The answer to this question is, basically, ‘no’. Meaning that neither Samuel, nor ghost, nor any demon or angel impersonating Samuel, was summoned by the woman. It was a fraud.
It is rare that any Bible question, particularly one with as many strange features as the story of Saul’s visit to the spiritist in Endor in 1 Samuel 28 can be answered with as simple an answer as ‘no’, but the story itself contains several pointers which justify the traditional Jewish understanding of this woman as a fraudulent medium putting on a show for Saul. It’s worth noting that the Jewish Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament used by the early church) renders the Hebrew “woman with an owb” (a familiar spirit, or a ‘wineskin’ in Job 32:19) with the Greek “a stomach speaker”, or ventriloquist. This is the consistent understanding of the ancient Jewish rabbis regarding this incident.
Of course to accept this blunt ‘no’ answer requires that the reader already has some understanding of death in the Bible, and already is familiar with the answers to the question ‘What happens after death?’. If someone is not sure about the basic Bible teaching on death then the story of Samuel’s ghost is not the best place to start.
But back to this incident:
Saul didn’t see anything
The first point to note is that Saul himself saw nothing:
12 When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice. And the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me? You are Saul.” 13 The king said to her, “Do not be afraid. What do you see?” And the woman said to Saul, “I see a god coming up out of the earth.” 14 He said to her, “What is his appearance?” And she said, “An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped in a robe.” (1 Samuel 28:12-14)
There we have it. So we have here nothing different from what the woman habitually did to take money from the gullible, which was pretend to see ghosts which were not there. and be paid to pass supposed messages from the dead.
There are example of two other incidents in the Bible which can be read to mean that something was visible to one and not another. The first is when Balaam’s donkey saw an angel blocking the road, but Balaam, whipping the donkey, did not see the angel. (Numbers 22:25). The other incident is when Elisha prayed for the eyes of his young servant to be opened to see an army of angels (2 Kings 6:16).
What is different about those two incidents however is that they didn’t occur in the normal place of business of a woman who made her living from seeing dead people that her clients couldn’t see. In other words the story of Saul and the medium at Endor shows exactly the normal order of business in the normal place at the normal time of night. This was ‘business as usual’, while the case of Elisha’s servant was a miraculous incident in daylight and the case of Balaam’s donkey apparently speaking – as the angel in the burning bush did to Moses – is an even more unusual incident.
The woman repeated what everyone already knew
It’s is often forgotten that this visit by Saul was to ask for a second opinion. Both Saul and his attendants had already heard direct from Samuel in Gilgal:
And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” 27 As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the skirt of his robe, and it tore.28 And Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. 29 And also the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret.”
35 And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.
So Saul already knew that “the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbour”, since Samuel had already said this to Saul in front of his commanders. The woman had added in the name “your neighbour David”, but everyone in Israel already knew that Samuel had anointed David as the next king (1 Samuel 16), and also knew that this was the reason that Saul was hunting David to kill him.
The only piece of original information supplied by the spiritist is the additional line “tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me.” which shows an awareness of the looming battle, but otherwise adds only what is obvious for David to succeed him as king then his four sons Jonathan, Ishui, Melchishua and Ishbosheth would also have to die.
In fact this one piece of original information supplied by the medium may in fact be incorrect in two details. The first is that if the events of 1 Samuel 28 to 31 are in chronological order then in order for David to accomplish the travels in the intervening chapters 29 and 30 then the battle of Gilboa was not the next day, but probably two or three days later. The second mistake of the witch is that the fourth adult son, Ishbosheth, either was not present at the battle or got separated from his brothers and survived and instead went on to reign as king in Jerusalem delaying Samuel’s prophecy about David for a full two years.
God doesn’t raise people to kill them again
The more basic issue here though is the fundamental principle of life and death in the Bible. Resurrection, when it happens, is always physical restoration to a physical life. The son of the widow raised by Elijah, Jairus’s daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus all raised by Jesus, Tabitha raised by Peter, Eutychus raised by Paul all rose to physical health, ate food, lived a long life and died at a later time. This is even true of the Lord Jesus himself who when raised by God (according to Peter in Acts 2) rose to a physical life:
“Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:39)
Jesus went on to prove the physicality of his resurrection body by eating fish in front of the disciples, and by ascending – in his physical body – to heaven with the angels promising that he would come again “in the same way” (Acts 1:11).
From this we can see that the woman’s routine where she claimed “I see gods coming (plural) up out of the earth”, and then the line “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?”, is not in line with other Biblical examples of resurrection. We cannot compare it with other examples of ghosts seen only by mediums since this story is the only time in the Bible when anyone visits a medium and pays to hear a message of a ghost. In the Bible reality this doesn’t happen.
Why write “Then Samuel said”?
The only problem that remains then is why the account says “then Samuel said” and not “then the medium said, imitating Samuel’s voice”.
This is really a literary question rather than a question about the science of life and death. The same question needs to be asked many more times with the Synoptic demon accounts such as;
So the demons begged, “If you cast us out, send us into that herd of pigs.” ” (Matthew 8:31)
Why does Matthew depict the demons speaking and not “so the man who believed himself to be possessed said “If you cast us out, send us into that herd of pigs.” “? That would be more correct for a psychiatry textbook, and also more doctrinally correct according to Old Testament teaching regarding the natural or divine origin of illness and the non-existence of demons and demigods.
This question relates to our expectation of what these historical narratives are meant to be showing. Both Old and New Testament historical accounts frequently relay events from the human eye view rather than God’s own divine perspective. That’s a problem for us only if we make it a problem by trying to make the accounts something they are not.
Conclusion – Samuel still sleeps
The real conclusion to this incident is found in Hebrews 11:32 where Samuel is mentioned in the list of those who died, are still dead, and await the resurrection:
But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. (1 Corinthians 15:23)
Samuel was dead, asleep in the dust, and the medium was doing what mediums do. What else would anyone expect to happen on a visit to a medium other than her ‘seeing’ a ghost? Would anyone expect the medium to say “sorry, no ghosts available today”?
Fatal consequences – 1 Chronicles 10:13-14
13 Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, 14 and did not inquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse. (1 Chronicles 10:13-14. New International Version)