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Several questions have already been asked on 1 Samuel 28 (e.g. here, here & here), but none has had a focus on what Saul believed about Sheol. In 1 Samuel 28, the witch of En-dor describes Samuel as coming up out of the earth (upwards), meaning that the spirit of Samuel had to have been somewhere downwards, which--judging by Saul's reaction--made perfect sense to his worldview:

11 And the woman saith, `Whom do I bring up to thee?' and he saith, `Samuel -- bring up to me.' 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.
[1 Samuel 18:11-14 YLT]

If Saul had strongly believed that the spirit of Samuel was somewhere else (e.g. in heaven, which would be upwards -- see Psalm 11:4, 1 Kings 22:19, Isaiah 63:15), then the words of the witch describing Samuel as "coming up out of the earth" wouldn't have made sense to Saul. Therefore, it should stand to reason that Saul's worldview included as part of its beliefs that the spirits of the dead were somewhere downwards. But where exactly?

The first place that comes to my mind is Sheol. According to JewishEncyclopedia:

It connotes the place where those that had died were believed to be congregated [...]
Sheol is underneath the earth.

Unfortunately, the word Sheol is not found anywhere in 1 Samuel 28. However, 1 Samuel 2:6 does mention it:

Jehovah putteth to death, and keepeth alive, He bringeth down to Sheol, and bringeth up.

Similarly, David, a contemporary of Saul, alluded to Sheol and the condition of the dead multiple times (see Psalm 6:4-5, 16:10, 30:9, 88:10-12, 115:17, etc.). He explicitly mentioned Sheol a few times:

4 Turn back, O Jehovah, draw out my soul, Save me for Thy kindness' sake. 5 For there is not in death Thy memorial, In Sheol, who doth give thanks to Thee?
[Psalm 6:4-5 YLT]

10 For Thou dost not leave my soul to Sheol, Nor givest thy saintly one to see corruption.
[Psalm 16:10 YLT]

According to Wikipedia, the reign of Saul is traditionally placed in the late 11th century BCE. Some centuries later, Isaiah--who is believed to have lived in the 8th century BCE (source)--referred to Sheol in terms that would match the apparent worldview of Saul:

9 Sheol beneath hath been troubled at thee, To meet thy coming in, It is waking up for thee Rephaim, All chiefs ones of earth, It hath raised up from their thrones All kings of nations. 10 All of them answer and say unto thee, Even thou hast become weak like us! Unto us thou hast become like! 11 Brought down to Sheol hath been thine excellency, The noise of thy psaltery, Under thee spread out hath been the worm, Yea, covering thee is the worm.
[Isaiah 14:9-11 YLT]

The Book of Numbers, whose final form was probably consolidated in the 5th century BCE (source), recounts an incident in chapter 16 about people who went down to Sheol alive:

30 and if a strange thing Jehovah do, and the ground hath opened her mouth and swallowed them, and all that they have, and they have gone down alive to Sheol -- then ye have known that these men have despised Jehovah.' 31 And it cometh to pass at his finishing speaking all these words, that the ground which [is] under them cleaveth, 32 and the earth openeth her mouth, and swalloweth them, and their houses, and all the men who [are] for Korah, and all the goods, 33 and they go down, they, and all that they have, alive to Sheol, and the earth closeth over them, and they perish from the midst of the assembly;
[Numbers 16:30-33 YLT]

Lastly, during the 1st century AD, Luke the Evangelist recorded Jesus' parable of Lazarus & the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), which was based on Pharisaic doctrines on Hades (the Greek word for Sheol), including the existence of a compartment for the righteous known as the Bosom of Abraham:

22 `And it came to pass, that the poor man died, and that he was carried away by the messengers to the bosom of Abraham -- and the rich man also died, and was buried; 23 and in the hades having lifted up his eyes, being in torments, he doth see Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom,
[Luke 16:22-23 YLT]

Note: I'm mentioning dates and citing multiple sources to bring awareness into the broad historical context surrounding the Jewish concept of Sheol.

Question

Would Saul, an Israelite King from the 11th century BCE, have believed that the spirit of Samuel (and the spirits of the dead in general) was in Sheol?

Was that the predominant view at the time (11th century BCE)?

Can a historical and cultural analysis shed light on the answer?

(*) Note that a similar question could be asked about Isaiah (8th century BCE).


Related questions

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    Usually, to ask a question about someone's motivation or 'belief' would be considered an opinion question, I would have thought. It would be no use quoting scriptures or 'cultural norms' for we don't know if Saul believed/followed them or not unless we have the evidence of his own words.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 9 at 18:54
  • @NigelJ - that's true, but I think it's still possible to venture some reasonable hypotheses. I've had some success with similar 'cultural analysis' questions in the past, such as this one, and more recently this one. Feb 9 at 18:56
  • 1
    You should look at my previous answer about this where Saul clearly changed his views about these things as is mental state declined. Having banished the witches and mediums, he then sought to break his own law by seeking a witch in his desperate condition.
    – Dottard
    Feb 9 at 19:33
  • @Dottard - I agree that his respect for the law clearly changed. But what about his worldview? Regarding worldviews, a historical/cultural analysis can be helpful. I can change my behaviour towards the law without necessarily changing my worldview. Feb 9 at 21:18
  • Actually, I agree that know what is in the mind of paranoid desperado, is like asking about the color of sound - it almost has no meaning.
    – Dottard
    Feb 10 at 10:28

1 Answer 1

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Because Israel was so passionate about its unique covenant relationship with God , there may be little to be gleaned from a cultural analysis of the neighboring civilizations and their theology--the culture of greatest relevance to the OP is the culture of Israel at this time.

For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth (Deut. 7:6).

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Sheol

References to Sheol abound in the Old Testament, from as early as Genesis until after the Babylonian captivity. The Torah itself makes multiple references to the dead going down to Sheol (e.g. Genesis 37:35, Numbers 16:33).

The Torah (and what it conveys) is what made the Israelites unique; it was absolutely central to their culture. 11th century BC Israelites would have believed the statements of Torah about Sheol (note that this is true regardless of the state of oral/written transmission the Torah was in at the time). Ergo, Saul and his contemporaries believed that Sheol was the place of the dead.

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Dead men tell no tales

1 Samuel 28:8 identifies 4 individuals who were present for this notorious escapade into witchcraft:

  • Saul
  • The witch
  • 2 servants of Saul

The account reads like a play-by-play firsthand story (unlike, for example, some of the battles/destruction in 1 Samuel which read like a very dry summary composed by someone who was safely distant from the actual suffering).

Who told the story?

  • Saul was dead shortly after the visit to the witch--the story almost certainly was not recounted by Saul.

  • The witch had no incentive to speak up about this, considering the punishment other practitioners of her craft had received (1 Sam. 28:3) & that the new king (David) had shown no signs of being friendly to sorcery.

That leaves the servants. Since the Torah requires two witnesses to establish a fact (Deut. 19:15), and the story is presented in 1 Samuel as a non-fiction narrative, we can reasonably infer that the story was recounted/confirmed by the two servants of Saul. This is not absolutely certain, but is a reasonably probable conclusion.

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In the mouth of 2 or 3 witnesses

This means we have (probably) the perspectives of 3 Israelites from this period whose beliefs about Sheol are available for evaluation.

Saul would not have sought out the witch if he did not believe Samuel could be contacted, and that intelligence could be gained from him. Therefore, Saul believed in some form of post-mortal consciousness.

Further, Saul told the witch to bring Samuel "up". The witch, surely not wanting to incur the wrath of the king who had banished/punished so many of her colleagues, had every reason to play along. She alleges that Samuel came "up". The servants who told the story apparently found this detail self-explanatory and therefore did not see a need to elaborate. Though I find the witch's credibility somewhat suspect, this still leaves us at least three 11th century BC Israelites who believe that the dead are "down".

The servants (who told the story) referred to the ephemeral visitor as "Samuel", and the account, as written, offers no disclaimer, suggesting the servants really did believe it was Samuel. Saul's death shortly thereafter would only serve to strengthen that belief.

Allowing that the witch said whatever was needful to make a living (and not get herself killed/banished), this still leaves us with at least three 11th Century BC Israelites who believed that the ghost/spirit/dead Samuel had spoken and predicted Saul's death.

Saul's fear (see v 20) only further serves to corroborate that Saul believed the apparition was real.

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Conclusion

Can a historical and cultural analysis shed light on the answer? See discussion of the Torah above.

Would Saul, an Israelite King from the 11th century BCE, have believed that the spirit of Samuel (and the spirits of the dead in general) was in Sheol? He believed the dead went to Sheol. An experienced soldier like Saul knew full well what happened to a dead body. He presumably understood that the body goes to Qever (the grave) and the spirit goes to Sheol.

Was that the predominant view at the time (11th century BCE)? We have 3 witnesses from this account who believed the spirit/ghost of a dead man was conscious, resided downwards in Sheol, and could communicate. That the story is presented without elaboration on the afterlife suggests contemporary Israelites held sufficiently similar beliefs about Sheol that they would understand what was being described.

As I am sure other users on the site will readily point out, this story can tell us what Saul and two servants believed. Whether or not the witch was a credible source for what actually happened is a separate matter.

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