Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Conversations with the Dead: 1 Samuel 28

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary sponsored by the Church of the Orange Sky.

In chapter 25, we interrupted the David-Saul story to see one of David's more dubious actions - the near-murder of Nabal, which was eventually given to David by the hand of God.

Now it's Saul's turn to wander far from the beaten track of righteousness. You may recall that, way back in the beginning of this book, Saul decided to go to a prophet for the ridiculous task of finding a lost donkey - always a good use of God's time. This time, faced with an impending Philistine invasion, he seeks God again - in the prophets, his dreams, and even the Urim and Thummim, which apparently are still around for divining purposes - but God doesn't answer. He reaches the next logical conclusion: maybe a medium will help! The NIV needlessly calls this woman a "witch" in its subtitle, in case any stupid readers couldn't guess that what's going on here is an unsanctioned spiritual activity.

Interestingly, if we were to take 1 Samuel as a literal account of history (or even a purported literal account of history), we would have to assume that the Bible teaches that the spirits of the dead really do exist, and that we can communicate with them. Because that's exactly what happens here: through the medium, Saul talks to the spirit of the recently deceased prophet Samuel, who is "called up" by the medium. Samuel is angry, though apparently more that his rest has been "disturbed" than by the fact that Saul is consorting with evil sorceresses. He says God is also angry with Saul and therefore Saul is going to die at the hands of the Philistines. So much for useful spiritual guidance.

It's also significant that the specific instance of using a psychic medium doesn't appear to anger God, at least according to Samuel - instead God is angry because of Saul's previous sins with respect to the failed war against the Amalekites. Does this mean Samuel and God are willing to look the other way when we talk to psychics, or is it simply that Saul is already so far gone that a few more strikes against him hardly matter at this point?

I admit I don't know much about ancient Jewish views on the afterlife, and I haven't thought about it much yet because to be honest it's not a question that preoccupies much of my time. Even when I was much more orthodox in my beliefs, I never much liked the idea of either heaven or hell. The second is theologically absurd and the first really ought to be theologically unnecessary, or at least the extent of the prestige and splendour with which it's usually described ought to be unnecessary. Promising grand eternal prosperity in a beautiful new paradise doesn't really jive with the call to be selfless in one's love for God and for others. It's not that it wouldn't be nice to have somewhere to go after we check out from this Earth, it's that I just don't see the theological point of worrying about it.

Anyways, that's beside the point. What's going on here is most intriguing: Samuel's spirit is "resting" somewhere below (below in the metaphysical sense if not the physical one; the medium "brings him up" so that he may speak). Wherever it is, pretty soon Saul is going to join him there (verse 19). These mythical halls of the dead bear little relation to later notions of heaven or hell, or even to some sort of unconscious oblivion souls rest in while waiting for judgement day. I suppose that's not particularly surprising, given the Greek influence which pervades present Christian ideas about the afterlife.