Biblical narrative often confronts us with the challenge of determining the accuracy of reported events. For example, is Michal to be believed when she accuses David of shamelessly disrobing in front of slave girls (2 Sam. 6:20)? Did Saul really ask the Amalekite to kill him as the Amalekite claimed (2 Sam. 1:2–10)?
Whether a report is trustworthy depends on the type of individual making the report—a character or the narrator. Information conveyed by multidimensional characters, such as Jacob, may be contaminated with falsification or error and under certain circumstances should be questioned. The same can be said of characters that function exclusively as antagonists or villains in the story (e.g., Abimelech in Judges 9). Entirely heroic or ideal characters (e.g., Daniel), however, are thought to be generally reliable sources of information, and narrators are considered absolutely reliable, since narrators always share God’s perspective and possess His authority. Further, narrators have various devices at their disposal to authenticate a character’s testimony, the most secure being direct confirmation.
Failure to come to terms with these distinctions can lead to faulty interpretations, as it does when the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society attempts to explain the appearance of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28 by appealing to the fallibility of the character’s report. This passage is problematic for the Watchtower because their theology rejects the existence of the human soul as an independent entity that survives the body after death. In 1 Samuel 28:12–19, however, Samuel returns from the dead and speaks to Saul, thus requiring an explanation from Watchtower authorities. They address this issue in Reasoning from the Scriptures, a handbook for dealing with objections that Witnesses frequently encounter when going door to door:
Verses 13, 14 show that Saul himself did not see Samuel but only assumed from the description given by the spirit medium that she saw Samuel. Saul desperately wanted to believe that it was Samuel and so let himself be deceived. Verse 3 says that Samuel was dead and buried. The scriptures quoted under the preceding subheading make clear that there was no part of Samuel that was alive in another realm and able to communicate with Saul. The voice that pretended to be that of Samuel was that of an impostor.1
The biggest problem with this analysis is that the one who identifies this individual as Samuel is not just Saul, a character type capable of delusions (1 Sam. 18:8–12; 22:7–19), but the inspired and authoritative narrator. Whereas Saul’s report may indeed be mistaken, as the Watchtower claims, the independent testimony of the narrator cannot be dismissed. In fact, the narrator identifies the spirit being five times as Samuel and corroborates Saul’s testimony, as the italicized portions of 1 Samuel 28:11–20 indicate:
Then the woman said, ”Whom shall I bring up for you?” And he said, ”Bring up Samuel for me.” When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, “Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul.” The king said to her, “Do not be afraid; but what do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a divine being coming up out of the earth.” He said to her, ”What is his form?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage. Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” And Saul answered, “I am greatly distressed; for the Philistines are waging war against me, and God has departed from me and no longer answers me, either through prophets or by dreams; therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I should do.” Samuel said, “Why then do you ask me, since the LORD has departed from you and has become your adversary? The LORD has done accordingly as He spoke through me; for the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. As you did not obey the LORD and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the LORD has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the LORD will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Indeed the LORD will give over the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines!” Then Saul immediately fell full length upon the ground and was very afraid because of the words of Samuel. (Emphasis added.)2
Consequently, if the Watchtower is correct, then the inspired narrator was just as deceived by the impostor as Saul—a conclusion acceptable to neither party in the debate.
Although this particular Watchtower publication seems to overlook the authoritative voice of the narrator, their New World Translation (NWT) does not. It appears that the NWT recognizes the difficulty and cleverly places the name Samuel in quotation marks when invoked by the narrator. Under such conditions, “Samuel” means an alleged Samuel rather than the actual prophet. Nevertheless, it should be recognized that these quotation marks are entirely Watchtower-induced; there is no device, grammatical or otherwise, in the original text to indicate that the narrator was merely humoring Saul or supposing, for the sake of argument, that the individual in question was Samuel.3 In fact, the first one to identify the being as Samuel happens to be the narrator, not Saul (1 Sam. 28:12), an observation that further undermines the translation committee’s assumptions.
Four other considerations support the plain reading of the text. First, the narrator’s straightforward identification of the other characters in this scene reinforces his identification of the spirit as Samuel. In fact, the narrator reports Saul’s attempt to conceal his true identity (28:8), suggesting that he would expose any other pretenders as well.
Second, if the individual was an imposter, we would have to admit that he was a rather talented imposter—and historian as well—since he accurately recalls the earlier circumstances surrounding Saul’s rejection even to the extent of reproducing the words of Samuel in 1 Samuel 15:28, with only minor variations:
1 Sam. 15:28: “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today, and has given it to your neighbor, who is better than you.”
1 Sam. 28:17: “…the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David.”
The problem might be bypassed by appealing to a demonic spirit as the impostor, as the Watchtower attempts to do elsewhere4—not unlike some early Christian commentators. But this option still encounters difficulties with considerations one and three, as well as with the narrator’s unqualified identification of the spirit as Samuel.
It also raises some challenging questions. For example, why would an evil spirit venerate Jehovah by using his covenant name (seven times!) and by emphasizing his utter consistency and full commitment to an earlier oath to punish Saul (1 Sam. 28:16–19)? Additionally, the medium’s startled reaction (1 Sam. 28:12) is not easily explained by the appearance of a demon—a being quite common and unremarkable within her occupation. Also unexpected is the spirit’s communication, which comes across as distinct, realistic, and unmediated,5 in contrast to the birdlike mutterings normally emanating from mediums (Isa. 8:19; 29:4). Therefore, it is far less complicated and problematic simply to attribute this degree of authenticity to the real Samuel.
Third, and more impressive, is Samuel’s statement in 1 Samuel 28:19, “Moreover the LORD will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Indeed the LORD will give over the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines!” What we have here is something like a five hundred pound gorilla that has entirely escaped the Watchtower’s notice. 1 Samuel 28:19 is, in fact, a prophecy of death and defeat (compare 1 Sam. 2:31–36), which proves to be entirely accurate (1 Sam. 31; 2 Sam. 1) and creates agonizing implications for the Watchtower: their version would mean not only that an impostor prophesied correctly but that he possesses a better record of foretelling the future than they do.6 It is much more realistic to credit the prophecy to Samuel, a bona fide prophet (1 Sam. 9:19), who himself mentions the fulfillment of an earlier promise in the same conversation (1 Sam. 28:17–18).
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Lastly, the narrator’s comment in 1 Samuel 15:35, that “Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death” is suggestive and may allude to the meeting in chapter 28. (Interestingly, Samuel’s attire [1 Sam. 28:14] and Saul’s capitulation to witchcraft are also anticipated in the same vicinity [1 Sam. 15:27; 15:23].) If, however, 15:35 is unrelated to the events of chapter 28, then its place in the overall story of Saul and Samuel seems excessively coincidental and circumstantial.
It is evident, then, that only by abandoning the fundamental principles of interpreting biblical narrative, as well as ignoring abundant clues in the passage, has the Watchtower been able to achieve an interpretation that satisfies its theology. Any disciplined reading will conclude that the Watchtower has been unsuccessful in neutralizing 1 Samuel 28, one of the most effective passages for demonstrating the independence of the soul and its continued existence after death.
John Makujina is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Erskine College. His publications appear in journals such as Vetus Testamentum and the Journal of the American Oriental Society.
1 Reasoning from the Scriptures (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1989), 385.
2 All Bible quotations are from the NASB Updated Edition.
3 A footnote in the 1971 edition of the NWT mentions that the Septuagint translators understood “spirit medium” (1 Sam. 28:3) as “ventriloquist” (Greek, engastrimuthos). Whether or not the Watchtower is suggesting ventriloquism as a possible solution, it should be noted that engastrimuthos is associated with gastromancy, a Greek form of divination unknown in the ancient Near East and quite different from performance ventriloquism.
4 For instance, You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1989), 91–92; Knowledge That Leads to Everlasting Life (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, 1995) , 113.
5 The medium was somewhat removed from Saul during Samuel’s oracle (1 Sam. 28:21).
6 See M. James Penton, Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 3–4, 8, 24, 44, 57-58, 95, 99–100. Whether a report is trustworthy depends on the type of individual making the report—a character or the narrator.