On “Mediums” and the Bible

The Shade of Samuel Invoked by Saul

Shade of Samuel?

Since our son was born a few days ago, I’ve been at home this week. My wife was flipping through the cesspool known as Daytime TV, and we landed on a talk show that had a ‘medium’ on it. You know the routine, folks like these claim to have the power to contact ‘the other side’, and have the ability to talk to your loved ones. This woman was no different, she did the same old schtick that went something like this:

‘Psychic’: I’m getting a letter, someone with a J or a G. Does anyone know anyone who has passed with a name that starts with a J or a G?

Victim: Oh yeah, my grandfather George! He recently passed away!

‘Psychic’: Yes, it is your grandfather George — and he has this message to tell you: “He loves you very much, and knows that you miss him – but some day you will be together with him”

Victim: <sobs, overcome with tears, in remembrance of their loved one and the loving, affirming message to them>

Call me a skeptic, but this is really a very simple parlor trick – albeit one that takes a bit of skill (and fast talking skills) to do well. For those of you who haven’t caught on yet — this is known as Cold Reading (Wikipedia). Check the article out at some point, but three curious observations of my own:

  1. The psychic never has a clear reading on who they have contacted ‘on the other side’, but requires a victim in the audience to tell them who they are talking to. Weirdly enough ‘spirits’ give you their first letter of their name.
  2. As soon as the victim tells the ‘psychic’ the name of the loved one, they immediately have an incredibly clear revelation to give! They go from vague to direct in the span of a minute or less!
  3. And then they always have some sort of feel-good syrupy message. Has anyone ever given a message like: “I am angry that your sister Mary Beth is a drunk and beats her kids – tell her to stop it!”. And the spirits seem to never want to engage in a conversation, instead they just dispense your fortune like a cookie in a Chinese restaurant.

For all of these reasons and more, it is easy to discern what actually is (or is not) happening when one of these charlatans shows up.

But thinking about this led me to recall an incident in the Bible – it is the time when Saul went to seek a medium (something prohibited by the Mosaic Law, and punishable by death) to contact the Prophet Samuel about battle plans against the Philistines. The LORD had refused to answer Saul when consulted via prophets, and so he took the unusual and illegal move to contact a medium. From 1 Samuel 28:

8 So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. “Consult a spirit for me,” he said, “and bring up for me the one I name.”

9 But the woman said to him, “Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?”

10 Saul swore to her by the Lord, “As surely as the LORD lives, you will not be punished for this.”

11 Then the woman asked, “Whom shall I bring up for you?”

“Bring up Samuel,” he said.

12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out at the top of her voice and said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul!”

Now this passage is actually a bit controversial in the realm of Biblical Scholarship. Some believe that the Witch of Endor (yes, this medium lived in Endor – and not the ones with the Ewoks) did not actually contact Samuel, but that an evil spirit instead came up (some great theologians such as Matthew Henry and John Calvin took this position). Others believe that it was indeed Samuel (in fact, this is probably the modern prevailing opinion) as that is what the text states. That is a topic for another day. However, I wanted to zero in on the bold/italic portion of the text.

I think this woman was a charlatan, and was surprised that she was able to actually conjure up a spirit. I think she was probably another huckster separating fools from their money. To actually see Samuel come up made her cry out loud.

I wonder what would happen if these phonies actually did encounter whatever it is that they attempted to communicate with. They’d probably need a change of underwear.

Look at verse 10 for the hubris and arrogance of Saul. He makes an oath to her on the LORD(!) telling her that she would not be punished. This is outrageous, given that it is God who gives the command that those who practice such things should be put to death. And this is hypocritical of Saul when it was he who had been cleansing the land of mediums (1 Samuel 28:3)! This is interesting isn’t it and seems to speak to our fallen human nature. We are often eager to follow God’s laws until it causes conflict of self-interest. In that case, anything goes. I know it’s a struggle that I have had to deal with.

That said, I want to look at the Mosaic Law briefly. The law against mediums and the like are repeated in a couple of places in the Pentateuch, but I like Deuteronomy 18:9-13:

9 When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there10 Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, 11 or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. 12 Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord, and because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. 13 You must be blameless before the LORD your God.

To bring this back to be relevant to the New Covenant / Old Covenants shedding light on each other theme I started with the previous post – I want to speak briefly about the concept that the “New Testament God” has a different character from “The Old Testament God”. Some of these objections have to do with the fact that God commanded the Israelites to conquer the promised land.

But look at verse 9 here – there is no moral equivalence between the Israelites and the inhabitants of the land that they conquered. It is not right to burn your sons and daughters to your ‘god’. And that was a common practice in the land that the Israelites were to enter into. For those of you who believe that all cultures are equivalent: Does a culture that burns their infants on a pyre to their god in the hopes to appease them have the same moral standing as a culture that states: “Love your neighbor as yourself”?