In his New Translation of the dramatic story of King Saul's night journey to the Witch of Endor, the Prophet Joseph Smith adds telling detail that includes insight into the cleverness of the witch, the deftness of her questions, and her neurological state--a mind all but out of control--drama indeed! The taut dialogue between Saul and the witch, punctuated by a sharp scream, is worthy of Sophocles.
After cleverly denying her practice until Saul promises his protection (a detail missing in our Bibles but present in the New Translation), the witch asks Saul whose "words" (The words of whom? she asks in her routine way) she is to bring up, and Saul specifically demands the words of Samuel. The phrase words of, in the New Translation, fits the notion of the witch as oracle or mouthpiece: here is a divination by means of words. The idea of divining by words, of being mouthpiece for a spirit, is clearly set forth in the supernal masterwork of Johannes Pedersen, Israel: Its Life and Culture (1926).
Let's begin with the Prophet's New Translation of 1 Samuel 28: 9-15, as found in Old Testament Manuscript 2 (additions to the text of the King James Version appear in italics): And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die also, who hath not a familiar spirit?
And Saul sware unto her by the Lord, saying, As the Lord liveth, there [the JST in the LDS Bible has then, possibly a misreading of there by modern transcribers of Manuscript 2] shall no punishment happen to thee for this thing.
Then said the woman, The words of whom shall I bring up unto thee? And he said, Bring me up the words of Samuel.
And when the woman saw the words of Samuel, she cried with a loud voice; and the woman spake to Saul, saying, Why hast thou deceived me? for thou art Saul.
And the king said unto her, Be not afraid: for what sawest thou?
And the woman said unto Saul, I saw the words of Samuel [omit KJV gods, Hebrew elohim] ascending out of the earth. And she said, I saw Samuel also.
And he said unto her, What form is he of? And she said, I saw an old man coming [omit: cometh] up; [omit: and he is] covered with a mantle. And Saul perceived that it was Samuel, and he stooped [omit: with] his face to the ground, and bowed himself.
And these are the words of Samuel unto Saul [And Samuel said to Saul], Why hast thou disquieted me, to bring me up? And Saul answered, I am sore distressed.
The Prophet's changes to the story, strikingly odd, startle the reader.
But compare the wording of the New Translation to the comments of Johannes Pedersen on divination practices in Ancient Israel, based on his close reading of the Hebrew Bible.
"Saul," says Pedersen, "was left without counsel and in distress, being without a word from God, he went as a last resort" to Endor, Israel, 4.481.
Again: "We continually meet with the two terms 'obh and yidh'oni in conjunction (Lev. 19, 31; 20,6.27; 2 Kngs 21,6; 23, 24 et al.). They denote departed souls who speak to the living. Their whispered voices can be heard from the ground (Isa. 29:4) [a Book of Mormon prophecy here], but most frequently they speak through a man or woman who understands how to make them active. This spirit is said to be in the man or woman in question (Lev. 20:27). that means that it enters the soul and unites with it. Therefore the person through whose mouth the departed speaks can also be called 'obh and yidh'oni (II Kings 23:24)," words used too about all dealings with the dead," Johannes Pedersen, Israel, 4.482, cited by P. Kyle McCarter (ed), 1 Samuel, Anchor Bible 8 (1980), 420 (bold added). Professor McCarter leaves off quoting Pedersen here, but note what more is to be found in that encyclopaedic work:
"People 'enquire of' or 'consult' the departed spirits in the same way as they consult Yahweh in the oracle (Lev. 19, 31; Deut. 18, 11). The behaviour of those who bring up the dead is very like that of the prophets; a divine voice speaks in the souls, only it is not that of Yahweh," Israel, 4.482.
After all, does not Isaiah say that spirits "whisper and mutter"? and "peep," 4.483?
Even more striking about the story, as found in the New Translation, is the statement of the witch: "I saw the words of Samuel ascending from the earth." What is that all about? How can heard words be seen? But this expression of the witch is the most authentic touch of all. The mixing or blending of sensory perception, often called synaesthesia, rightly belongs to the mantic world. Just as some musicians "see" colors unfold in musical note and phrase, so does the witch in her trance see what properly belongs to hearing. The state of trance is colored in the synaesthetic mode of experience: "Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear'd,/Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone" (Keats).
The whole story is despairingly unearthly, punctuated, as it is, by screams and the fourfold repetition of the question Why? But in the end--while Why? hangs in the darkness--no magic persists. Fighting against time, the witch bustles a hasty meal for Saul and his companions: "they ate, rose up, went," the very antithesis of Caesar's veni, vidi, vici: I came; I saw; I conquered. Spent Saul goes out into the darkness, not raging, but as lifeless automaton into night's abandon. And the witch qua witch vanishes in swift night with only Saul's pledge to cling to--all her magic come to term--abandoned without pay and minus her fatted calf. Her ultimate in art reflects no technique of magic, but the mere details, ironically elaborated, of domestic ritual. Mistress of Spirits no longer, she is transformed into a cook.
What happened? The Egyptians have a word for it: pn', a word written with the hieroglyph of the capsized boat. Pn' hk3w thus signifies to "counter" or to "capsize magic," and that's what we find in 1 Samuel 28. Capsized Saul and the Mistress of Spirits devolve, deflated, into cringing objects of fear, the flotsam of a fleeting pretence.
The phrase the words of highlight the fact that she is an oracle, a medium, which fits the Ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern context, cf. J. P. Brown (1981), "The Mediterranean Seer and Shamanism," ZAW 93: 374-400.
Interpretation: The best words on the convoluted doctrinal Nachleben (afterlife--a pun) of the story, as found in Jewish commentary, can be found in the Soncino Bible edition of Samuel, note 12. when the woman saw Samuel., S. Goldman (ed) Samuel, 1951.
Latter-day Saint commentary on 1 Samuel 28 includes: President Charles W. Penrose, "The Witch of Endor," Improvement Era 1898; Elders' Journal 4:225-9 (1902); LDS Bible Dictionary, "Samuel"; and footnote 14a for 1 Sam. 28 in the Latter-day Saint edition of the Holy Bible. President Penrose took a firm stand against any truth behind the story; the footnotes of the LDS Bible follow his lead; while the LDS Bible Dictionary considers the possibility that if Samuel appeared, the appearance was of his own volition, that is, "despite and not because of" the conjuring. The Latter-day Saint edition of the Bible does not, however, speak to the changes in the New Translation. These have been noted briefly in print only by BYU Professor Monte S. Nyman.