Virtually no time at all is spent on Saul’s time holding the reins of Israel. Despite giving his genealogy two separate spots (1 Chron. 8:29-40; 1 Chron. 9:35-44) to Saul’s lineage and devoting the better part of 1 Chron. 10 to his death, his life gets a mere two verses in 1 Chron. 13-14. Interestingly, the only thing we learn about his life comes after the story of his death (and gets even less treatment than the story of his bones).

It’s clear that the Chronicler felt that Saul needed some kind of mention, but wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. Even more intriguing is that the Chronicler assumes knowledge of Saul’s story. If 1-2 Samuel had been lost and we only had the chapters we’ve read so far in 1 Chronicles, it would be difficult to piece together that Saul was Israel’s first monarch, and impossible to guess that he was anointed as a God-chosen king.

This makes it rather clear that the Chronicler viewed David as the true founder of the Israelite monarchy, and perhaps wished to downplay the role Saul played in the cultural shift from loose tribal associations led by local judges.

Saul’s Death

And so our narrative jumps straight from the genealogies to the story of Saul’s death, our only bridge a listing of Saul’s lineage. The story in this chapter is copied almost word-for-word from 1 Sam. 31:1-13.

The Suicide of Saul, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1561

The Suicide of Saul, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1561

We begin with Philistia and Israel at war, and Israel is losing. Many are killed on Mount Gilboa, including Saul’s sons Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, and many are routed. Saul is injured by archers and, afraid of falling into Philistine hands, he asks his armour-bearer to kill him. The armour-bearer, afraid, refuses. Out of options, Saul draws his own sword and kills himself, after which his armour-bearer does the same.

With the battle lost and their king dead, the Israelites flee from their cities, leaving them open to Philistine occupation.

The next day, the Philistines are stripping the dead on the battlefield when they come upon Saul’s body. The Philistines take Saul’s armour and head, and they send messengers throughout Philistia to proclaim news of their victory to both people and gods.

From this point onward, the narrative in 1 Chron. 10 diverges from 1 Sam. 31: They bring Saul’s armour to the temple of their gods (1 Sam. 31:10 has it the temple of Ashtaroth) and fasten his head in the temple of Dagon (while in 1 Sam. 31:10, they fasten his body to the wall of Bethshan). Neither of these is necessarily a contradiction. “Ashtaroth” is the plural form of the goddess Ashtoreth, which could easily be rendered as the “gods” of 1 Chron. 10:10. And while his head might have gone into the temple of Dagon, his body might also have gone to the wall of Bethshan. But the divergence is still interesting; how did it come about, and why?

In both accounts, the people of Jabesh-gilead hear about what’s been done to Saul’s body, so they come to reclaim it and the bodies of Saul’s sons (marching all night in 1 Sam. 31:12, though the detail is omitted here).They bring the bodies back to Jabesh and bury the bones under the oak of Jabesh, while in 1 Sam. 31:12-13, they burn the bodies first and then bury the bones under a tamarisk tree. In both accounts, they then fasted for seven days.

While 1 Samuel provides some context for Jabesh’s loyalty, it is entirely absent here. Why did the people of Jabesh go through the trouble of reclaiming the bodies of the royal family, and why not some other group? From 1 Sam. 11, we can guess that it’s because Saul had freed Jabesh from Nahash the Ammonite.

Saul’s Family

Many commentors bring up the question of whether Saul’s family died with him or not. 1 Chron. 10:6 (“Thus Saul died; he and his three sons and all his house died together”) certainly seems to suggest that they were all killed at the same time. Yet the verse omits the clause “on the same day together” found in 1 Sam. 31:6. This better allows for the interpretation that the Chronicler is summarizing the fall of Saul’s family over a period of time (which can therefore include Ishbosheth, who managed to hang on for a little while longer – 2 Samuel 2:8-11).

The lineages in 1 Chron. 8:29-40 and 1 Chron. 9:35-44 make it rather clear that the Chronicler knew the house of Saul survived. I think this forces us to conclude that the phrase “all his house died together” (1 Chron. 10:6) is poetic rather than literal. Saul’s house – his dynasty, his family’s social position – died as a result of the events of the battle at Mount Gilboa, even if some members survived, even if one member continued to call himself king.

This rhetoric isn’t new. Over and over again in our readings, we have seen the claim that a particular group of people was entirely destroyed (such as the claim about the Amalekites in 1 Sam. 15:7-8) only to have the group reappear later (as when David utterly destroys them again in 1 Sam. 27:8-9). In the Old Testament, it seems, to kill the entirely of a group of people should be interpreted to mean that they were entirely brought low, entirely defeated, even if some members survive.

Saul’s Reign

Of Saul’s life, we learn only that he was killed for his unfaithfulness: His refusal to keep the command of the Lord (presumably referring to passages like Leviticus 19:31) when he consulted with a medium instead of seeking guidance from God.

Of course, when the story is narrated in 1 Sam. 28:6-7, Saul did consult God but God failed to answer him. It was only then, in desperation, that he turned to alternative means. So why the discrepancy?

One possibility is that Saul consulted with a medium, and that is a sin. The reasons don’t matter, there are no mitigating factors. He broke the commandment, and thus he was judged. A second possibility is that the means through which he consulted with God were unsatisfactory (or, alternatively, that he demanded word from God rather than passively waiting for God’s word – and, worse, actively sought alternatives when God was not forthcoming).

James Pate adds the possibility that Saul’s motive lacked a desired purity. “[O]ne can pray to God in pursuit of one’s own agenda, which is different from actually seeking God.” Given what we know of the Urim (which Saul used, according to 1 Sam. 28:6), it’s possible that he did receive an answer, just not the answer he wanted.

It is for this reason that God killed him and turned his kingdom over to David.

Here, a few commentors point out a contradiction: Did God kill Saul, or did Saul kill himself? It seems rather obvious, however, that the phrase used in 1 Chron. 10:14 is meant to mean that God orchestrated Saul’s fall, the situation which made his death inevitable. It is therefore just as true to say that God killed him as it is to say that he killed himself.

Here, James Pate points out that, in Genesis 49:10, Jacob predicted that Judah would possess a sceptre. This raises an issue of free will, since it implies that God knew even then that Benjamin’s turn with the crown would be short lived, that Saul would sin and his dynasty would be lost. Pate discusses the issue at more length in his post, but since this falls under theology, I won’t be touching it.