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How did King Saul die?


David playing his harp for King Saul.
Credit:Johannes van den Hoecke, 1630s/Wikipedia/Public Domain

One of the ways that skeptics like to discredit the Bible is by pointing to what they allege are discrepancies involving stories that seem to contradict each other.

One of the first things, I always do when confronting a contradiction is to ask the simple question, could all the different alternatives all be true.

This leads us to a discussion on how King Saul died. We have four Biblical passages that seem to provide contradictory stories about his death.

One says that King Saul killed himself by falling on his own sword, a second states that an Amalekite killed him, a third says the Philistines struck him down and a fourth that God killed Saul.

So I want to briefly discuss these four accounts and ask could all these different descriptions be true?

King Saul killed himself

In 1 Samuel 31:3, we read the first and most comprehensive account of how King Saul died, where we are told he was severely wounded by archers in a battle with the Philistines. If you notice the plural archers, it indicates he was hit multiple times by arrows.

This is why the Bible describes him as being critically injured. In ancient times, these types of wounds, unless they were superficial, ultimately led to infection and death. And to be hit multiple times was essentially a death sentence.

In this instance, King Saul asked his armor-bearer to kill him so that the Philistines would not be able to torment him before his death.

It also tells us that though still alive, Saul’s injuries were so severe, that he was unable to flee the battlefield.

The armor-bearer refused, and we are told that Saul leaned up and fell upon his own sword, leading his armor-bearer to do the same.

Since this is the first and most complete account of Saul’s death, I will use it as the base for the other three accounts.

An Amalekite killed King Saul

In the second account, we are told that an Amalekite came to David with both King Saul’s crown and bracelet and reported that he had killed King Saul after seeing him mortally wounded. The Amalekite described it as a mercy killing (2 Samuel 1:8-10).

Now, obviously, this contradicts the first story. But we need to ask ourselves can this also be true.

Yes, it can.

Is it obvious that the Amalekite had found King Saul’s crown on the battlefield, but is it possible that he concocted this story of killing Saul in hopes of getting a reward for having killed David’s enemy?

As a historical document, the Bible simply recorded what the man said, but this does not make what he said true.

I remember several years back, I was on a fan forum for our city’s football team. It was training camp, and one of the members was reporting that a new rookie receiver had an outstanding day and the vets better lookout.

The writer was viciously and personally attacked by another person, stating he was stupid and that he was wrong to suggest that this rookie would beat out the team’s veteran players.

I responded to the critic and said, the training camp reporter was just reporting what he saw. I then asked the critic if he had preferred that the training camp reporter lie and say the rookie receiver had a bad day and was no good?

I got no response.

All this training camp reporter did was describe what he saw.

In the case of the Amalekite, the Bible simply reported what he said, and to do otherwise, would have been an error.

The Philistines killed King Saul

Later, as David was burying the bones of King Saul, we are told that the Philistines struck down Saul (2 Samuel 21:12). Though, this seems to contradict the first story that Saul killed himself, can this account also be true.

Yes, it can, for a couple of reasons.

First, if Saul had not been mortally wounded, he obviously would have fled the battlefield and survived this attack.

Ultimately, it was the critical wounding, that led to his decision to commit suicide.

Secondly, the Hebrew word for struck down, nakaw, implies, multiple ideas that include being killed, being struck, wounded, and hit.

And most often it is used in the later sense of being hit.

The same Hebrew word is used in 2 Kings 13:18, when Elisha told King Joash to strike the ground with arrows. Though the king struck (nakaw) the ground three times, this did not mean he killed the earth, only that he struck it.

It is also used to describe how Aaron hit (nakaw) the Nile River with his rod (Exodus 7:20).

In 2 Samuel 24:10, we read that King David felt so guilty about his sin of having numbered the people, that his heart struck (nakaw) him.

So did the Philistines’ arrows strike King Saul down, and did they ultimately contribute to his death? Yes, they did.

God killed King Saul

Finally, we are told that God killed King Saul. It is a reflection of the Jewish belief that God used people to execute his judgment.

In Jeremiah, we read that God raised up Babylon to attack the nation of Judah for its sins. In fact, God called King Nebuchadnezzar His servant (Jeremiah 27:6), who would bring the sword against Judah for their sins (Jeremiah 27:8).

In 1 Chronicles 5:26, the writer says that God stirred up the spirit of the Assyrian King, Tiglath-Pileser, to attack the tribes of Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh and take them into captivity.

In both these accounts, God used others to bring about His judgment.

In that same sense, God had previously warned Saul that he would die at the hands of the Philistines because of his disobedience (1 Samuel 28:17-19).

Though the Philistines sent the arrows, it was God who guided their flight.

These four accounts of how Saul died, do not contradict each other, but simply bring different perspectives on the death of Israel’s first king.

In the aftermath, David wrote a song lamenting King Saul’s sad end:

19 “Your beauty, O Israel, is slain on your high places!
How have the mighty fallen!
(2 Samuel 1:19)

READ: Who killed King Saul?

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