The Ba’alat Ov of Ein Dor

Part I – Text:  I Sam 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 vv.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

ויקרא פרק יט לא

אל תפנו אל האבת ואל הידענים, אל תבקשו לטמאה בהם, אני ה’ אלהיכם:

Do not turn your face to mediums (ovot) or favorable spirits to seek to become impure by them. I am the LORD your God.

Leviticus 20:6  

ויקרא פרק כ ו

והנפש אשר תפנה אל האבת ואל הידענים לזנת אחריהם, ונתתי את פני בנפש ההוא והכרתי אתו מקרב עמו:

And the person that will turn his face to the medium (ovot) and the favorable spirits to whore after them, and I shall direct my face at that person and I will cut him off from among his people.

  Leviticus 20:27

ויקרא פרק כ כז

ואיש או אשה כי יהיה בהם אוב או ידעני, מות יומתו – באבן ירגמו אתם, דמיהם בם:

And a man or a woman if they shall have in them a medium (ov) or a favorable spirit, they shall certainly be put to death – with stones they shall be pelted, their blood-guilt is upon them.

Deuteronomy 18:9-11

דברים פרק יח ט-יא 

(ט) כי אתה בא אל הארץ אשר ה’ אלהיך נתן לך, לא תלמד לעשות כתועבת הגוים ההם: (י) לא ימצא בך מעביר בנו ובתו באש, קסם קסמים מעונן ומנחש ומכשף: (יא) וחבר חבר ושאל אוב וידעני ודרש אל המתים:

(9)When you come to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to do as the abominations of those nations.  (10)There shall not be found among you one passing his son or daughter through fire, an augurer of augury, a hidden sorcerer, a diviner, or an enchanter, (11)or a tier of (magical) tying-knots, a seeker of ghosts (sho’el ov) or favorable spirits, or an inquirer of the dead.

(Some of the above translations are based of Everett Fox’s translation of the Torah.)

1)  How is the practice the 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

 Leviticus Rabba 26:7 

ויקרא רבה (וילנא) פרשה כו ז

וישבע לה שאול בה’ – למה שאול דומה באותה שעה? אמר ר’ לוי: משל לאשה שהיתה אצל אוהבה, ונשבעת בחיי בעלה. כך שאול שואל באוב וידעוני, ואומר: “חי ה’ אם יקרך עון בדבר הזה!” (שמ”א כח י)

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 high-light 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.

Deuteronomy Rabba Parashat Va’etchanan

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.

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.

View the summary video here:


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