Q&A: What is the Correct Number of Years in 1 Samuel 13:1?

What is the Correct Number of Years in 1 Samuel 13:1?

Question

I looked at several translations of the Old Testament regarding 1 Samuel 13:1. There are two sets of numbers representing a number of years. The number of years appears different in many of them when looking at the first set of number of years - 30 in the NIV and NLT, and 1 year in the ESV and NKJV. The second number of years has a similar distortion of numbers. What is going on?

Answer

1 Samuel 13:1 (NIV) Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty- two years.

1 Samuel 13:1 (NKJV) Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel.

The Hebrew text does not include the number "thirty" or "forty." These have been supplied by the translators. The Hebrew actually reads, "Saul was [lit. 'son of a year'] when he became king, and he reigned over Israel [lit. 'and two'] years." These years cannot be speaking about Saul's physical age.

The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible states:

One possibility is that there was a year between Saul's anointing (when he was "changed into a different person"; see 10:6 - Saul was not regenerated, but rather was temporarily changed from his former self in order that the signs could be fulfilled) and his confirmation as king (11:15-13:1). The two years then may then refer to the length of Saul's reign up to his definitive rejection by God in chapter 15 (see especially vv. 23 and 29). It is possible that the "and" before "two" indicated that another number (such as twenty) has been lost through textual transmission. After chapter 15, Saul remained on the throne but was no longer the rightful king in God's eyes. As to the actual length of Saul's reign, the only biblical statement comes in at Acts 13:21. There however the 40 years may well refer to the administrations of Samuel and Saul (just as "450 years" in Acts 13:20 seems to refer to the time in Egypt, the wilderness wandering and at least the start of the conquest of Canaan [vv. 17-19] or, according to another textual tradition to the period of judges up to, but not including Samuel).

The Word Biblical Commentary states:

1.a. The number has dropped out. A few LXX MSS, have thirty, though this seems to be a secondary calculation (cf. 2 Sam 5:4). Since Jonathan was old enough to have 1,000 troops under his command in v 2, and since Saul had a grandson before his death (2 Sam 4:4), an age of forty or more is plausible. The whole verse is lacking in most LXX MSS.

1.b. Josephus (Ant. 6.378; but in 10.143 he has twenty) and Acts 13:21 read forty, and modern commentators have suggested a wide range of numbers. The difficulties with the number two involve its peculiar spelling (see Driver Driver, S. R. Notes on the Hebrew Text and the Topography of the Books of Samuel) and whether it allows enough time for the various events that are reported about Saul in the Bible to take place. Noth argues that the number two was appropriate both for the deuteronomistic historians chronology and for the historicalcircumstances. See History of Israel, 176-78.

The UBS Handbook states:
This verse follows the standard formula for introducing kings of Israel (and later also of Judah) in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. But this verse contains one of the most difficult textual problems in the book of 1 Samuel, if not of the whole Bible. ...(Table omitted).

The MT literally says Saul was a son of a year in his reigning and two years he reigned over Israel. Obviously there are two errors in the Hebrew text as we have it today: (1) Saul was not one year old when he became king, and (2) he reigned more than two years. Interpreters and translators have followed many solutions to this textual problem:

(a) Some translations, following the example of the Septuagint, omit the entire verse (so TEV, FRCL, and ITCL).

(b) Some translate the verse but leave blank spaces as in RSV (so also NRSV, NAB, Osty, and BP).

(c) Others leave only the first number blank. Compare TOB. Saul was years old when he became king and he ruled two years over Israel. TOB, however, includes a note saying that two years is certainly not correct. NJPS, Fox, EB, BRCL, and GECL follow the same solution as TOB.

(d) Some follow the first-century Jewish historian Josephus and Acts 13:21, and claim that Saul ruled for (about) forty years. Compare NIV Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years. The thirty years is based on a few late Septuagint manuscripts.

(e) REB follows the Greek manuscripts, which say that Saul began to reign when he was thirty, and then conjectures that the number of years he ruled was twenty-two: Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for twenty-two years.

(f) NBE leaves the first number blank, stating in a note that the original lacks the number. But then NBE says that Saul reigned for twenty-two years; however, it has no note indicating that the number twenty-two is a guess.

Solution (d) above may seem the best at first glance, but a major problem with this is that early in his rule Saul already has a grown son able to command troops (see verse 2). Therefore Saul must have been older than thirty when he became king.

CTAT gives an {A} rating to the MT. As for the first number, CTAT suggests that the author left a blank space, not knowing the exact age of Saul when he began to rule. And as for the second number, CTAT defends the number two, suggesting that Saul reigned two years with Gods blessing, that is, he reigned two years before David was anointed (see 16:13). If translators follow the recommendation of CTAT, it may be helpful to indicate in a note the possible sense of the words that Saul reigned over Israel for two years.

References

Klein, R. W. Word Biblical Commentary: 1 Samuel (122). Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002.

Omanson, R. L., & Ellington, J. A. Handbook on the First Book of Samuel, UBS Handbook Series (252-253). New York: United Bible Societies, 2001

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).