6 September 2008

Shoftim:
The stuff dreams are made of---Bad dreams.


To steal a line from the Maltese Falcon, today’s portion is the stuff dreams are made of.----Bad dreams.

It recalls images of ghosts and witches. Scenes from MacBeth, Richard III, and the Tempest. It prohibits necromancers---mediums and intermediaries with the dead..

The key phrase is Deuteronomy 18:10:

“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, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.”
(NJPS)

Early translations use terms such as “maker of dismal days,”(Tindale, c. 1530) “witches,” “a woman having a fiend speaking in the womb,” and “charmers of devils in the womb”
(Wyclif. c. 1385).

First Samuel Chapter 28 is the story of a necromancer---the Witch of Endor. I will use terms from the King James translation, which show the drama and the terror.

King Saul followed the leadership model of “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Pursuant to the Biblical command, he had banished necromancers from the realm. Later he was threatened by the Philistine army. Saul prayed to God for advice. However, God did not answer him.

Saul asked his servants to find him a woman that had a “familiar spirit,” and the servants recommended the woman at Endor.

Saul disguised himself and with two companions met the witch at night. He asked her to divine by familiar spirit and bring up the person he will name.

The woman replied that you know that Saul cut off those with familiar spirits and the wizards.
Are you laying a snare for my life to cause me to die, she asked.

Saul assured her that she would not be punished by God. Then the woman said, “Whom shall I bring up unto thee?” Saul replied, “Bring me up Samuel.”

When the woman saw Samuel, she cried in a loud voice. “Why has thou deceived me? For thou art Saul,” she said.

Saul said, “Be not afraid.” Saul asked what she saw. She replied, “I saw gods ascending out of the earth.”


She said she saw “an old man coming up and he is covered with a mantle. Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped with his face to the ground and bowed himself.”

Samuel said that God would punish Saul for not obeying God, and for not executing fierce wrath against Amalek. Samuel said that the Philistine Army would defeat Israel and Saul would die.

“Saul fell straightway along the earth, and was sore afraid, because of the words of Samuel. There was no strength in him; for he had eaten no bread all the day, nor all the night.”

The woman fed Saul. Saul and his companions left by night. It was the last day of Saul’s life.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith wrote a book in 1992,
“Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead,” Continuum International Publishing Group, 1992, pages 126-132. It is digitized on Google books.

Dr. Bloch-Smith wrote that it was believed that the dead had good and bad powers. They could give fertility blessings and exact vengeance. There was a custom of feeding the dead. However, there was a biblical rule against feeding the dead with “tithed” food. (Dueteronomy 26:14).

Leviticus and Deuteronomy have rules against the death cult. Consulting with the dead was not explicitly forbidden. However, the use of intermediaries was banned. (Leviticus 19:31). Necromancers were to be stoned to death. (Leviticus 20:27). Persons who used necromancers were to be cut off from the community. (Leviticus 20:6). Being cut off, meant being severed from the family, losing the right to inherit family lands and the right to be buried in the family tomb.

Deuteronomy and the Prophets object to the cult of the dead. These objections date from the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. The ban is
explained by two theories.

Theory one involves the “Yahweh Alone Party.” This group advocated Yahweh as the exclusive true god, who would help, save and intervene in behalf of Israel. This party prevailed and the cult of the dead was outlawed.

Dr. Bloch-Smith prefers a second theory. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom, refugees flooded the Southern Kingdom. They brought their priests, intermediaries of the dead and varied religious practices. The authorities in the Southern Kingdom wanted a theological response to the destruction of the North. They argued that true priests were to get their power from God instead of the dead. They reorganized and consolidated the Temple Cult. They reduced the surplus of priests and suppressed the necromancers and the cult of the dead.

We will not be celebrating an illegal holiday on October 31. Stay away from necromancers.