With David safely back at home with his family and far, far away from the battle (lest anything be said about his ambitions), we return to the battlefield where, as we know, Saul is soon to die. Given the locations, it seems probable that the scene with the witch of Endor should have been placed just before this chapter, and not all the way back in 1 Samuel 28 (it’s current location requires some geographical skipping).

the narrative jumps right in, telling us that the Philistines win the day. Saul’s sons (Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua) are killed and Saul is badly wounded by archers. Unwilling to be slain by those “uncircumcised” Philistines who might make sport of him (1 Sam. 31:4), Saul asks his armour-bearer to kill him instead. The armour-bearer refuses.

Saul falls on his sword, from the Worms Bible, c.1148

Saul falls on his sword, from the Worms Bible, c.1148

It’s unclear why the armour-bearer refused. It could be that killing his king – even if commanded to do so – is just too great a sin for him, or it could be a final dig at Saul, a reminder that he really has no control over his subjects (as we saw in 1 Sam. 22:17, where his followers refused his command to kill the the priests at Nob).

Saul takes matters into his own hands and falls on his sword. The armour-bearer follows suite and kills himself as well. When the Israelites in the area hear that the royal family is dead, they flee the cities, leaving them empty for the Philistines to occupy.

The next morning, the Philistines return to the battlefield to scavenge the dead. They find Saul and his sons, strip Saul of his armour, and cut off his head. The armour they send to the temple of Ashtaroth and fasten his corpse to the wall of Beth-shan (and, apparently, the corpses of his sons, too, though they aren’t mentioned here).

The mention of a temple of Ashtaroth here is a little confusing. So far, the term has been used as the plural of the shrines/idols/poles used in the worship of Asherah (maybe?), not as the name of the goddess herself (though a variation of the old semitic mother-goddess, Ashtoreth, is very similar sounding). So it could be that the temple of Ashtaroth is a typo, or perhaps we’re to understand that the temple contains several idols to the goddess.

Another possibility, though I don’t know how plausible it is, is that the name of the temple refers to its location. We saw in, for example, Deut. 1:4 and Jos. 9:10 that King Og of the Amorites ruled from a town called Ashtaroth. Either way, it seems that the phrasing causes some confusion.

When the people of Jabesh-gilead hear that Saul’s body has been fastened to a wall, they sneak out at night to retrieve the bodies of Saul and his sons. Note the identity of the corpse-rescuers here – one of Saul’s first acts as leader/king was to rescue Jabesh-gilead from Ammonite raiders.

The people of Jabesh-gilead burn the bodies of Saul and his sons, then bury their bones under a tree. They finish up by fasting for seven days. It’s not clear why they choose to burn the bodies rather than simply bury them. It could be that the fire is intended as a sort of purification after the bodies were left hanging too long (if they rescue the bodies on the night of the same day that they were hung, this would still violate Deut. 21:23). It could also be that there was some variation in burial practices at this time.

With Saul’s death, 1 Samuel comes to a close.