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Bible Lexicons

Girdlestone's Synonyms of the Old Testament

Familiar Spirit

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The familiar spirit is Ob (אוב ), literally, 'a bottle' (see Job 32:19, where the word is used), and hence perhaps the hollow sound which might be produced by the wind or breath in an empty bottle or skin. The LXX renders the word ἐγγαστρίμυθος, ventriloquist; so that the process called Ob must probably have depended in some degree on the power of producing some peculiar sound which might represent the voice of the dead. this point is alluded to in Isaiah 8:19, where we read of 'them that have familiar spirits,' together with 'wizards that peep and that mutter' (lit. that chirp or squeak, see 10:14, and that utter a low sound or speak indistinctly, see 59:3). Also in Isaiah 29:4 we read, 'Thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper (or chirp) out of the dust.' The idea that the dead, if they could speak at all, would be represented as speaking out of the ground, is very old and very natural; see Genesis 4:10, 'The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.'

In one passage (2 Kings 21:6) the LXX renders the word by θελητής, by which was meant perhaps a person with a strong will who could act up on the feelings of others. If this were not a solitary instance, one might be inclined to connect Obwith the root Avah (אבה ), to win, and to class the dealings referred to with those which are now called animal magnetism, and possibly to introduce the ἐθελοθρησκεία or will-worship of the N.T into the same category. The word Obalso occurs in Leviticus 19:31; Leviticus 20:6; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:11; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Kings 23:24; 1 Chronicles 10:13; 2 Chronicles 33:6; and Isaiah 19:3.

The most interesting passage, however, is that in which 'the witch of Endor' is described (1 Samuel 28:3; 1 Samuel 28:7-9). We are first told that Saul had put away these 'familiar spirits' out of the land, then that he charged his servants to seek out a woman who dealt in this forbidden art. Accordingly, they find out for him a 'mistress of Ob,' and he visits her in disguise and asks her to divine to him by Ob, and to bring up that which he should speak of to her. The woman, under a promise of secrecy, is ready enough to gratify his wishes, and asks whom she shall raise up. Her business then was necromancy, the real or pretended dealing with the departed, the 'inquiring of the deed,' which is called necromancy in Deuteronomy 18:11. There is no indication from other parts of Scripture where Ob is referred to that there was usually any appearance; but generally a voice, which was supposed to be that of the departed person, was heard to proceed, as it were, from the ground, sometimes muttering indistinctly and sometimes 'peeping,' that is to say, piping or chirping like the th in shrill notes of a bird.

Saul says, 'Bring me up Samuel.' No sooner are the words uttered than, to her astonishment, the woman perceives Samuel. She screams with terror, and says to her visitor, 'Why hast thou deceived me? and thou art Saul.' There was no sham here. God had permitted the prophet to appear, perhaps clad in judicial robes of office, so that she said, 'I saw gods (or Judges 11:1-40) coming up from the earth.'

Did the woman really bring up Samuel? She professed afterwards that she had done so (verse 21), but the narrative rather implies that it was not so. Certainly there is no encouragement here for Spiritualism or Theosophy, especially when we remember that 'Saul died for his transgression, and also for asking counsel of a familiar spirit, instead of inquiring of the Lord' (1 Chronicles 10:13-14).

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Girdlestone, Robert Baker. Entry for 'Familiar Spirit'. Synonyms of the Old Testament.
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