Reviving the Dead
Can a human bring a person back from the dead? This question lies at the heart of the story of Shaul and the Ba'alat Ha'Ov in Shemuel I 28. Shaul seeks out a necromancer to bring Shemuel back to life, and a simple reading of the text suggests that she in fact does revive the prophet, who then converses with Shaul:
(יא) וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה אֶת מִי אַעֲלֶה לָּךְ וַיֹּאמֶר אֶת שְׁמוּאֵל הַעֲלִי לִי. (יב) וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה אֶת שְׁמוּאֵל וַתִּזְעַק בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה אֶל שָׁאוּל לֵאמֹר לָמָּה רִמִּיתָנִי וְאַתָּה שָׁאוּל. (יג) וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ הַמֶּלֶךְ אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי מָה רָאִית וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה אֶל שָׁאוּל אֱ-לֹהִים רָאִיתִי עֹלִים מִן הָאָרֶץ. (יד) וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה תׇּאֳרוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אִישׁ זָקֵן עֹלֶה וְהוּא עֹטֶה מְעִיל וַיֵּדַע שָׁאוּל כִּי שְׁמוּאֵל הוּא וַיִּקֹּד אַפַּיִם אַרְצָה וַיִּשְׁתָּחוּ.
(11) Then said the woman: 'Whom shall I bring up unto thee?' And he said: 'Bring me up Samuel.' (12) And when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying: 'Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.' (13) And the king said unto her: 'Be not afraid; for what seest thou?' And the woman said unto Saul: 'I see a godlike being coming up 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 robe.' And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground, and prostrated himself.
Is the story meant to be read literally? Does it not go against reason? Moreover, if humans can really access impure powers to revive and speak with the dead, does this not belittle Hashem's uniqueness? How else, then, might the text be understood?
(י) לֹא יִמָּצֵא בְךָ מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ קֹסֵם קְסָמִים מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף. (יא) וְחֹבֵר חָבֶר וְשֹׁאֵל אוֹב וְיִדְּעֹנִי וְדֹרֵשׁ אֶל הַמֵּתִים. (יב) כִּי תוֹעֲבַת י"י כׇּל עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה וּבִגְלַל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה י"י אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ מוֹרִישׁ אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ. (יג) תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם י"י אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ. (יד) כִּי הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה יוֹרֵשׁ אוֹתָם אֶל מְעֹנְנִים וְאֶל קֹסְמִים יִשְׁמָעוּ וְאַתָּה לֹא כֵן נָתַן לְךָ י"י אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ. (טו) נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ כָּמֹנִי יָקִים לְךָ י"י אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ אֵלָיו תִּשְׁמָעוּן.
(10) There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, one that useth divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer, (11) or a charmer, or one that consulteth a ghost or a familiar spirit, or a necromancer. (12) For whosoever doeth these things is an abomination unto the Lord; and because of these abominations the Lord thy God is driving them out from before thee. (13) Thou shalt be wholehearted with the Lord thy God. (14) For these nations, that thou art to dispossess, hearken unto soothsayers, and unto diviners; but as for thee, the Lord thy God hath not suffered thee so to do. (15) A prophet will the Lord thy God raise up unto thee, from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken;
Does the contrast between the necromancer and prophet suggest that only by accessing the latter can one attain truth, since sorcery is a fraudulent art? Or, is Hashem saying that both methods might actually achieve similar goals, just that one is the desired path while the other is not? In other words, are magical practices prohibited because they are false, or because, despite their efficacy, they are somehow spiritually harmful?
In order to determine what is really going on in our story, several aspects of the narrative deserve further attention:
- "וַתִּזְעַק בְּקוֹל גָּדוֹל" – Upon seeing Shemuel rise from the dead, Ba'alat Ha'Ov cries out. What is the reason for such a reaction? If she was accustomed to seeing the dead come alive, why express shock or fright?
- "וְאַתָּה שָׁאוּל" – The sorceress appears to first recognize Shaul immediately after Shemuel emerges. What suddenly gave him away? Is this a sign of supernatural power?
- "מַה תָּאֳרוֹ" – Ba'alat Ha'Ov describes Shemuel in the most general of terms (אִישׁ זָקֵן עֹלֶה וְהוּא עֹטֶה מְעִיל), to the extent that her words could refer to almost anyone. The reader even wonders whether she is intentionally ambiguous because, perhaps, she has not seen the prophet! Yet, at the same time, Shaul finds her description compelling enough to "know" that Shemuel had appeared, suggesting that her characterization was accurate and specific.
- Knowledge of the past and future – Shemuel speaks of both past and future events. Is there any way that these would be known to the necromancer, or is this evidence that it really was Shemuel himself who spoke to Shaul?