New Perspective Old Testament

Book cover illustration, Zoe Chante I, 1993 (tempera on wood), Hugo, Marie (Contemporary Artist) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images

So, who was the Medium at Endor, and why might that matter?

Those familiar with the Star Wars films might be forgiven for guessing she’s a bit player from the forest moon inhabited by the Ewoks, but she’s actually a figure from the Bible — one that Dr. Lynn Winkels ’81 Japinga of the religion faculty is hoping to rescue from obscurity and misunderstanding.

A new book by Japinga explores the stories of more than 40 women featured in the Old Testament, from those well-known like Eve and Ruth, to others not even named, like the medium. Preaching the Women of the Old Testament, published earlier this year by Westminster John Knox Press of Louisville, Kentucky, is designed as a resource for pastors who want to know more about the many women of the Old Testament and how better to incorporate them into their sermons, but is also accessible to the layperson seeking new insight into individuals who Japinga notes haven’t always been fully or fairly considered.

Some of the stories, like the familiar tale of Ruth and her devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi in the Book of Ruth, are uplifting. Others, like Jephthath’s sacrifice of his daughter in Judges 11, aren’t.

“The preacher who chooses to explore these texts faces some significant challenges,” said Japinga, a professor of religion at Hope who is also an ordained minister in the Reformed Church of America and a specialist in the history of American religion and feminist theology.

“First, people know very little about women in the Old Testament, and what they think they know is often wrong. The preacher often needs to deconstruct what people think they know about the text, particularly the stories about Eve, Bathsheba, Delilah and Jezebel,” she said. “Second, preachers and commentators throughout history and down to today have read their own assumptions (and, often, their own prejudices) into the text.”

Each of the women receives a chapter, which begins by sharing where in the Bible her story is found and whether or not it’s included in the lectionary that provides a guide for readings to use in preaching. Japinga then presents a synopsis of the story, reflecting also on previous commentary about it, and concludes by suggesting possible sermon themes.

Some of the stories, like the familiar tale of Ruth and her devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi, in the Book of Ruth, are uplifting. Others, like Jephthath’s sacrifice of his daughter in Judges 11, aren’t.

“The biblical stories function as a mirror to say something true about human experience, both in the ancient world and in the 21st century,” Japinga said. “They can be horrifying and depressing. People dominate, hurt and abuse each other, both then and now. The stories also show people being courageous and graceful and resisting evil.”

Japinga outlines the story of the Medium of Endor — named simply for the village in which she lived in Lower Galilee in ancient Israel — as an example of the latter. As depicted in 1 Samuel 28, the medium was capable of summoning spirits, and brought the deceased prophet Samuel at the request of Israel’s King Saul, who sought advice for a battle with the Philistines the next day. God had stopped communicating with Saul, and Samuel’s angry spirit confirmed that Saul had fallen from God’s favor and would die in the fight. Saul was distraught and hadn’t eaten all day, and the woman, seeing that he was terrified, insisted that he rest while she fixed a meal for him and his servants.

The story isn’t in the lectionary, and commentators, Japinga said, have frequently dismissed the medium “as either sinful or inconsequential” — or even suggested that her power came from demons or Satan.

The biblical text, Japinga said, doesn’t criticize the medium at all. Instead, she said, the woman modeled compassion and might be interpreted as a source of grace, even when God seems absent.

“Saul received genuine compassion and hospitality and communion from an unlikely source,” Japinga said. “The woman saw his exhaustion and confusion and offered understanding, sympathy and food. She chose to be gracious and caring, not because she was commanded to do so, but because she saw Saul’s pain and responded to it. God is mostly absent from the story, even though Saul desperately sought God’s advice and approval. But perhaps God was present in this ‘last supper’ between the two of them.”

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