Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Yahwism and Life after Death: Part 7

For the immediately preceding post in this series, click here.

In the Hebrew Bible, Death is unclean, awful, and antithetic to God so that one must keep away. At the same time, one wants ongoing fellowship with one's family members. One may even want to access their aid and knowledge. Heck, one might want to exploit the preternatural and the occult in any number of ways! The bonds of fellowship and love are positive; but the idea of accessing the numinous power of the underworld is fraught with danger and betrayal.

There are clear tensions in biblical literature (and in our African parallels) about Death, its pull / attraction and its danger / repulsion. In the story of the Medium of Endor in 1 Samuel 28 one sees Saul crossing a line that biblical Yahwism wants to be held firmly in place.

Why are mediums a problem? The realms of life and death must be kept separate, but mediums link them together. Indeed, they do so in ways that often have nothing to do with the Yahwistic ideals of lovingkindness and kinship loyalty. Mediums are most often interested in necromancy, not lovingkindness (at least in the African ethnography that I have read). Their goal is to find out things that would otherwise be impossible to know: who stole one's money; who will one marry; where is one's lost garment; why is one's spouse sick? They may connect with spirits with whom they are not close, with strange spirits, and with spirits so long dead that they have been fully gathered away. These latter spirits belong to what scholars of African religion call the Zamani.

Because their clients may want contact with spirits unfamiliar to a medium, the medium often relies on a go-between spirit with whom she is familiar (and for whatever reason, mediums are usually women). The Hebrew behind the term "medium" in 1 Samuel 28:7 reads literally "a wife, a mistress, of a spirit." Cross-cultural parallels help illuminate this idea. Among the Dahomean people, mediums observe strict chastity during two years of training. Then, the medium says to her god/spirit, "Today you have completed marriage with me." To a faithful Yahwist, this would sound a lot like covenant infidelity toward God, Israel's one and only true spouse. As Eichrodt wrote some time ago, "Yahweh's claim to exclusive lordship covered not only alien gods but also those subterranean powers which might offer their help to men."

But the particular "power" summoned up here is Samuel himself! What do we make of this? Series to be continued...


Blogger Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


What indeed do we make of this? Generally, I get asked this question at least once per year by students. They think that it somehow gives creedence to mediums. I argue that it is just the opposite. I reference the woman's fright and the technical term she uses when she sees Sammuel coming out of the ground. I believe that it functions somewhat like a judgment speech. Even in his wickedness, Saul is given a word from Yahweh - judgment.

Tue Oct 10, 08:48:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Joe, I think you are right. The Medium of Endor gets more than she bargained for, and things move immediately to judgment. Samuel appears so quickly without any trance behavior on her part, and he speaks so plainly. With a spirit such as Samuel who is no relative of hers, she should expect mere chirps and mutterings (Isa 8:19), not lucid prophecies! And her familiar spirit seems not to be needed by her at all. What do you think? ---Steve

Tue Oct 10, 10:07:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger S and C said...

Joe, you also mention 1 Samuel 28:13, where I think you refer to her seeing "preternatural beings rising" (cf. NAB). I am thinking that in biblical Yahwism, this is one of the real threats at stake in interaction with the realm of death---it has its own preternatural power that stands in tension and foolish competition to the power of Heaven. What think thee? ---Steve

Tue Oct 10, 10:12:00 AM GMT-5  
Blogger Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


You are right on target here! When the medium attempts to engage in necromancy she insteads shreiks with horror at the sight of an elohim coming out of the ground. Quite literally, I think she sees the hand of Yahweh at work rather than the usual spirts that she is used to dealing with. I like your phrase better, "power of Heaven," for this is what comes to bear on a. the medium, b. Saul, and c. all Israel - to an extent. This is an excellent post please continue!

Wed Oct 11, 08:25:00 AM GMT-5  

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