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1 Samuel 28:12-14:

12 And the woman seeth Samuel, and crieth with a loud voice, and the woman speaketh unto Saul, saying, `Why hast thou deceived me -- and thou Saul?' 13 And the king saith to her, `Do not fear; for what hast thou seen?' and the woman saith unto Saul, `Gods I have seen coming up out of the earth.' 14 And he saith to her, `What [is] his form?' and she saith, `An aged man is coming up, and he [is] covered with an upper robe;' and Saul knoweth that he [is] Samuel, and boweth -- face to thee earth -- and doth obeisance. [YLT]

12 And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice: and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul. 13 And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou? And the woman said unto Saul, I saw gods ascending out of the earth. 14 And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, An old man cometh up; and he is covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground, and bowed himself. [KJV]

12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and paid homage. [ESV]

What did the medium of En-dor mean by "god(s)" in verse 13? What would she, as a medium, have understood by the word "god(s)"?

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Hebrew is not Greek nor English. The Hebrew אֱלהִים (elohim) meant more than just what we call "god". It included other things such as:

  • ruler and judges, Ex 22:7, 8, 27, 1 Sam 2:25, Judges 5:8, Ps 82:1, etc
  • superhuman beings, Ps 8:6, Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7, etc.
  • false gods, Ex 18:11, 22:19, 1 Sam 4:8, etc.

thus, it is not surprising that the "being" that Saul saw conjured by the witch of Endor is called אֱלהִים (elohim).

Footnote: About 80-90% of the the instances of אֱלהִים refer to YHWH, one true God.

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The word used here is אֱלהִים (elohim), a masculine plural noun referring to Deity (and occasionally, Deity's representatives). It is the same word used, for example, to refer to God in the creation, and in the commandment "thou shalt have no other gods before me".

There are numerous Old Testament examples of people worshipping gods other than the Hebrew God. In most cases, including that of the witch of En-dor, we are not given many details as to what they believed. In polytheistic ancient Canaan, and indeed in polytheistic imperial Rome, different groups developed an ever-growing set of gods who were believed to be responsible for various events/powers/phenomena.

It is little wonder that in most cases Jewish scribes did not go to the trouble of describing the theologies of their polytheistic neighbors--the first two commandments explicitly forbid worshipping other gods or bowing down to graven images--and God had warned the people (many times, in fact) of the temptation to follow false deities worshipped by other peoples (see, for example, Deut. 7:3).

We do not know what the witch of En-dor believed (or whether everything she said was simply a lie). The witch appears to use the term generically, not as a name of a specific deity. There are other examples in Biblical texts from which we may draw rough inferences--such as Pharoah's magicians or Nebuchadnezzar's astrologers--who claimed they received supernatural power from deities they were said to consort with.

One thing is pretty clear--this was not a manifestation of the Hebrew God, who had commanded His people not to consort with necromancers (see Deuteronomy 18:10-18). However, the witch would have known that:

  • Saul knew the Hebrew God would not bless efforts at necromancy
  • Other people in the area believed in other deities

And in hopes of deceiving Saul into believing she had power from one of these deities (she's careful never to specify which one), she claimed that they were permitting her communication with the dead.

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