Question: "Why are there contradictory accounts regarding the death of Saul in 1 and 2 Samuel?"
Answer: Critics of the Bible sometimes note the two different versions of the death of King Saul as a “contradiction” in Scripture. First Samuel 31:4 says that Saul was injured in battle and then killed himself. Second Samuel 1:10 relates an Amalekite’s claim to have killed Saul. Is this a true contradiction in the Bible? Which account of the death of Saul is true?
The clear answer is that Saul killed himself and that the Amalekite’s story was a fabrication. The Amalekite lied about the death of Saul, hoping to receive a reward from David. The Bible records the lie the Amalekite told but never affirms it as true.
The inspired history of the death of Saul is found in 1 Samuel 31. The historian plainly says that Saul killed himself: “The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically. 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. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day” (1 Samuel 31:3–6). The verses following this account mention several witnesses to the event.
Second Samuel 21:12 identifies the Philistines as responsible for the death of Saul: “The Philistines . . . struck Saul down on Gilboa.” Saul and his army were doing battle with the Philistines at the time, and it was during that conflict that Saul took his own life. His suicide was prompted by his being mortally wounded by the Philistines and his fear of capture, torture, and shame at his enemies’ hands.
Second Samuel 1 relates the story of the Amalekite who came to David. The biblical record describes him as a man “from Saul’s camp with his clothes torn and dust on his head” (2 Samuel 1:2). When he came to David, he fell to the ground to honor the presumptive king. He then told his lie about the death of Saul: “I happened to be on Mount Gilboa, . . . and there was Saul, leaning on his spear, with the chariots and their drivers in hot pursuit. When he turned around and saw me, he called out to me, and I said, ‘What can I do?’ . . . Then he said to me, ‘Stand here by me and kill me! I’m in the throes of death, but I’m still alive.’ So I stood beside 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” (2 Samuel 1:6–10).
The Amalekite’s story conflicts with the biblical historian’s account of the death of Saul and is therefore a lie. Probably, the truth of the matter is that the Amalekite was a treasure-hunter, a battlefield opportunist who followed armies in conflict in hopes of gathering booty from the fallen soldiers. The Amalekite likely witnessed the death of Saul and heard Saul’s plea for his armor-bearer to kill him before committing suicide. After Saul was dead, the Amalekite plundered the body but then realized he might be able to gain an even greater prize from David, who stood to benefit most from the death of Saul. So the Amalekite fabricated his story about killing Saul at Saul’s request, showed Saul’s crown and armband as “proof” of his story, and sat back, expecting David to grant him a large reward.
The Amalekite had miscalculated, however. King Saul had indeed been David’s enemy, but David was by no means happy at the death of Saul. In fact, David had previous opportunities to kill Saul himself, but he had refrained out of the fear of God, since Saul was God’s anointed (see 1 Samuel 24:6). Instead of the bonanza he was anticipating, the Amalekite received judgment. “David called one of his men and said, ‘Go, strike him down!’ So he struck him down, and he died. For David had said to him, ‘Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you when you said, ‘I killed the Lord’s anointed’” (2 Samuel 1:15–16). The Amalekite’s lie about the death of Saul brought about his own death.
Putting all the events concerning the death of Saul in the correct order:
• Saul is wounded in battle and then kills himself by falling on his own sword.
• An Amalekite comes across Saul’s dead body and takes his crown and armlet.
• The next day, the Philistines find Saul’s body, behead him, strip him of his armor, send the report, and fasten his body to the wall of Beth Shan (1 Samuel 31:8–10).
• Men of Jabesh Gilead travel overnight and take Saul’s body and those of his sons and burn them at Jabesh (1 Samuel 31:11–12).
• The men of Jabesh Gilead bury Saul’s bones under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and the men of that city fast for seven days (1 Samuel 31:13).
• The Amalekite arrives at David’s camp on the third day with the crown and armlet, reporting his fictional story.
• David and his men fast and mourn until evening.
• David has the Amalekite executed.
• David becomes king and honors the brave men who buried Saul’s body (2 Samuel 2:4–7).