Q&A: Which Version of King Saul's Death is Correct?

Which Version of King Saul's Death is Correct?

Question

Which version of King Saul's death, if any, do we believe in the Bible?

Answer

Every person looking at the Scripture has a presupposition. It is impossible to look at the Scripture with a tabula rasa (clean slate) approach. One thing to keep in check is that a Christian should always read the Bible with the presupposition that it is true. The skeptic will normally read the Bible with the presupposition that it has errors and thus questions the Bible when it comes upon such texts as we have below. This is indeed unfortunate for them, for only the truth will set them free (John 8:32). So, what is the truth here?

To some people the Bible speaks of three conflicting versions of Saul's death. However, this result from a misreading and/or misapplication of certain portions of Scripture, the first which reads:

2 Samuel 21:12 he went and took the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan from the citizens of Jabesh Gilead. (They had taken them secretly from the public square at Beth Shan, where the Philistines had hung them after they struck Saul down on Gilboa NIV84)
Note that here it appears as if the biblical text says Saul was killed by the Philistines. But below it states that Saul killed himself.

1 Samuel 31:4 Saul said to his armor-bearer, "Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me." But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it.
Then we must not forget about 2 Samuel 1:18-20, where an Amalekite states that he killed Saul:

2 Samuel 1:6-10 "I happened to be on Mount Gilboa," the young man said, "and there was Saul, leaning on his spear, with the chariots and riders almost upon him. When he turned around and saw me, he called out to me, and I said, 'What can I do?' "He asked me, 'Who are you?' " 'An Amalekite,' I answered. "Then he said to me, 'Stand over me and kill me! I am in the throes of death, but I'm still alive.' "So I stood over him and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive. And I took the crown that was on his head and the band on his arm and have brought them here to my lord."

So, did Saul die by the hand of the Philistines, by suicide, or by an Amalekite?

Let's look at 2 Samuel first. It seems to depict Saul as having been killed by the Philistines. However, to understand the context of 2 Samuel 21:12, we must look back to 1 Samuel 31, which focuses on the fact that the Israelites and the Philistines were engaged in battle against one another. In actuality, the battle was not going well for Israel (1 Sam 31:1). Their army was in retreat and even King Saul himself was in severe trouble (1 Sam 31:2-3); the Philistines had killed his sons Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malki-Shua, and Saul himself was critically wounded. Saul, knowing he was going to die and not desiring to fall into the hands of the enemy, asked his armour-bearer to kill him (1 Sam 31:4). But his armour-bearer was afraid and thus Saul fell upon his own sword (1 Sam 31:4-6). Then Saul's armour-bearer committed suicide.

Now, if Saul committed suicide, how can the biblical text say that the Philistines killed Saul? Considering the context that: (1) Israel was losing the battle to the Philistines, (2) Saul's sons had been killed by the Philistines, (3) Israel was in retreat from the Philistines, (4) Saul was critically wounded by the Philistines and thus would not have been able to escape and would have died, and (5) the battle was still going when Saul committed suicide, it would be proper to say that Saul fell in battle with the Philistines.

This is not unusual. In today's journalism we use a similar type of language. When U.S. soldiers die in combat, a common report will be that so-and-so died in the war. But the parent of the soldier or someone more acquainted with the situation might say that he killed himself before being captured by the enemy to avoid torture. In many cases we do not know how a soldier even dies in war, such as in the cases of some special force's types where it is just reported that they "died in combat" or "in the line of duty" with no further information as to where and by whom ever given to even the grieving family. Others are mistakenly or accidentally killed by their own troops; "friendly fire." But it is still reported that they "died in combat."

Please notice how careful the biblical text is when it says "the Philistines" killed Saul in Gilboa (2 Sam. 21:12, ASV). Note that the text does not say that Saul died at the hands of "a" Philistine. In other words, Saul died in a battle with the Philistines (plural). This is merely a way of stating that Saul died in battle without explaining the exact nature of his death. Because it was in the battle with the Philistines that Saul found himself dying and committed suicide while the battle raged on, it may properly be reported that Saul died in battle with the Philistines. Keep in mind, if the battle had not taken place, or had he been rescued (from "the chariots and riders [being] almost upon him"), Saul would not have committed suicide. Note, 2 Samuel 21:12 states that Saul was "hung" but it does not say that is the way he died (1 Sam 31:8-13). The hanging was for display purposes.

But, what about the Amalekite's report? Here lies another answer - it was just "a report" (2 Sam 1:5). The Bible here is merely reporting a lie told by an Amalekite and the resulting judgment (2 Sam 1:14-16). Arriving with Saul's crown and bracelet in hand and presenting them before David, the Amalekite likely expected a reward and/or possible position under the new king. However, in light of the previous chapter, it must be concluded that the Amalekite was lying in order to gain the praise of David and others. So from this Amalekite's report, we must ask:

  • 1. Why did Saul have to repeat himself as he had already told his armour-bearer what he desired to be done (1 Sam. 31:4)

  • 2. If Saul was "leaning on his spear, with the chariots and riders almost upon him," why didn't the Amalekite just volunteer to do the job instead of Saul having to restate it. Wasn't the situation obvious?

  • 3. Since the armour-bearer died after Saul did, why didn't he protect Saul from the Amalekite as he was sworn to do?

  • 4. Why didn't the Amalekite even mention the armour-bearer? (compare 1 Sam. 31:4 with 2 Sam. 1).

  • 5. If "the chariots and riders" (2 Sam. 1:6-10) were almost upon Saul, then they must have almost been upon the Amalekite as well. Yet, the Amalekite was able to escape after allegedly killing Saul, but Saul was not able to escape before being slain?

  • 6. If it was possible for the Amalekite to escape, why didn't the armour-bearer at least suggest the idea of escaping to Saul? Or why didn't the Amalekite help Saul escape?
The jury is out; the Amalekite's story has more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese. Thus, like a police detective, we can piece together what happened: Saul, after being wounded by the Philistines, killed himself. His armour-bearer also committed suicide. Then the Amalekite happened by, recognized Saul, took his crown and bracelet, and supposing to make the most of his good fortune, he then escaped from the battle and made his way to David in Ziklag and presented his story. His supposed good fortune, however, turned into his own death warrant.

We must note that some lies are included in the Biblical record. For example, Satan's lie to Eve in Genesis 3:4 is without immediate reference to its false nature - unless it is compared to the Genesis 2 account to understand the text more fully. Another example is the lie of the older prophet in 1 Kings 13:18. But this does not mean that the lies are truth; it is merely true that a lie was told and thus recorded. The Bible does not hide the fact that people and even angels lie. But the Bible does say that God cannot lie (Num. 23:19; 1 Sam 15:29; Psa. 92:15; Mal. 3:6; Rom. 3:4; Tit. 1:12; Heb. 6:18; Jam. 1:17-18).

And so, while it is true that the Amalekite told the "story" as recorded in the Bible, it does not mean that it is necessarily the truth. It was with the other evidence that we had available and detective work that there is a reasonable and truthful explanation: Saul committed suicide while he was in battle with the Philistines.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).