(Some) Villains of Tanakh - Ba’alat Ha’ov (the Witch) of Ein Dor By Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Part I – Text: I Samuel 28:3-25


Saul is forced into war against the Philistines in the region of the Gilboa Mountains. He and his army seem to be stationed at the lower level of the mountains facing the Jezre’el Valley. The Philistines are stationed in Shunem (current day village of Sulem, near the town of Afula) in the valley, across from the Gilboa Mountains. Ein Dor is located in the valley.

“Ba’alat ov:” There are several translations for this biblical term: a medium, a familiar spirit, a ghost, a witch. What seems clear is that this woman communicates with the spirit of the dead in some manner that allows her to see the dead person, but the person that sought her services is only able to hear. It is not obvious that she was able to hear the spirit she raised.

1. Pay attention to the opening verse (3). It is full of information that is significant to understanding the events that follow.

2. Many different ways are listed as means of receiving a response from God. What does it tell us about the Tanakh’s approach to the human desire to know the future?

  • We may view it negatively, but various forms of divination seem perfectly acceptable at this point in history. However, some forms are strictly forbidden by the Torah.

3. Why does Saul disguise himself?

  • Is it due to shame, fear of his own people, fear of the reaction of ba’alat haov, fear of the enemy?

4. What is the significance of the event taking place at night?

5. Why does the narrator tell us that the woman accuses the man (whose identity she does not know) of trying to have her killed, as Saul has killed off the ovot?

  • Sometimes a narrator gives confirmation of an event by telling it twice; once the narrator speaks, and once it comes out of the mouth of a character. It helps us believe that the event happened as told.

6. How did the woman come to know that the unidentified visitor was Saul?

  • Her response recalls episodes in Genesis: The great cry of Esau that has been tricked (Gen 27:34,) and the accusation of Jacob who was tricked by Laban (Gen 29:25). This may seem insignificant, but as the story proceeds we will be pointed to Genesis again.

7. Where is Samuel located?

  • This might sound like a funny question, but in biblical times all dead people were understood as going to Sheol, the nether world. Pay attention to the verbs that indicate this.

8. Samuel’s answer is what Saul has already said himself (“God has left me”). If Saul knew this, why did he go the ba’alat ov?

9. Why does Saul collapse upon hearing Samuel’s words?

  • It is not only the shock of the message (which was cruelly blunt). There is a physical reason for this. How can you explain that Saul allowed himself to get to this point? (If you are familiar with the rest of stories about Saul, try to think of any incidents that might shed light on this).

10. In verses 21-22 the woman creates an interesting bargain: Because she risked her life and adhered to his request, Saul now has to do as she requests. This seems even, until you look at the details in the text. How does what Saul asked from her compare with her request from Saul?

11. What other biblical character does her behavior remind you of? What is the narrator telling us?

  • As we have seen, narrators were familiar with other stories and sometimes use them to add depth to their own story.

Part II – The Torah Sources of the Prohibition: Leviticus 19:31

(לא) אַל־תִּפְנ֤וּ אֶל־הָאֹבֹת֙ וְאֶל־הַיִּדְּעֹנִ֔ים אַל־תְּבַקְשׁ֖וּ לְטָמְאָ֣ה בָהֶ֑ם אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
(31) Do not turn to ghosts and do not inquire of familiar spirits, to be defiled by them: I the LORD am your God.
(ו) וְהַנֶּ֗פֶשׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּפְנֶ֤ה אֶל־הָֽאֹבֹת֙ וְאֶל־הַיִּדְּעֹנִ֔ים לִזְנ֖וֹת אַחֲרֵיהֶ֑ם וְנָתַתִּ֤י אֶת־פָּנַי֙ בַּנֶּ֣פֶשׁ הַהִ֔וא וְהִכְרַתִּ֥י אֹת֖וֹ מִקֶּ֥רֶב עַמּֽוֹ׃
(6) And if any person turns to ghosts and familiar spirits and goes astray after them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from among his people.
(כז) וְאִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֨ה בָהֶ֥ם א֛וֹב א֥וֹ יִדְּעֹנִ֖י מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֑תוּ בָּאֶ֛בֶן יִרְגְּמ֥וּ אֹתָ֖ם דְּמֵיהֶ֥ם בָּֽם׃ (פ)
(27) A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones—their bloodguilt shall be upon them.
(ט) כִּ֤י אַתָּה֙ בָּ֣א אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֣ן לָ֑ךְ לֹֽא־תִלְמַ֣ד לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת כְּתוֹעֲבֹ֖ת הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָהֵֽם׃ (י) לֹֽא־יִמָּצֵ֣א בְךָ֔ מַעֲבִ֥יר בְּנֽוֹ־וּבִתּ֖וֹ בָּאֵ֑שׁ קֹסֵ֣ם קְסָמִ֔ים מְעוֹנֵ֥ן וּמְנַחֵ֖שׁ וּמְכַשֵּֽׁף׃ (יא) וְחֹבֵ֖ר חָ֑בֶר וְשֹׁאֵ֥ל אוֹב֙ וְיִדְּעֹנִ֔י וְדֹרֵ֖שׁ אֶל־הַמֵּתִֽים׃
(9) When you enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations. (10) Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, (11) one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.

1. How is the practice ov viewed?

  • Notice the company it keeps, and the issue of impurity that is mentioned as resulting from such consultation. (Impurity has nothing to do with physical cleanliness). The choice of punishments is also interesting as it has 2; one that seems Heaven-given and one that is carried out by the community.

2. Why does it seem to be prohibited?

  • And what is prohibited? Who is to receive which punishment?

3. What was the basis for Saul’s killing of all the Ovot?

  • There is clearly a death penalty involved, but does it require the “law” (king, in our case) to actively pursue the issue, or is it only in cases that it is brought to the attention of the court? Pay attention to the word for Saul’s killings used by baalat haov in our story, and the terminology used in the Torah. Did you understand the term (and its context) in the same manner that Saul seems to have understood it?

Part III – Rabbinic Material

וַיִּשָּׁבַע לָהּ שָׁאוּל בַּה', לְמָה שָׁאוּל דּוֹמֶה בְּאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה, אָמַר רֵישׁ לָקִישׁ מָשָׁל לְאִשָּׁה שֶׁהָיְתָה אֵצֶל אוֹהֲבָהּ וְנִשְׁבַּעַת בְּחַיֵּי בַּעְלָהּ, כָּךְ שָׁאוּל שׁוֹאֵל בְּאוֹב וְיִדְעֹנִי וְאוֹמֵר: חַי ה' אִם יִקְרֵךְ עָוֹן בַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה. (שמואל א כח, יא)

And Saul swore to her by the LORD – what was Saul like at that time? Said R. Levi: An allegory: a woman, while with lover, takes an oath by her husband’s life. So Saul is inquiring of the Ov and the familiar spirit and swears “by the LORD, if any sin will befall you for this matter!”

Indeed, if we stop to think about it, Saul’s behavior is less than logical, but it is very human.

What does this Midrash highlight about Saul in that situation?

We are not well trained at oath taking, so let us just remember that one takes an oath by something that is very dear to us, that being functioning as collateral. Breaking the oath would harm that being, or cause great harm to the oath-taker.

דברים רבה (ליברמן) פרשת ואתחנן

כל מי שהוא בוטח במה שאומרים לו נביאים, כמי שהוא נוטל חרב ודוקרה לתוך מעיו.

ממי אנו למדין? משאול, שבטח בדברי שמואל. בשעה שהלך שאול ושאל באשת בעלת אוב, והעלת לו שמואל, ואמר לו שמואל כל אותן הדברים. וכיון שאמר לו שמואל “אתה ובניך עמי” (שמואל א’ כ”ח י”ט), בטח שאול על דבריו ונתייאש מן התפלה.

אמר: הואיל ואמר לי שמואל שאני מת, מה אני מועיל מתפלל?! ישב לו מן התפלה, ונדקר בחרב, שנאמר: “ויאמר שאול לנושא כליו” (שמואל א’ ל”א ד’) וגו’, ומה עשה? נטל החרב ודקרה במעיו.

מי גרם לו? על שבטח בדברי שמואל. שאילו היה מתפלל לפני הקב”ה, היה מבטל ממנו את הגזרה.

Deut. Rabba Parashat Va’etchanan

Anyone who trusts what prophets tell him is like a person who takes a sword and stabs it into his guts.

From whom did we learn? From Saul, who trusted the words of Samuel. At the time that Saul went and inquired in the baalat ov woman and she raised Samuel for him, and Samuel told him all those words. And since Samuel said to him “you and your sons [will be] with me” (I Sam 28:19) Saul trusted his words and despaired from praying.

He said: Since Samuel told me that I am going to die, what good is my prayer going to do? He sat [down] from praying, and was stabbed by a sword, as it says: “And Saul said to his arms bearer…” (I Sam 31:4) What did he do? He took the sword and stabbed it in his guts.

What caused him [to do this]? He trusted the words of Samuel. For if he would have prayed before the Holy One Blessed Be He, He would have canceled the decree.

A general suggestion: Several verses are partially quoted here. It is a common practice by Midrash to quote only part of the verse, expecting the reader to know the rest. (This was the best that they could do as the rabbis had no easy reference system. The current chapter-and-verse system was still centuries away.) The part quoted is not necessarily the relevant part, or at least not all the relevant parts. Look up the full verses.

1. It seems to be a strange statement – anyone who trusts what prophets tell him is as one who takes a sword and stabs his guts. What approach to prophecy do we find here? Does this apply to all prophecy?

  • Keep in mind that there are many prophecies of doom in Tanakh. Do they have to come true? What is their purpose?

2. This midrash fleshes out the state of mind that Saul was in over the last hours of his life. Does it seem consistent with the text? Is it consistent with life?

  • Midrash is often set in a particular narrative, but its message is universal and human. If you can scrape off the story layer, you arrive at serious comments about human psyche and behavior. The midrash that might not be historically true (although some could be) could be humanly true.