Ancient necromancy (1 Samuel 28)

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Necromancy, the practice of divination through inquiring of the dead, was forbidden under Biblical law (Leviticus 19:31, 20:6). Saul himself had banned this activity from the land and yet, in his desperation to receive some instruction regarding the future, he himself turned to a necromancer. Such attempts to communicate with the dead are known throughout the ancient Near  East. Mesopotamia provides a few examples of such behaviour, the most famous of which is the Sumerian story of “Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld”, in which Nergal summons the ghost of Enkidu to rise from a hole in the ground in order that he might speak to Gilgamesh. Other Mesopotamian examples attest to necromancers (both male and female) using skulls to house the spirits while they were being questioned. In Egypt, letters were written to the dead, most likely for purposes of necromancy.

In 1 Samuel 28:13, when the necromancer sees Samuel she asserts that she is seeing a “divine being” or “gods” (elohim in Hebrew). This use of elohim to refer to a ghost is unique in the Bible and has given rise to numerous historical and theological questions. Is this an indication that the dead were deified in ancient Israel and could be sought out in order to provide an oracle? Other surrounding cultures had ceremonies to honour the dead in cuktic fashion; in Mesopotamia such a ceremony was called the kispu ritual. The cities of Mari and Ugarit also practiced food offerings and libations (drink sacrifices) for the dead.Laws against such activities in the Bible (Deuteronomy 26:14) suggest that a similar practice was well known, though forbidden, in Israel. Saul’s willingness to contravene his own decree and engage in the heterodox practice of divining the dead demonstrates the desperation od degradation to which his unfaithfulness had brought him.

For other forms of divination see “Akkadian divination” under Deuteronomy 18.


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