A skeptic wrote to ask the following question: “Bible contradictions, are they real?” He then answered his own question (which makes one wonder why—if he already knew the answer—he 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 passages—in their historical context—makes for an interesting and educational study.
Let us begin with the skeptic’s 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 God’s people. Israel’s 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.”
Israel’s 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 skeptic’s 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 Saul’s self-inflicted wound and subsequent death? Indeed it was.
Suppose a modern-day soldier were in the same situation. Wounded by an enemy’s 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 day’s 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 enemy’s 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 soldier’s 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 Saul’s death were no different. The writer of 2 Samuel 21 was correct, in the general context, in assigning Saul’s 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 occurred—i.e., at Saul’s 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 Israelite’s 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 Saul’s death. The young man, himself an Amalekite, stated:
“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).
David’s response to this story was one of outrage. At hearing the young man’s report, he inquired: “How wast thou not afraid to put forth thy hand to destroy Jehovah’s 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 committed—the murder of Israel’s 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 Amalekite’s story
is not presented as being an actual record of what happened during Saul’s dying moments; it is only a record of what the Amalekite mercenary said had taken place. Coming with Saul’s 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 Saul’s 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 lord’s example by taking his own life (1 Sam. 31:5), the Amalekite happened by at that moment, recognized the king’s 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 David’s headquarters in Ziklag. But his hoped-for reward turned out to be a warrant for his death; David had him killed on the spot.... His glib falsehood had brought him the very opposite of what he had expected, for he failed to foresee that David’s 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 Satan’s 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 prophet’s death). John recorded Peter’s three-fold lie when he denied being one of Christ’s 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 skeptic’s claim of a biblical discrepancy can be answered by a common-sense appeal to reason that provides a solution consistent with the available facts. God: 2; skeptics: 0.
Archer, Gleason L. (1982), Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).