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Don't give up the ghost

James Cary

On the eve of a battle, ancient generals have always looked for omens. It often involved unnecessary cruelty to animals, their entrails removed and examined purely out of curiosity. It always looks a bit pitiful because we know that superstition is, at best, nonsense. The appearance of a comet or a disembowelled sparrow doth not a victory portend. Few warrior kings look more wretched than Saul. Staring down the barrel of a defeat at the hands of the Philistines, he sought a medium so that he could find out what was in store for him. His men recommended a witch with excellent reviews in Endor. So that's where Saul went. Let's think about this. Saul, the King of Israel, is about to consult a witch, a crime punishable by death. Such is his desperation. What's even more pathetic is that he wants to talk with sadly departed Samuel, the prophet who's been wagging his finger at Saul for much of his life for disobeying the Lord at a key moment. One might think Saul has been treated a little harshly, but when you consider that Saul is the kind of guy who will consult a forbidden witch in order to talk to a prophet of the Lord, we can see that this is someone with poor judgment. We all know that superstition is nonsense, don't we? There's no way the Bible would show anyone communing with the dead, is there? It's hard to tell whether the Witch shrieked when the ghostly spirit of Samuel really did rise from the ground. We like to think it's because this trick didn't normally work. Samuel is really crotchety, wanting to know when he's been hauled up. He doesn't seem in the least bit surprised at what Saul has done. Saul, bold as you like, asks for advice on the Philistines. Samuel's not helping, but (if you don't want to know the result, look away now) does say that he'll be seeing Saul and his sons in Sheol tomorrow. It has to be one of the all time greatest scenes in the Old Testament. Partly comic, partly tragic, wholly bizarre, with shades of Game of Thrones. Why do we never tell that story? In decades of being a Christian, I've almost never heard it even mentioned in a sermon. The story as met the same fate as a number of other seemingly impossible incidents in that pop up in scripture, like the sun stopping in the sky for a whole day in Joshua 10. You don't often hear about the Sun being moved around again in 2 Kings 20 when Isaiah wants to shift a shadow. Our Easter services normally don't mention Matthew 27:52-53 when bodies rose up and of graves and ambled into Jerusalem. Then there's Balaam's talking donkey, not to mention the miracles of Jesus. We live in a culture which doesn't just use science, but worships it. Journalists hang on every press release churned out from research labs. Our GPs have become the new parish priests. And any acknowledgement of the miraculous or the divine is sneered at or patronised in the press or TV panel games. Do we really want to dig our heels in or would we rather laugh along with the cool kids at some of the quaint oddities of the Bible? Let's dig in. For a start, if you believe in transcendent God who made the world and everything in it, why wouldn't you believe that he could - and would - suspend the laws of physics to teach us a lesson and keep things interesting? There's no getting away from the fact that the Bible is chock full of miracles, signs and wonders which are not passed off as mysterious and mythical, but real. Balaam knew that donkeys didn't talk. That's why it was miraculous. That's why it's interesting. That's why it's in the Bible. To assume that there's no way it could have happened is to make a leap of faith into rationalism, which is every bit as circular in its logic as Christianity. As you'd expect, GK Chesterton put it rather neatly in his masterpiece Orthodoxy when he wrote 'If I say "a peasant saw a ghost," I am told, "But peasants are so credulous." If I ask, "Why credulous?" the only answer is that they see ghosts.' Did Saul see the ghost of Samuel? He certainly did. And we should retell these stories because they have power - not just because people wish they were true, but because they are.