16 votes, average: 5.00 out of 516 votes, average: 5.00 out of 516 votes, average: 5.00 out of 516 votes, average: 5.00 out of 516 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5 (16 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

Life After Death According to Samuel


Before getting sidetracked with other things, I was discussing the intriguing story of 1 Samuel 28, where the king of Israel, Saul, illicitly consults a medium in an attempt to communicate with his now-dead advisor and predecessor, the prophet Samuel.  This is the only case of necromancy in the entire Bible.   In this post I want to consider what the author of the passage seems to think about those who go to Sheol after death.

Recall the story: Saul is experiencing both internal turmoil (his rival David is on the rise and there is civil war) and external threat (from the warring Philistines).  He wants advice about how to proceed, but there is no one to turn to.  So he takes on a disguise and resorts to a medium (after having, as king, outlawed mediums!) to call up Saul from the realm of the dead.

She does as he asks.  As Samuel “comes up” from the ground, the medium realizes that it is Saul who is her client and that she’s in big trouble – he is the one who has forbidden what she is doing.  Samuel tells her not to fear, and asks what she is seeing.  She says that she sees an Elohim (divine being, usually translated “God,” but it can refer to other superhuman beings) coming up; he is an old man, wrapped in a robe.  And Saul immediately realizes it is Samuel.

Samuel is not …

THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY.  If you don’t belong yet, THERE IS STILL HOPE!  You can join!  Save yourself.  Save the world.  It won’t cost much and you’ll get tons for your money! So Join!

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please Login to access.

Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life
Our Fifth Year Anniversary!



  1. Robby  April 4, 2017

    I once heard a pastor say he was OK with God commanding “kill both man and woman, child, and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” Any religion or person who is OK with killing infants, toddlers and innocent people I have a problem with. This is one reason that I have left the church and ultimately christianity.

    • Seeker1952  April 5, 2017

      I’ve read that at least one conservative evangelical says that it’s not immoral for God to command and people to commit this kind of genocide, apparently because God is the source of morality and what he says goes. However he also says that without God’s command genocide would in fact be immoral, apparently because it violates God’s normal standing law, eg, in the Mosaic covenant.

      The issue goes at least as far back as Plato’s dialogue entitled “Euthyphro.” Is the good whatever God commands or does God command it because it is good?

      • HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

        That’s why it’s a Good Thing to fly airplanes into buildings.

    • erudite  April 5, 2017

      I agree.

    • godspell  April 5, 2017

      Yeah, because people who aren’t religious would never do this.

      Except Hitler. And Stalin. And Mao. And Pol Pot. And a lot of left-wing and/or anarchist terrorists.

      If you don’t believe, don’t pretend to believe.

      And don’t pretend it makes you better than anyone else. What you believe or disbelieve has nothing to do with that. It’s how you treat other people that matters. Jesus would probably agree. And it’s not as if he didn’t say anybody who would harm a child would be better off flung into a well with a millstone around his neck.

      Chimpanzees have been known to murder other chimpanzees, including baby chimpanzees.

      What religion do you blame that on?

      Our primate nature is the problem, and it doesn’t really sound like you have an answer. Maybe nobody does.

  2. Jon1  April 4, 2017

    Doesn’t the Samual story reflect the belief that some kind of soul lives separately from the body?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2017

      I don’t think so. What he sees is not a soul but a body of some kind (old; wrapped in a robe).

  3. tskorick  April 4, 2017

    I wonder if this sort of half-existence view of the afterlife is consistent with other post-bronze age cultures in that region. I recall the Philistines worshiped Dagon but I don’t think I’ve ever seen any further theology from them, and the Edomites seem to have been all over the map at one time or another.

    P.S. I think “Saul” may have been inadvertently typed there as “Samuel” in paras 3,6

  4. Wilusa  April 4, 2017

    As I assume many people will point out, you have the names “Saul” and “Samuel” mixed up in several places!

  5. Seeker1952  April 4, 2017

    Can you briefly summarize the main OT views about an afterlife? It seems I usually hear that ancient Jews did not believe in an afterlife until rather later when the idea of the resurrection of the dead developed. But then I seem to also keep hearing qualifications, like this story about Samuel, about the earlier non-belief.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2017

      See the post of March 29: https://ehrmanblog.org/the-afterlife-in-the-hebrew-bible-sheol/ That’s where I try to summarize the main views.

      • Seeker1952  April 5, 2017

        That’s certainly clear now that I’ve read it. So going to Sheol was the main idea. I wonder where I came up with the idea that absolutely no afterlife was the main idea. Maybe I conflated no afterlife with no heaven and hell.

        But here’s something I don’t understand in your 3/29 post: “what is clear is that most (not all) of the writers who mention Sheol think of it as something to be avoided at all costs.”

        It sounds like, with only two exceptions, it was also thought to be impossible to avoid Sheol. What’s the alternative?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 7, 2017

          Delaying it as long as possible!

        • HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

          Of course people want to avoid (delay) death! We know what life is like, and generally we like it.

  6. Seeker1952  April 4, 2017

    Did those ancient Jews who did not believe in any sort of individual afterlife find a strong sense of continuing existence in other ways, say in their children and later descendants and in the continuation of the Jewish nation? Or did they mostly just resign themselves to death as the end?

    One thing I’m wondering too is whether maybe these Jews didn’t have a strong enough sense of their own individuality to be especially bothered by death. Their identity rested strongly on being part of the nation. As long as the nation persisted death wasn’t all that horrible.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2017

      Yes, good point. The idea of living on in your children does eventually become a way of thinking about it, but I don’t know that there is much of that in the Hebrew Bible itself. (Or maybe the passages are just not occurring to me)

      • HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

        Their law of kinsman redeemer may reflect this. If a man dies without leaving an heir, a relative is responsible for marrying the widow to produce heirs to his estate. While this might simply be property rights law, their emphasis on genealogies and family heritage suggests otherwise.

  7. randal  April 4, 2017

    Do you think that we can assume all people, good or bad, go to the same place? Saul, the disobedient king, will join the good prophet Samuel in Sheol.

  8. godspell  April 4, 2017

    Samuel’s state in the afterlife might be considerably better than the average person’s. This is something we see a lot throughout history–Dante can’t bear to consign his favorite pagan writers to the Inferno. And Samuel might, in fact, be having a terrible time down there (it sounds very boring), but simply disapproves in general principle of using sorcery to raise the dead. Jewish prophets were not known for their laxity in such matters, even for themselves.

    I think at most what’s conveyed here is that the afterlife, in this writer’s mind, is a sort of nullity, a span that exists between death and eventual resurrection, and it’s not supposed to be interrupted. The fact that Saul would do this is further proof of his unworthiness, and the justness of God replacing him with David.

    And as with Dante, I don’t think the storyteller means for this to be taken literally. It’s a fable, meant to convey a point. I mean, how would anyone even know such a thing had happened? Saul’s not going to tell anybody, and he probably had that medium killed, no matter what assurances she’d been given. 😉

  9. Alex4865  April 4, 2017

    //On the whole, I would rate this as a fairly positive view of the afterlife, at least for those who are chosen by God here on earth.//

    That’s interesting because Samuel tells Saul in 28:19 “…tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me”. Did Sheol have places for the good and bad?

  10. stevenpounders  April 4, 2017

    The backstory is pretty shocking with God ordering the murder of every man, woman, and child. I guess they all went to Sheol, as well.

  11. ronrule  April 4, 2017

    * Mediums can be effective in contacting and retrieving people from the realm of the dead.

    Interesting note — Catholics sometimes use this story as part of an apologetic for prayers to the saints in heaven.

  12. Gary  April 4, 2017

    If I understand you correctly, you do not believe that there was a gradual development of a common Judaic belief in the afterlife, rather, different authors had differing views, right up and including during the time of Jesus. What percentage of Hebrew Bible scholars would agree with this position?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2017

      I think there was development, certainly. But it was not unilinear. Things developed at different rates in different times and places — and soemtimes they didn’t develop much at all. My sense is that this is a common view among scholars of the Bible, outside of fundamentalists and very conservative evangelicals.

  13. talmoore
    talmoore  April 4, 2017

    Dr. Ehrman, I think you’re missing an interesting corollary to this story. Notice that only the Necromancer sees the ghost of Samuel. Saul has to ask her what she sees. This is an interesting window into the charlatanism of ancient necromancers. Much like modern mediums, they’re engaging in a charade, where they are pretending to see a ghost, but are actually faking the ghost’s words. We see this, for example, in Samuel’s ghost’s supposed reaction to being raised. He acts as if he has been disturbed. This is clearly a detail we would expect a phoney medium to add in order to make their supposed necromancy seem real. “The ghost isn’t happy to have been disturbed!” Well, I wouldn’t be happy if I were disturbed either, so this must be real. Ancient diviners and supposed prophets were pretty much all charlatans and hucksters, just like today.

    • SidDhartha1953  April 5, 2017

      Given that this is a fictionalized history of the penultimate day of Saul’s life, I think some willing suspension of disbelief is in order. The fact that everything Saul was told came to pass suggests the author means for the reader to understand that Samuel really did speak.

  14. GWB51  April 4, 2017

    A couple of things you mentioned in some earlier posts got me curious. You were discussing the possible broader implications of someone’s belief or non-belief in an afterlife. You mentioned global warming as an example. That made sense. Republicans almost reflexively deny anthropogenic climate change and I’ve always assumed they are the more religious of the two major parties. Turns out that’s not exactly true. At least according to Pew.

    More Republicans than Democrats do believe in heaven; 80% to 66%. But, when you adjust for the proportion of Republicans vs Democrats the actual number of people believing in heaven would be pretty close. I found that surprising. Another thing I found odd, regardless of party, more people believed in heaven than hell; Repub 80% to 69%, Dem 66% to 51%. I would have assumed if you believed in one, you believed in the other.

    Pew has done a lot of polling on issues based on religious affiliation. They even did a poll of attitudes toward climate change by religion. The two groups most accepting of human activity causing climate change were Hispanic Catholics and the unaffiliated. The group most likely to reject it was Evangelical Protestants – no surprise there. But, I’m guessing it has more to do with their need to reject science in general than where they expect to spend eternity. If your belief system requires you to reject geology, cosmology, and biology then rejecting climatology is pretty easy.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2017

      Interesting. Could you give me the references for these polls?

    • Wilusa  April 5, 2017

      Interesting, about the Hispanic Catholics! I can’t imagine why they’d be more likely than other Catholics to acknowledge that humans are causing climate change.

      • HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

        They simply have no reason to deny it. They won’t profit from lax environmental regulation.

    • dankoh  April 9, 2017

      I’ve seen similar studies (and your references), but I think you have to consider that today’s Republican party is more homogeneous than in the past (though it was never so mixed as the Democrats!). For the past 30-40 years, party extremists have used the primary system to weed out moderates and free-thinkers. Add to that the way the religious right has highjacked the GOP to advance its own agenda, and it’s actually surprising that ONLY 80% of the Republicans believe in heaven!

  15. Aage  April 5, 2017

    The fact that the Torah banned necromancy and witchcraft must indicated that such practices were, if not common, at least common enough that it troubled the religious authorities. If they were though “un-Jewish,” where did they come from?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2017

      Being banned by Jewish officials would not make then non-Jewish! they would be Jewish practices opposed by the authorities.

      • SidDhartha1953  April 5, 2017

        Women in some cultures seem to have used forbidden arts as a way to work around male dominated religious establishments. Do you know of any evidence that was the case in ancient Israel?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 7, 2017

          I suppose this passage would be one piece of evidence. The condemnation of witches might be another. Maybe other blog members could make some suggestions.

          • dankoh  April 9, 2017

            The thought that comes to mind is the prohibition in Ex. 22:17 against a sorceress, or machshaypha, which is a specifically feminine word (for those who don’t know, all Hebrew nouns have male or female gender). This implies that the Torah was more concerned with women in this position than men. And it is the source of the medieval (and modern) persecution of women for being witches.

            I find a note in the Jastrow dictionary referring to the Jerusalem Talmud – Y Sanh VII 25d – citing to the text in Exodus and saying that only women are inclined to sorcery (cashfanit).

            Whether this was a way of working around male domination in Judaism is not something the Talmud (or other traditional sources) would ever have admitted to, in my opinion. But there does seem to a sense here that sorcery was (largely) confined to women.

          • HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

            I think the idea was not that only women did sorcery. Men did not want women to do sorcery because then women would compete with men in this arena. Women would be claiming abilities and authorities that men wanted to keep for themselves.

  16. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  April 5, 2017

    It’s interesting that Samuel was brought up from the dead without a physical body. I thought that ancient Israelites believed the soul/spirit could not be apart from the body.

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  April 5, 2017

      I’m assuming ancient Israelites believed in ghosts too. Another soul/physical body disconnection.

      • Bart
        Bart  April 5, 2017

        Do you mean you’re assuming the soul/body disconnection?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2017

      But he *does* have a body! He is “old” and he is wearing a “robe.”

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  April 5, 2017

        I may be looking at it from too modern of a viewpoint. I was thinking of someone who would ask a psychic to connect with a loved one. The psychic may reply, “I see a man wearing a red ball cap and smoking a pipe.” The querent confirms that’s her father, but that doesn’t mean he was actually wearing a red cap and smoking a pipe. It was only a confirmation method used by the psychic. Saul has a conversation with Samuel, but he couldn’t have been speaking directly to Samuel or he wouldn’t have asked the medium what she saw which was an old man wearing a robe. (Saul’s confirmation that it’s really Samuel.) The entire conversation is happening through the medium.
        So, basically, I was thinking the old man in a robe was confirmation for Saul and nothing physical, but if Samuel’s childhood friend asked for him to be brought up, he would appear as a young boy sitting in a certain tree they used to climb as kids. The friend would have his confirmation that it was Samuel.
        I’m not sure that was very clear. I may be looking too deeply into it.

      • SidDhartha1953  April 5, 2017

        In most ghost stories I’m familiar with, the ghost looks like the person it represents, even though it has no material reality. Jacob Marley, for instance, looked like Marley, but Scrooge could see the buttons on the back of his waistcoat from the front. As a matter of story telling, I think that is a necessary device to explain how one can know who the ghost is. It doesn’t necessarily mean the ghost actually has a body.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 7, 2017

          I’m not sure I would use a Victorian novel as the key to interpreting an ancient text! 🙂

    • HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

      Or it’s a purely fictional story told to make a point. No one expects all aspects of a fiction to be systematic.

  17. dragonfly  April 5, 2017

    The author talks about mediums as though it were common knowledge, so there must have been a fairly common view that the dead were still in existence and still able to interact with the living.

    • HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

      Or, it was just a common theme. Of all the people who enjoyed watching Ghostbusters, how many actually believe in ghosts?

  18. fishician  April 5, 2017

    On the other hand, Elijah went “up” to heaven when God took him (2 Kings 2:11). So, there are definitely more than one view on where a righteous person goes after life. Also, funny that in the NT when people like Lazarus return from the dead nobody thinks to ask about or record their experiences of being dead. Despite Jesus’ reported appearances after death no details of the afterlife are given, leaving people to speculate. That seems like something important I’d want to know!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2017

      Yes, or at least about two righteous people, Elijah and Enoch. but yes, there were multiple views.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 5, 2017

      One way to think about it is that 99.9999% of human beings went “down” to Sheol after death, while 0.0001% gained the honor of going “up” to heaven to live with God. Going to Sheol was very, very much the rule, and going to heaven was very, very much the exception.

      • dankoh  April 9, 2017

        If that is the case, I can think of many more OT figures more than deserving than Elijah and certainly Enoch. For example, Abraham, whom God treated as a friend (I can’t think of anyone else in the Hebrew bible of whom that could be said).

        • HistoricalChristianity  April 18, 2017

          Abraham was an established tradition long before Isaiah existed. As John Locke did for the American Revolution, Isaiah may have been the philosophical driving force that allowed Judaism to survive and thrive in Diaspora. His revolutionary idea of ‘God with us’ changed the mindset of Jews in Diaspora toward a god of a people, from merely a god of a geography. That may be why he was so highly revered.

  19. RonaldTaska  April 5, 2017

    It is a positive view of the afterlife except for remaining old in the afterlife. What does this do for those of us who are losing our minds and our golf swing in old age?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      My view is that we regain our minds and our swing. Better, in fact, than our partners.

  20. cheito
    cheito  April 5, 2017

    DR Ehrman:

    Do you think that perhaps some scribe who believed in mediums and in communicating with the dead, made up this story about Saul consulting a medium, and interpolated it into 1 Samuel, so as to give credence to the practice of necromancy?

    I think this is a possibility, since, in the story Saul tells the Woman that nothing would happen to her.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      I don’t see any reason to think it was not originally part of the book in the first place.

  21. HawksJ  April 6, 2017

    When you were a minister, if one of your flock had asked you about this story, asking how all this could have happened (where did the Medium get the power to do this? Why did Samuel come ‘up’ from the earth? How would the bad Saul end up in the same place as the good Samuel?, etc.), how would you have responded back then?

    To the observant reader, this story opens a theological can of worms. ? ? ?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 7, 2017

      Good question. I *probably* would have said that it was a story not a history.

You must be logged in to post a comment.