Abraham and the Witch

Near the end of this week’s Torah portion, in Genesis 22, Abraham shows himself to be a hero of piety, in his willingness to heed God’s command to offer up his most treasured possession. Earlier, in Genesis 19, he shows himself to be a hero of justice, when he challenges God’s decision to destroy the cities of the Jordan plain. Earlier still, in Genesis 18, he shows himself to be a hero of hospitality, when he rushes out in the heat of the day to urge three passersby to visit him in his tent, and prepares for them a great feast.

But if Abraham is a hero of hospitality, there is also a heroine of hospitality, lurking in a darker corner of the Bible, not in the heat of the day but in the dead of night, and the two of them, hero and heroine, should be considered together. I refer to the woman sometimes called the witch of Endor, the necromancer of 1 Samuel 28.

Saul, king of Israel, confronted by a large Philistine force, and fearing the worst, has attempted to seek God’s counsel via dreams, prophets, the urim, all to no avail. So he seeks out an illicit means of obtaining knowledge of the future: the dead. Even though Saul had in the past undertaken to extirpate the practice of necromancy in Israel, he now, in his desperate state, disguises himself, and, under cover of night, takes two men with him to visit a necromancer in her home, so that she might raise from the underworld the ghost of the prophet who had anointed Saul, Samuel. The woman sees through his disguise, and fears for her life, but nevertheless carries out Saul’s request. The risen Samuel makes no attempt to sugarcoat the news: God has abandoned Saul, and will not save him. Tomorrow, you and your sons will be with me. (v. 19)

At this news, Saul collapses to the floor. It is not just his fear; he is also physically weak, because he had eaten nothing that day. And now the woman approaches him.  Surely she crouches down on the floor next to Saul, and she says:

Behold, your handmaid has hearkened unto your voice, and I have put my life in my hand, and have hearkened unto your words which you spoke to me. Now therefore, I pray thee, hearken you also unto the voice of your handmaid, and let me set a morsel of bread before you; and eat, that you may have strength, when you go on your way. (vv. 21-22, JPS modified)

Consider the rhetorical energy that the necromancer devotes to persuading Saul to accept her kindness. She suggests that as she heeded his request, at great personal risk, so Saul should heed hers—which is nothing other than to feed him! And she suggests that it is no trouble to her: It is only a matter of a morsel of bread (pat leḥem, just what Abraham offers the angels).

In fact, when, after some additional urging (cf. Gen 19:3), Saul agrees to eat, the necromancer springs into action. She has a fatted calf at home, and she rushes to slaughter it. Then she takes flour and bakes flat cakes. Then she brings these to the three men—Saul and his two servants—and they ate and they arose and they went away that night (v. 25).

If we ask the slightly silly question, who is greater, Abraham or the witch, then the answer must surely be: the witch. Abraham has the aid of an entire household: He tells Sarah to prepare the cakes; he delivers the calf to a servant to be prepared. The woman, by contrast, seems to make all of the preparations by herself. Abraham is a wealthy man, who can easily afford to lavish his guests with food, while the woman seems to have only the one fatted calf. While the passersby whom Abraham serves are strangers to him, he has no reason to be hostile to them, but the woman’s guest, Saul, is famous as the enemy of witches. Abraham can expect a blessing in response to his hospitality (and indeed receives one); nor is it impossible that he will pass by these strangers’ homes some day in the future, and receive their hospitality in turn.  It is true that the object of the witch’s kindness is a far greater person, a king, but this king will likely be dead tomorrow, with his line at an end, and in no position to repay kindness.

In any case, what are we to make of this? How do we interpret the pairing of Abraham and the witch? I am not sure. It is relatively easy to make sense of Abraham’s magnificent hospitality, as one among other illustrations of his noble character. Does his deed lose some of its sheen when he is outdone by the woman of Endor? I am not sure. Or let us try to grapple with her kindness in itself. Why does the narrator tell us about this? Why does he so ennoble the witch? I think of it this way, perhaps somewhat whimsically.

The narrator must, for his own reasons, humble Saul, must bring him to the very depths. Saul falls to the ground with his full stature (v. 28), the very stature that distinguished him when he was made king. He must be abandoned utterly by God, compelled to seek the aid of diviners whom he had prosecuted. He must become the most piteous of creatures. And from this, therefore, the most pity must emerge.  Someone must see him where he is.

The wellspring of the woman’s hospitality is really very different from Abraham’s.  Abraham’s hospitality reflects, perhaps, a certain radical selflessness. He will insist on justice against God himself, and for that very reason, he will also greet three strangers as he would three old friends. The witch’s hospitality comes instead from an acute sense of pity. She is, after all, drawn toward the dead, those most pitiful of creatures, living out shadowy lives under the earth. It is not by chance that she is a necromancer. And here is a man, Saul, living still, but not really living: half a ghost already, with no food in his belly, sprawled on the ground that is the roof of the underworld, mere hours from his death. This is a woman who knows that the dead walk among us: the poor, the hungry, the hopeless. And so she acts.

About the Author
Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on law and ethics in early rabbinic literature, and on pre-medieval liturgical poetry.
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