As the Lord lives, there shall no punishment happen to you for this thing.” Mollified, the woman asks whom he wants brought up. He answers, “‘Bring me up Samuel.’ And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice, ‘Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!'” Saul asks her to describe the figure and Saul perceives it is indeed Samuel. He bows low to the ground.
Samuel proves angry; [as the Chinese say:] the mandate of Heaven has passed from Saul to another, promising the extinction of Saul’s line and Israel’s rout from the field of battle.
[There follows a strikingly modern climax:] Saul falls to the ground overcome – he had eaten bread neither day nor night. And the woman said to him, ‘I have done as you asked and put my life in your hands; now listen to me. Let me give you food and you eat so that you have strength when you leave.’ At first Saul refuses, but the woman and his retainers convince him otherwise. The woman then kills a fatted calf and she bakes unleavened bread which she gives to Saul. He eats and then he and his retainers go stoically on their way – to their deaths come the new dawn.