Form of divination in which a person calls upon the dead to receive communication that clarifies knowledge. Ugaritic texts from the middle second millennium b.c. attest to a belief in calling ancestors, even demonstrating that a deceased ancestor could be referred to as a god. Archaeological evidence from tombs at Ugarit support the possibility that libations or drinks were poured out to the deceased. Although the evidence is sparse, it seems to indicate that necromancy made up a part of the ancient Near Eastern world.
Necromancy received an absolute ban in the Old Testament. Israel was not to consult "mediums" (Lev 19:31) or they would risk being cut off from the covenant community (Lev 20:6). Necromancers themselves should be put to death (Lev 20:27). Included under these statements were those who consulted ghosts or spirits or who sought oracles from the dead (Deut 18:11).
Although it is clear that these abhorrent practices came from their neighbors (Deut 18:9; Isa 19:3), it is less clear whether Israel ever embraced them in any way (see Psalm 106:28). Biblical evidence suggests that it was never eradicated. Why would the prophets mock such behavior if it did not exist (Isa 8:19-20)? The list of idolatrous practices and divinatory rites condemned by the prophets certainly included necromancy (Isa 56:9-57:13, ; Isa 57:6). Cutting the flesh when a person died (Jer 16:5) or certain burial practices (Eze 43:7-9), acts condemned by the prophets, may allude to Acts associated with necromancy.
Of course, one clear example of necromancy occurs in the biblical narrative: the story of Saul and the medium of Endor (1 Sam 28). Saul sought the Lord when the Philistines threatened at Shunem. He received no communication from Urim and Thummim, dreams, or prophets (v. 6). As a result, he turned to a woman known to Saul's court as a "medium." He disguised himself and went to her at Endor by night. Saul asked her to "bring up" Samuel, presumably from Sheol. When an "old man" comes up, she realizes that the disguised person is the king, Saul. Her description of the being from the dead as a "god" (elohiym [אֱלֹהִים]) gives an insight into her theology of the dead. The details about the visit give some insights into necromancy. It takes place at night, after fasting (v. 20), and through a medium, who seeks help from the dead. Samuel, the old man who came forth, gives the Lord's answer to Saul's dilemma, an answer proclaimed already in the prophecy to Saul in 1 Samuel 15. Within the borders of Israel, necromancy takes place. In fact, it is used to confirm God's will for Saul.
Vestiges of necromancy may be seen in other narrative passages. The "keeping" of a name for Absalom suggests association with the dead (2 Sam 18:18). Elisha's bones brought a man back to life (2 Kings 13:20-21). Manasseh's evil included consultation with mediums (2 Kings 21:6). Josiah's reform targeted all forms of abomination, including mediums (2 Kings 23:24).
In the New Testament, necromancy may be in mind when the populus believed that Jesus ministered in the power of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-16). Allusions to the descent of Jesus to the dead after crucifixion could be understood in this way, but probably should be interpreted otherwise (Eph 4:9-10; 1 Peter 3:18-19).
The prohibition against seeking mediums who would call upon the dead attempts to clarify the channels that God approves when communicating with humanity. No other source should take the place of God when a person seeks guidance. Mistaken allegiance could result. The first commandment is clear: you shall have no other gods before me.
G. Michael Hagan
See also Divination; Idol, Idolatry; Gods and Goddesses, Pagan
Bibliography. T. J. Lewis, Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit; R. de Vaux, Ancient Israel.