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Necromancy in the Old Testament

Solomon Nigosian
The art of revealing future events by evoking and communicating with the spirits of the dead is called
necromancy. The word is derived from two Greek words literally denoting divination by consulting the
dead. Since necromancy is associated with dead spirits, ghosts, the underworld, and the powers of
darkness, it creates repulsion, fear, and horror.
Incredible as the alleged phenomena may appear to us, there is not the least doubt that the Old Testament
people sincerely believed that certain individuals had the power to evoke, and to communicate with, the
dead. Necromancy should not be treated as a spurious art, for even though it may be possible to explain
the phenomenon as being due to hallucination, or autosuggestion, or in some other naturalistic way, there
can be no doubt that those people who practiced the art, as well as those who came to the practitioners for
help, assuredly believed that they both saw the forms and heard the voices of departed spirits.
This method of divination was known and practiced not only in the ancient Near East, but also in ancient
Greece and Rome. Even during the imperial times, Nero employed the Magi, who seem to have been the
chief functionaries of divination by evoking the dead. We do not know exactly how these early
practitioners of necromancy were regarded by other members of their society, but it is clear that by the
Middle Ages necromancy had come to be regarded as little more than a synonym for black magic.
Be that as it may, the Old Testament people were commanded not to consult the necromancers lest they
be defiled by the divinatory practices of the surrounding heathen nations (Lev. 19:31; Deut. 18:9-12).
Moreover, if anyone disobeyed this commandment, and still consulted the necromancer, then he was to be
considered a harlot, and was to be cut off from among his people (Lev. 20:6). On the other hand, if any
Israelite took to the practice of this art, then he or she was to be stoned to death (Lev. 20:27).
The well-known incident of Saul and “the witch of En-dor” is an elegant example of necromancy.
Although the text, as it stands, appears to have suffered considerable changes (1 Sam. 28:3-19),
nevertheless, a few important points can be considered. The historian explicitly states that King Saul had
banished the mediums and the necromancers out of the land (vs. 3); in other words, Israel had consulted
such functionaries, at least from the time of the settlement in Canaan up to the time of Saul’s banishing of
them. Whether these functionaries were Israelites or otherwise, we are not told; but one assumes that
those who now dwelt in Israel were the citizens of that country. However, it is related that Saul
disregarded the very rule which he had set in the land, and went to consult a woman necromancer, the
witch of En-dor, who was skilled in the art of evoking the dead. When Saul disguised himself and went to
her, she reminded him of the king’s prohibition. Assuring her by an oath of her complete safety, Saul
asked her to evoke Samuel. The woman saw through Saul’s disguise, when she evoked the departed spirit
of Samuel (vs. 7-14). Of course, the remaining part of the story is well-known; Samuel predicts the loss of
the battle as well as the lives of Saul and his sons (vs. 15-19).
Unfortunately, neither Josiah’s so-called reform (2 Kings 23:24), nor Isaiah’s sarcastic remarks (Isa.
8:19), changed the attitude of the people toward consulting mediums and necromancers. During
Manasseh’s reign, there existed many magical and divinatory practices, including, of course, necromancy.
This forced YHWH—so the editors believed—to abandon his “chosen” people (2 Kings 21:6-16; 2
Chron. 33:1-12). In other words, the kings who drove the necromancers out of the land were praised (cf. 1
Sam. 28:3, 9; 2 Kings 23:24), and those who tolerated them were severely condemned (cf. 2 kings 21:6; 2
Chron. 33:6).
Thus, for more than half a millennium—from the days of the settlement to the time of the exile—the Old
Testament people were familiar with the art of necromancy.
Taken from, OCCULTISM in the OLD TESTAMENT, 1978, pp. 57-59