A skeptic wrote to ask the following question: Bible contradictions, are they real?
He then answered his own question (which makes one wonder whyif he already knew the
answerhe was writing us in the first place): Yes. How did Saul die? 2 Samuel 21:12
says he was killed by a Philistine. 1 Samuel 31:4 says he killed himself. 2 Samuel 1:18-20 says he
was killed by an Amalekite. Which one is it?
With just a few short sentences, the skeptic appears to have documented a legitimate
discrepancy within the biblical text. The key word here, however, is appears. As is so
often the case, there is much more to the matter than merely quoting a single verse or two in an
effort to make the Bible appear to contradict itself. An examination of these passagesin
their historical contextmakes for an interesting and educational study.
Let us begin with the skeptics claim that 2 Samuel depicts Saul as having been killed by
a Philistine. The context for the statement in 2 Samuel 21:12 can be found one book
earlier in 1 Samuel 31, which centers on the fact that the Israelites and the Philistines were
engaged in an important battle against each other. 1 Samuel 31:1 indicates that the
Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines, and
fell down slain in mount Gilboa. From this simple commentary by the writer, it is clear that
the battle was not going well for Gods people. Israels finest-trained armies had been
thoroughly and completely routed. Her battle-weary soldiers not only were in disarray, but full
retreat. Even their king, Saul, was in peril. In fact, the next two verses go on to explain:
And the Philistines followed hard upon Saul and upon his sons; and the Philistines slew
Jonathan, and Abinadab, and Malchishua, the sons of Saul. And the battle went sore against Saul,
and the archers overtook him; and he was greatly distressed by reason of the archers.
Israels first king was mortally wounded by the Philistines arrows. Knowing he was
in his death throes, Saul determined not to fall into the hands of his enemies while still living.
He therefore turned to his armorbearer and said: Draw thy sword, and thrust me through
therewith, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and abuse me (21:4a). Verses
4-6 present the conclusion of the matter: But his armorbearer would not; for he was sore
afraid. Therefore Saul took his sword, and fell upon it. And when his armorbearer saw that Saul
was dead, he likewise fell upon his sword, and died with him. So Saul died, and his three sons,
and his armorbearer, and all his men, that same day together.
So how did Saul die? Did a Philistine kill him, as the skeptic alleges? Or did Saul
commit suicide to escape capture and possible torture at the hands of some of his most feared
enemies, as 1 Samuel 31:4 seems to indicate?
First, notice how cautiously the skeptics question to us was worded in its original form.
The skeptic carefully crafted his statement to read: 2 Samuel 21:12 says he was killed by a Philistine. But the text nowhere states that a Philistine killed Saul. Rather,
it says, the Philistines (plural) slew Saul in Gilboa. This is a subtle but
important difference. Considering the context, was it not the Philistines (as they battled against
the Israelites) who ultimately were responsible for Sauls self-inflicted wound and
subsequent death? Indeed it was.
Suppose a modern-day soldier were in the same situation. Wounded by an enemys bullet, he
takes his own life on the battlefield to avoid capture and torture. Were a journalist to write an
article for a national or local newspaper, might he not (justifiably) report that the soldier died
at the hands of his enemy as a direct result of the battle? Indeed he might, for had the events
never unfolded as they did, obviously the solider would not have died under such circumstances.
But if the reporter continued his story in the next days edition of that same newspaper,
and in giving additional details of the circumstances surrounding the battle went on to state that
the young man had taken his own life rather than fall into the enemys possession and
possibly become a tool of betrayal against his comrades, would any reader of the two-part account
suggest that the journalist had contradicted himself? Hardly. The normal reader, with
average common sense, would recognize that in the general context, the enemy had caused the
young soldiers death. In the immediate context, his death had been at his own hand as
a direct result of his fear of being captured by that enemy.
The circumstances surrounding Sauls death were no different. The writer of 2 Samuel 21
was correct, in the general context, in assigning Sauls demise to the
Philistines (not a Philistine, as the skeptic alleged), because it was in the
battle with the Philistines that Saul found himself dying of wounds caused by their arrows and
thus committed suicide. The writer of 1 Samuel 31:4 was correct, in the immediate context,
in providing additional information regarding exactly how that death occurredi.e., at
Sauls own hand as he lay mortally wounded and in danger of capture and torture.
But what about the story that is recorded in 2 Samuel 1:1-16, wherein an Amalekite claimed to
have killed the Israelites beloved king? The context of this story is as follows. David had
just returned from a battle with the Amalekites. While in the city of Ziklag, a young man in
ragged clothing appeared before him with a report of Sauls death. The young man, himself an
As I happened by chance upon mount Gilboa, behold, Saul was leaning upon his
spear; and, lo, the chariots and the horsemen followed hard after him. And when he looked behind
him, he saw me, and called unto me. And I answered, Here am I. And he said unto me,
Who art thou? And I answered him, I am an Amalekite. And he said unto me,
Stand, I pray thee, beside me, and slay me; for anguish hath taken hold of me, because my
life is yet whole in me. So I stood beside him, and slew him, because I was sure that he
could not live after that he was fallen: and I took the crown that was upon his head, and the
bracelet that was on his arm, and have brought them hither unto my lord (2 Samuel 1:6-10).
Davids response to this story was one of outrage. At hearing the young mans report,
he inquired: How wast thou not afraid to put forth thy hand to destroy Jehovahs
anointed? (2 Samuel 1:14). Turning to the Amalekite, he sternly said: Thy blood be
upon thy head; for thy mouth hath testified against thee, saying, I have slain Jehovah
s anointed. David then ordered one of his own soldiers to slay the young man as
punishment for the atrocity he claimed to have committedthe murder of Israels king,
Saul (2 Samuel 1:15-16).
How can this story be reconciled with the accounts in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 21? Isolated
from both the general and immediate historical context, the simple fact is that it cannot. Is
there, then, an unavoidable, unexplainable contradiction as the skeptic has alleged? No, there is
not. There is another possible explanation. In his book, Encyclopedia of Bible
Difficulties, Gleason L. Archer elaborated on this possibility when he wrote that the
is not presented as being an actual record of what happened during Sauls
dying moments; it is only a record of what the Amalekite mercenary said had taken place.
Coming with Sauls crown and bracelet in hand and presenting them before the new king of
Israel, the Amalekite obviously expected a handsome reward and high preferment in the service of
Sauls successor. In the light of the straightforward account in the previous chapter, we
must conclude that the Amalekite was lying in order to gain a cordial welcome from David. But what
had actually happened was that after Saul had killed himself, and the armorbearer had followed his
lords example by taking his own life (1 Sam. 31:5), the Amalekite happened by at that
moment, recognized the kings corpse, and quickly stripped off the bracelet and crown before
the Philistine troops discovered it. Capitalizing on his good fortune, the Amalekite then escaped
from the bloody field and made his way down to Davids headquarters in Ziklag. But his hoped-
for reward turned out to be a warrant for his death; David had him killed on the spotů. His glib
falsehood had brought him the very opposite of what he had expected, for he failed to foresee that
Davids high code of honor would lead him to make just the response he did (1982, pp.
181-182, emp. added).
It would not be unusual for a Bible writer to record a story that was told at the time as the
truth when, in fact, it was a lie. Moses recorded Satans lie to Eve in Genesis 3:4, without
comment on its false nature. The writer of 1 Kings 13 recorded the lie of the older prophet to the
younger prophet (a lie that ultimately caused the younger prophets death). John recorded
Peters three-fold lie when he denied being one of Christs disciples (18:15-27). Other
similar examples could be offered. The point is, just because the Amalekite mercenary claimed
to have killed King Saul does not mean that he was telling the truth when he made such a
claim. In fact, we know he was not because elsewhere (e.g., 1 Samuel 31:4-5) the actual facts of
the case are presented with great clarity. Once again, the skeptics claim of a biblical
discrepancy can be answered by a common-sense appeal to reason that provides a solution consistent
with the available facts.
Archer, Gleason L. (1982), Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI:
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