They Call Us Witches: The Not-A-Witch of Endor
(the scriptures follow the sermon text)
Author Gabriela Herstik once said, “Being a witch means living in this world consciously, powerfully, and unapologetically.”
Let us pray:
God whose ways are too wonderful for us to discern, whose presence in this wicked world shows up in unexpected places: open our eyes to see and ears to hear your words in the ancient sacred words and your works in the ways ordinary and extraordinary people walk the way of life and death. Amen.
They Call Us Witches
The beginning of October marks the rapid advance towards spooky season and Halloween horror and perhaps the greatest terror known to earth-kind — pumpkin spice anything. Halloween and Thanksgiving decorations have been out since the Back To School sales and Christmas decorations are coming out of the closet though, in some places they and all their sparkle have been out since the Fourth of July – if indeed they ever were in the holiday closet.
The days are coming when protestant churches with too much evangelical in them begin puffing out their chests about “Hallelujah Night” as a “holy” alternative to All Hallows Eve, while churches that preserve the old ways try to teach the general public Church History and Liturgics to no avail. And, the reformed churches persist in their Reformation while some of them ignore the real world horror story of Luther’s antisemitism and call for violence against Jewish people and synagogues and Jewish sacred literature and even the Torah herself.
Yet some others of us will join with La Raza in consecrating our ofrenda, our altars, on which we remember and commemorate the holy dead while we celebrate Dia de los Muertos. We are not afraid of ghosts and goblins because the power of the Holy Ghost incarnate in Jesus of Mary, the power of life over death, is the entire point of this fall triduum, this trinity of holy days, where we celebrate the saints who crowd around us — not as ghosts – but as ancestors in so great a cloud of witnesses, the souls of all the dearly departed who have gone to join them yet remain connected to those whose inner ears and inner eyes and hearts are open to what lies beyond the veil of death.
There are however, things that do go bump in the night, and in the daytime and that stalk at high noon that some of us have learned to fear. Monsters in human flesh that ravage, destroy and desecrate human lives: beating and bloodying children, battering and savaging domestic partners, ravaging the intimate flesh of women, children, trans and non-binary persons and even men folk. Those are the monsters who no cross, wooden stake of hawthorn or ash, silver bullet, holy water or garlic will repel. Those monsters walk among us. And like zombies, they just keep on coming. Their wicked weapons: toxic masculinity, hetero-patriarchy, trans exclusive radical feminism, forced pregnancy and, the demonization of women, our bodies and, our power. Women are magic, our bodies possessing bloody mysteries that have terrified and been turned against us to terrorize, by men and their willing women acolytes for millennia.
One of the tools of monstrous men is to label women with power, powers real and imagined, as witches. If your Bible is the sort that has headers in it (and I highly recommend against them), it might well tell you that there was a witch in Endor; the passage recently brought to my mind by a post-mortem publication of legendary Jewish feminist biblical scholar Tikvah Frymer-Kensky I was privileged to endorse. Men have called feminists witches for a long time. And if some of them had their way, women who rejected their biblical interpretations and offered our own would be burned at the stake with the rest of them.
Now never mind that nowhere in the story is the ghost-master called a witch nor does she practice witchcraft but, she has power, power men do not have. She has the power to reach beyond the veil of death — where our tradition tells us only Jesus has the power to go and return of his own free will — and pull back an unwilling soul from the other side. She is, in the language of her people, a ghost-master. Ghosts do not possess her or control her; she controls them. Some have labeled her a “medium,” using the power of translation to minimize her power and make her like so many like their women, a passive receptacle. Robert Alter calls her a “ghost wife.” See what he did there. By marrying her to the ghost he eliminates her mastery and, perhaps intentionally, introduces the specter of sexual congress. Women who would be accused of the same would be burned as witches pointing to this text and others in equally bad translations. Translation matters.
Thus a word about the words through which the word of God is heard: this woman who is not a witch is a ba‘alat – a ghost “lord”; the same title as the Canaanite god Ba‘al, which title was transferred to our God but rebuked through Hosea (God is not interested in sharing). This ghost-master is a grammatically feminine ba‘al, a female ba‘al, a ba‘alat but –not a Klingon weapon of war; she is a woman of mastery and lordship. What then shall we call her? “Ghost-lady” doesn’t work because “ladies” don’t have the same status as “lords” — see how patriarchy works? – and don’t get me started on the difference between “mistress” and “master.” Hebrew holds her gender identity and supernatural mastery together in a single word that cannot be replicated in English. We need all of these words: a woman who is a master of ghosts.
A woman whose title was shared by the gods. This is the woman who flexed upon request. When the ghost-master opens the veil between life and death, she sees “gods rising from the earth.” Now, those know some Hebrew understand that the same word can be “God” singular capital G, the ultimate OG and, “gods” plural lowercase g; but the plural verb makes it clear she sees more than one divine being rising up from the earth going about their business to which we are not privy unless we have a woman with power to open the veil on our behalf and translate the vision.
Now if you are asking: who are those gods and what are they doing in our scriptures and why isn’t mine translated like that, come and see. Come to Brite Divinity School and study with me. Even if you don’t take Hebrew, you’ll learn enough to get you started in learning how to interpret the Scriptures in their own context before talking about what they might mean in ours.
This ghost master, she shakes Samuel like an earthquake from his slumber in Sheol (signified by the context in which the first verb is used) and she drags him forcibly into the realm of the living, (indicated by the causative force of the second). Samuel was shaken not stirred. Lastly, the robe that Samuel wears is only worn by two kinds of people, priestly and princely – including princesses. Samuel has worn a priestly robe since his mama began making him one for her pilgrimages to see the child she gave into the care of the priest Eli for the service of God as soon as he was weaned, to fulfill her vow.
“Never put your faith in a prince. When you require a miracle, trust in a witch.” (The words of author Catherynne M. Valente.) The woman God-forsaken Saul sought out in his desperation for a divine word was not a witch but a woman whose very identity had been rendered illegal – by him! Trans folk and gay folk and, in some places, biracial folk like Trevor Noah who was born a crime, know something about that.
Yet the men and women who outlaw abortion always find a way to procure abortion services for their mistresses and daughters; the service providers they seek must wonder like this woman, if they are being set up. Are you asking me to incriminate myself so you can take away what little remains of my life and livelihood? And Saul replies, “On God. Fear not.” And she works her ghost master work and pulls a cranky Samuel from his rest.
Saul tells his sad story and Samuel says, “If only you had complied.” Never mind there were different rules for different folk like David, who did everything Saul did and more and, that Saul confessed his sin and begged for forgiveness (1 Samuel 15:24-25) but, unlike David, his repentance was not received. Now that is a horror story.
Favor ain’t fair. And I don’t mean that in the way that so many people say it in church. For the story of Saul’s abandonment by God has never been well and truly told in my opinion. We are all taught to read like David but everybody ain’t David and why would you want to be that murdering, raping, robbing, self-absorbed, repeat offender with a diseased and drippy… read Psalm 38 where he complains in the same breath about the oozing sores on his loins and why his lovers don’t want him no more. I wouldn’t be David if you paid me all the gold Delilah rode off into the sunset with.
And, in case you missed it, while the ghost-master is working her work, David is thugging it out with the Philistines against Israel. David your hitta is raiding and decimating noncombatant villages in Israel to prove to his Philistine master that he is a goon who will do anything for money as the scripture (1 Samuel 27:9) says, “leaving neither woman nor child alive.” Yet we are trained to read with David, selectively, but some of us are Saul.
Some of us are crying out to a God who has abandoned us, turn their back and shut the mouth of prophets of every gender configuration and dried up our dreams. And when we seek those outside the structures of organized religion to midwife us through our season of brokenness and desperation and the horror of the silence of God, they call it witchcraft.
“But the Bible says…” You better run whenever you hear those words. Run like the walking dead are coming after you. Whenever someone tries to take 1300 years of literature written by different people in different periods for different purposes, edited in separate bundles then tied together in different canons of scripture so that not even we who are worshiping together in this room have the same number of biblical books in our scriptural tables of contents, and starts tal’mbout “the Bible says…” You better run from that biblically illiterate a-contextual theology like it was witchcraft.
What Deuteronomy (18:10–12) actually says that there should be no one among the ancient Israelites who inquires of ghosts or is possessed by spirits. The ghost-master of Endor does not fall into either of those categories. She does not ask a ghost or even Samuel a mumbling word. She doesn’t have to ask because she is Janet Jackson in control. She doesn’t have a familiar spirit. She has the power to call up anyone upon request — apparently a power not even imagined by the author of Deuteronomy. If anyone has violated that Torah statute, it is Saul. But what no scripture ever says is that her power is not real or that her power comes from anywhere, anyone or anything outside of God. But biblical literalists are rarely biblically literate or even, actually literal.
The ghost-master of Endor is God’s daughter created in their holy and divine image with the power she was born with or, came into upon her maturity. And Samuel, who has plenty else to say, has no word of rebuke for her. In fact it was not God who commanded that she and others like her – if indeed there was even anyone who was her peer – should be driven out of business and underground.
What Deuteronomy does say is that those related spiritual practices were not native to Israel – about whom nothing can be said to be native in this early stage of their formation; but of course Deuteronomy is a retrospective with a theological ax to grind against the Canaanites and their practices to justify the occupation and settlement of their land. It is a rationale for their colonization; the same rationale was given for the colonization and occupation of the land on which we stand and sit and pray – and, for the colonization and occupation of Africa and Asia, Central and South America and, the Caribbean. Question the motivation behind that story, even if and especially since, it is in what is colloquially called “the Bible.”
Who benefits? Why was the story told and passed on? Where is God in this story? What are we to learn from it? How is it scripture apart from the facts of its writing and preservation? For some these are scary questions. Yet whenever questions about the words through which the word of God is heard are disallowed, there is the potential for abuse and violence. Whenever difference in interpretation is demonized, there is sin and evil the likes of which cannot be found in any Harry Potter movie or novel.
The torah of the woman who walks between worlds and sees far beyond the veil is that the world is wider and stranger than we know or than with which many may feel comfortable. The power of God is wider than this world and its divisions and, bigger than its labels and boxes and closets. The love of God is greater than all of that and all of us. Love is stronger than death.
The love of God is so farseeing and far-reaching that it partnered with a woman many would have called a witch for her story of impregnation by a ghost. When Jesus reached through the veil between life and death and brought back children to their parents, some called him a magician. Some wanted his disciples to teach them his magic.
If God is who we say God is, the power of this woman and others like her is no threat. It is those who call women witches while chopping kindling we ought to be concerned about, not the root-workers and conjure-women in some of our families and family trees. For if the truth be told they saved many of our ancestors and some of us from death and from carrying the babies of their enslaving rapists with their knowledge of roots and herbs and the spirit world the missionaries called witchcraft. If you don’t have one, get yourself a witchy woman.
As the story draws to a close, this woman whose life Saul holds in his hands is the only one to show him kindness or compassion. She invites him into her home and settled him on her bed; she kills the fatted calf she has been raising and bakes him her homemade bread. She looks suspiciously like the parent of the prodigal progeny whom we were all taught to read as God. She looks like Mama God of the Gospel of Luke kneading and baking the bread that is the communion of heaven. She looks like Love in action. But some will only ever seen a witch no matter what the text actually says.
As this month draws to a close, some of us will celebrate the power of the God of life and love to hold open the veil between life and death for a stitch in time that we might commune with those who have gone on. This annual cycle, with its roots in traditions far older than Christianity, bears witness to the God of all space and time folded into the holy darkness of a virgin’s womb, born through blood and water, incarnate in human flesh and one day, tearing asunder for all time that veil that separates us from those we love and have gone on. One day all God’s children, those who cried witch and those who were called witches, shall gather together on that great getting up morning. One day men will no longer be afraid of women and our power. One day women will no longer have to fear men and the power they exert over us and those that don’t quite fit in the binary categories inscribed by ancient languages. One day we all shall be free. Amen.
1 Samuel 28:3-7, 11-15 (translated by the Reverend Wil Gafney, PhD)
1 Samuel 28:3 Now Samuel died and all Israel mourned him and in Ramah, buried him, in his city. Also, Saul had forced out those possessed by ghosts and those with familiar spirits from the land. 4Now the Philistines mustered and came and camped at Shunem; then Saul mustered all Israel and they camped at Gilboa. 5And when Saul saw the camp of the Philistines, he became afraid and his heart beat rapidly. 6So Saul (the seeker) sought to hear from the Holy One of Old; the Holy One did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets, women or men.
7Now Saul said to his slaves, “Seek for me a woman who is a ghost-master, so that I may go to her and inquire through her.” His slaves said to him, “Look! There is a woman who is a ghost-master at Endor.”
11And the woman said to Saul, “Whom shall I bring up for you?” He answered, “Samuel bring up for me.” 12When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice and the woman said to Saul, “Why have you deceived me, as you are Saul?” 13The king said to her, “Fear not; now, what do you see?” The woman said to Saul, “I see gods ascending from the earth.” 14He said to her, “What is his appearance?” She said, “An old man is ascending and he is wrapped in a [priestly] robe.” Thus Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his nose to the ground, and prostrated himself. 15Then Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you shaken me [awake] and dragged me up?” And Saul answered, “I am so greatly distressed; the Philistines are warring against me and God has turned away from me and no longer answers me, not even by the hand of prophets – women or men – or in dreams. So I have called you to tell me what I am to do.”
Luke 15:11-24 (translated by the Reverend Jeremy Williams, PhD)
Luke 15:11 (Jesus) said: “There was a person who had two children. 12The younger of the two said to the father: ‘Father! Give me the portion of the property that belongs to me.’ So, he divided his life’s work between them. 13After not many days, the younger child gathered all (of his things) and went away from home to a distant land. There, he squandered his property living dangerously. 14After he consumed all (of his things), there was a great famine through that land, and he began to be in need. 15He went and cleaved to one of the citizens of that land, and he sent him into his field to feed the pigs. 16He was lusting to fill his stomach with the carob pods that the pigs were eating, and no one gave him anything. 17Upon coming into himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s employees have more than enough bread, but I am dying here in a famine! 18Rising, I will go to my father, and I will say to him “Father! I have erred in regard to heaven and before you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your employees.”’ 20Rising, he went to his own father.
His father saw him while he was still coming from far away. He felt compassion and ran and fell upon his neck and kissed him. 21The child said to him, ‘Father! I have erred in regard to heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your child.’ 22But the father said to his enslaved people, “Hurry, bring out the best robe and dress him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. 23Bring the fatted calf, barbecue it. Let us eat and party, 24because this one, my child, was a corpse and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to party.