If you have an NIV Study Bible, which is a great resource and study tool to have on hand (I keep one on my desk), here is how it attempts to make sense of the events in 1 Samuel. The study notes spell out three possible explanations for the events of Saul’s encounter with the dead Samuel:
- God allowed Samuel’s spirit to be brought up by the woman.
- An evil spirit, pretending to be Samuel, possessed the witch. The problem with this interpretation? You can’t back it up with this passage or the rest of the Bible. There isn’t one instance in this passage or elsewhere in the Bible that would suggest Samuel’s spirit is actually an evil spirit. The only passage that has anything to do with 1 Samuel 28 is 1 Chronicles 10:13-14.
- The woman was able to read Saul’s mind and then pretend to be Samuel to him. The problem? Again, this passage makes it clear that Samuel, or Samuel’s spirit, is the one speaking to Saul.
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary acknowledges the fact that there is a wide range of different views on Saul’s encounter with the dead Samuel. This commentary reveals that two of the possible explanations given in the NIV Study Bible (the last two mentioned above) for the event of Saul talking to Samuel, come to us via the early church fathers. They had a hard time believing a medium could call up a righteous man like Samuel from the dead, and so came up with the idea that Samuel’s spirit was really a demon in disguise. Origen and Gregory of Nazianzus seem to be the only church fathers at peace with a literal reading and understanding of this text. The author of this commentary, Ronald Youngblood, goes with Gregory of Nazianzus in the assertion that Samuel was literally raised or brought back from the dead by a medium. This seems to be the best way to read and understand this passage. Are we ok with reading and understanding it like this?