Friday, February 08, 2013

Two Accounts of Saul's Death

Among those who take glee is attempting to point out real contradictions in the Sacred Scripture, the passages narrating the death of King Saul have become proof-texts for alleged biblical contradiction. The death of King Saul is narrated in two places, 1 Samuel 31:1-6, the story of the Battle of Gilboa, and also in 2 Samuel 1:1-16, when David hears the battle narrated second hand from an Amalekite who claims to have witnessed Saul's death. In the first and probably most well known passage, Saul, upon seeing the battle against the Philistines going poorly and being wounded by Philistine archers, falls upon his own sword and kills himself. In the second passage, however, the Amalekite finds Saul wounded on the ground and Saul begs him to thrust a sword through him. The Amalekite obliges and dispatches Saul upon the latter's request.

It seems we have a cut and dry instance of a biblical contradiction. 1 Samuel says Saul committed suicide; 2 Samuel says he was slain in a mercy-killing by an Amalekite.

Before looking at these passages and attempting to reconcile them, let us remind ourselves of a few points: First, according to commonly accepted logical principles, a contradiction is defined as occurring when two statements are in relation to each other in such a way that if one is true, the other must be false; they cannot both be true and both be false at the same time. "All men have beards" and "Some men do not have beards" are contradictory statements. If all men have beards, then it cannot be true that some men do not have them; similarly, if it is true that some men do not have beards, then it cannot be true that all men have them. The truth of one necessitates the falsity of the other. This means that the essence of contradiction is that there is no way to reconcile the two statements. The truth of one means the other is false and there is no possibility or way around it. Sometimes the word "contradiction" is applied too loosely in biblical scholarship to refer to passages that are merely problematic or confusing. But to say the two accounts of Saul's death are problematic is a far cry from saying their are contradictions in the logical sense.

Second point: if the Scriptures are inspired by God, there can never be a true contradiction in the logical sense. All saints and orthodox theologians freely affirm this. So there must always be a manner of reconciling the two texts. Problematic texts, or confusing texts, can be reconciled with one another if they are not truly contradictory. One could always object that an infallible and all-knowing God ought not to give mankind revelations that are "problematic","difficult" or in need of "reconciliation", but now one is not objecting against alleged contradictions per se as much as against the manner God has chosen to reveal, which is a tremendously arrogant statement and one that cannot be answered at any rate, since human beings have no way to answer questions relating to why God chose to create or act in one way and not another.

Now, let's examine the texts in question. First, the famous account of Saul's suicide from 2 Samuel 31:1-6:

"And the Philistines fought against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and fell down slain in mount Gilboa. And the Philistines fell upon Saul, and upon his sons, and they slew Jonathan, and Abinadab and Melchisua the sons of Saul. And the whole weight of the battle was turned upon Saul: and the archers overtook him, and he was grievously wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armorbearer: "Draw thy sword, and kill me: lest these uncircumcised come, and slay me, and mock at me." And his armorbearer would not: for he was struck with exceeding great fear. Then Saul took his sword, and fell upon it. And when his armorbearer saw this, to wit, that Saul was dead, he also fell upon his sword and died with him. So Saul died, and his three sons, and his armourbearer, and all his men that same day together."

So, a few things to point out here:

Note that Saul was grievously wounded by arrows. An arrow wound in the ancient world was a terrible thing; most likely Saul was hit randomly, as most archers in ancient armies fired random volleys, not unlike the famous English longbowmen of later ages. It would be a very painful wound, probably not severe enough to kill him outright, but enough to incapacitate him from the battle and kill him slowly by infection, if he were to escape the battle.

Yet, seeing the battle pressed hot around him and no chance of escape and his kin all slain, Saul opts for death, but note that he does not at first try to kill himself. Rather, he begs his armor bearer to run him through. It is only when the armor bearer refuses that Saul falls on his own sword in an attempt to take his own life.

Now let's look at the second account, from 2 Samuel. In this passage, David is king, and he is anxiously waiting for some word about how the battle has gone, for he is very concerned for the welfare of his companion (and not gay lover), Jonathan. Here is how the Scripture tells it:

Now it came to pass, after Saul was dead, that David returned from the slaughter of the Amalekites, and abode two days in Ziklag. And on the third day, there appeared a man who came out of Saul's camp, with his garments rent, and dust strewed on his head: and when he came to David, he fell upon his face, and adored. And David said to him: From whence comest thou? And he said to him: "I am fled out of the camp of Israel." And David said unto him: "What is the matter that is come to pass? Tell me." He said: "The people are fled from the battle, and many of the people are fallen and dead: moreover Saul and Jonathan his son are slain." And David said to the young man that told him: "How knowest thou that Saul and Jonathan his son, are dead?" And the young man that told him, said: I came by chance upon mount Gilboa, and Saul leaned upon his spear: and the chariots and horsemen drew nigh unto him, And looking behind him, and seeing me, he called me. And I answered, "Here am I." And he said to me: "Who art thou?" And I said to him: "I am an Amalekite." And he said to me: "Stand over me, and kill me: for anguish is come upon me, and as yet my whole life is in me." So standing over him, I killed him: for I knew that he could not live after the fall: and I took the diadem that was on his head, and the bracelet that was on his arm and have brought them hither to thee, my lord." Then David took hold of his garments and rent them, and likewise all the men that were with him. And they mourned, and wept, and fasted until evening for Saul, and for Jonathan his son, and for the people of the Lord, and for the house of Israel, because they were fallen by the sword. (2 Samuel 1:1-12)

As in the first passage, Saul is presented as being wounded in the battle. Seeing no hope of recovery, Saul asks the Amalekite to thrust him through, which the Amalekite does.

The pivotal question is this: Does the account in 2 Samuel contradict, in a logical sense, the account in 1 Samuel? That is, if one is true, must the other be false?

The obvious answer is no. The account of 2 Samuel can be reconciled with that in 1 Samuel is we presume that Saul's attempt to kill himself in 1 Samuel was unsuccessful. This would mean that when the Amalekite came upon him, not only was Saul wounded by arrows, but he had also tried to fall on his sword and yet had life in him.

From a common sense standpoint, this makes sense. It is a very difficult and challenging thing to take one's own life even in regular circumstances, let alone when laying on a battlefield riddled with arrows. According to a report released by the American Association of Suicidology, there are 25 attempts at suicide for every one success; in young people, the odds are actually close to 200:1 that the suicide attempt fails [1]. In a 2008 study done by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, it was reported that 1.1 million people actually attempted suicide in the United States that year, but only just over 33,000 succeeded [2]. And this is in the age of powerful firearms and lethal drugs. What must have been the chance of success when one was relying on driving a sharp piece of metal into one's abdomen?

So, from the standpoint of common experience, rather than ask "What justification do you have for presuming Saul's attempt to fall on his sword failed", we should ask rather, "Why should we automatically presume it succeeded?" Statistically, Saul was way more likely to fail than to succeed. Couple this with the fact that Saul failed at most other things he tried, and we do have a strong circumstantial case that he totally biffed his attempt to fall on his sword and just ended up hurting himself worse.

But in addition to this, we can look at the textual evidence presented in 2 Samuel 1. Note that in 1 Samuel, Saul's decision to kill himself is more motivated by despair that his sons have been killed and he does not want to be mocked by the Philistines. Yet in 2 Samuel, his case is presented as more desperate - he seems to want to die in order to end his pain, which would make sense if he had tried unsuccessfully to stab himself. Look at his language to the Amalekite and the Amalekite's response:

"Stand over me, and kill me: for anguish is come upon me, and as yet my whole life is in me." So standing over him, I killed him: for I knew that he could not live after the fall."

Saul laments that he is in great pain and points out that his "whole life" is still in him. In other words, he is in severe pain and can't believe that he is still living after the wounds he has received. The Amalekite clearly sees this and realizes that, though Saul is living, he cannot live long. Thus he slays him.

Compare this with Saul's words in 2 Samuel 31:

"Saul said to his armorbearer: "Draw thy sword, and kill me: lest these uncircumcised come, and slay me, and mock at me."

This is quite a different motivation! Here his concern is much different. Ultimately, what the textual evidence reveals is that the nature of his wounds in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1 are different; in the former, he is wounded but still viable; his decision to take his own life is motivated by fear of being dishonored and knowledge that tactically speaking there is no escape. But in 2 Samuel he is not only wounded but terribly wounded, such that his motivation for wishing for death is to end his physical pain, for, as he says, "anguish is come upon me, and as yet my whole life is in me." The difference in the nature of these two statements only makes sense if his suicide attempt in 1 Samuel 31 did not kill him but only further wounded him and placed him in even greater pain, such that he was willing to ask to first person who walked by to thrust him through and put him out of his misery.

So then, here is how it went down:

While fighting on Mount Gilboa, Saul witnessed all his sons fall in battle around him. The battle pressed hot, and Saul was struck by enemy arrows - maybe in the legs, maybe shoulders, who knows - wounded in such a way that he was still alive and could have survived, but he saw no tactical way to get out of the battle. Seeing this, and seeing his house destroyed, he asked his armor bearer to kill him so he could save himself from being mocked and tormented by the Philistines, as they had done to Samson. This would preserve his dignity. Yet the armor bearer refused, and so Saul attempted to fall on his own sword. The armor bearer saw this and killed himself as a consequence, apparently with better effect than Saul, because after falling on his sword, the king realized that he had botched his suicide attempt and was now in even greater pain and in even more danger of being taken alive. Not long after, the Amalekite wandered by and Saul begged him to end his misery, seeing that despite all the wounds he had endured from the Philistines and by his own hand, "my whole life is yet in me." The Amalekite, seeing Saul riddled with arrows and suffering terribly from the botched suicide attempt, knew it was futile to try to save him and thus acceded to his request, thrusting him through and finally ending the king's life.

Note that this explanation does not do any damage to the text, for it is not only in keeping with what the Scriptures narrate but actually is the only explanation that really addresses the nuances in Saul's language satisfactorily. It also makes sense from an experiential viewpoint, since the research supports that most suicide attempts are unsuccessful. Furthermore, this explanation is the one that has traditionally been offered when scholars and theologians have attempted to explain these passages. Thus we can certainly not say there is a contradiction here, since asserted one does not make the other impossible. In fact, they are complimentary and give us two pieces of the story that fit together.

As in other cases (Deuteronomy vs. Leviticus, Seeking and Finding, Praying in Public, Oprah's ignorance about God's "jealousy", Resurrection chronologies, etc) there is no real contradiction, just people not willing to exert the mental effort to examine the texts critically or the faith to presume that a satisfactory resolution actually exists.


[1] USA suicide 2006 Official final data: JL McIntosh for the American Association of Suicidology 2009. Many figures there taken from Reducing suicide: a national imperative, Goldsmith SK, Pellmar TC, Kleinman AM, Bunney WE, editors.

[2] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2009). Results from the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings (Office of Applied Studies, NSDUH Series H-36, HHS Publication No. SMA 09-4434). Rockville, MD. and


Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity, could the Amalekite had been simply lying to David, seeking either favor or honor or his life (perhaps he just happened to run into David by accident after looting the battlefield presumably back to his tribe)? He did possess the diadem and Saul's bracelet, things that could very well be of much value. The Amalekites do not have the best of reputations in the Bible.

Philosoraptor said...

Anonymous, you stole my thunder! The first time I read that passage I thought, "What a lying dirtbag!" Given that Saul relentlessly persecuted David throughout 1 Samuel, the Amalekite (not unreasonably) expected a reward for 'killing' David's 'worst enemy.' Too bad for him David loved Saul.

Boniface said...


That is very much possible. It would not have been difficult for the Amalekite to have looted the body.

However, given that the Bible does not suggest he lied, and given that both accounts can fit plausibly together, I for now will maintain my original position, but I acknowledge he may very well have lied.

Nice to see people still commenting on old posts.