Off the Shelf: Lessons from a witch

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Tikva Frymer-Kensky was an amazing biblical scholar, best known for her work “Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories,” which won a National Jewish Book Award. She was the director of Bible studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from 1988-95, before leaving for a position at the University of Chicago Divinity School, where she remained until her death in 2006. While looking through her papers, her children discovered a manuscript she’d written, but never published. That work is now available as “Wisdom from the Witch of Endor: Four Rules for Living” (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company).

“Wisdom from the Witch of Endor” is more of an extended essay, rather than a fully realized book. Its size is small (4.5 inches by 6.5 inches), as are the number of pages (fewer than 80). The rules offered are fairly simple” “1. Know your power. 2. Strive to excel. 3. Choose the moment. 4. Win well.” What is of great interest, though, are Frymer-Kensky’s thoughts on the biblical tale itself.

The Witch of Endor is yet another unnamed woman in Bible. Frymer-Kensky includes the biblical text of her story: How after Samuel died, King Saul was unable to communicate with God and, disguising himself, sought the services of a witch so he could speak with Samuel. The Witch, who does not recognize Saul, notes that communing with the dead has been forbidden by the king himself. Saul promises her that she will come to no harm. Once Samuel appears, he condemns Saul, telling him he will lose the kingship. Although Saul falls into despair, the Witch helps him by preparing food, which he is coaxed to eat before leaving to face his final battle.

Frymer-Kensky notes that, while the Bible does condemn some sorceresses, it does not condemn everyone who uses occult powers. She sees the Witch as using a method not included in the text’s condemnation: The Witch summons Samuel with “an ob.” The author believes that object was used to communicate with the dead. However, she also writes that it is impossible to use an ob today because no one knows exactly what that object was. She also discusses how other cultures (including some contemporary ones) believe in the ability to communicate with the dead.

The author notes the kindness the Witch shows Saul. His request to speak to the dead might have cost her her life. Then, when the king was in an extremely vulnerable state after Samuel condemned him, you would be excused for thinking that she might want to take revenge on him. He certainly was in no state to stop her. Instead, she shows him kindness, preparing food for him and being what Frymer-Kensky calls “a paragon of humane benevolence. Seeing Saul at her feet, her thoughts are of him, not herself.” According to the author, the Witch teaches us a valuable lesson in how to treat those who have harmed us, noting that “revenge is a dish best not tasted at all.” 

Frymer-Kensky’s thoughts about the Witch of Endor – a minor character in the biblical text who is often overlooked or dismissed – are what make reading “Wisdom from the Witch of Endor” worthwhile. This short work gives readers a fascinating look at the lessons the Bible offers in contemporary times.