Understanding the Old Testament

How Long Did King Saul Reign?

(All quotations are from the New American Standard Bible translation)

We are told in two places in the Bible that King Saul ruled Israel for about forty years. 1 Samuel 13:1 says he was thirty years old when his reign began, and that he was king for forty-two years. Acts 13:21 comes from Paul’s sermon in the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, in which he says that “Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul . . . for forty years.” Despite these two verses, his reign was probably much shorter.

The statement in 1 Samuel 13:1 is suspect, because it is based on the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that was widely used and quoted during Jesus’ time. Ancient Hebrew manuscripts do not say “forty-two years,” but “two years.” Scholars believe the number that preceded “two” somehow got omitted, so Saul could have been king for twelve years, twenty-two years, thirty-two years, etc.

Paul’s statement in Acts 13:21 is undoubtedly based on the Septuagint. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is inaccurate—it truthfully and correctly relates what Paul said. But Paul was relying on the Septuagint, which was probably inaccurate.

So why do scholars think Saul’s reign was shorter than forty years? We find our first clue by comparing 1 Samuel 7:1-2 with 2 Samuel 6:2 and 1 Chronicles 13:5-6. After the Philistines returned the Ark of the Covenant, after capturing it in the battle at Ebenezer, 1 Samuel 7:1-2 says that it remained in Kiriath-jearim for twenty years—until King David retrieved it, per 2 Samuel 6:2 and 1 Chronicles 13:5-6. The battle of Ebenezer took place before Saul became king, and David retrieved the Ark after he had already been king over Judah for seven years, per 2 Samuel 5:1-5. So that leaves no more than about thirteen years for Saul’s kingship.

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We find another clue in 1 Kings 6:1, which says that King Solomon began to build the Temple in the fourth year of his reign, 480 years after the Exodus. If we add up the forty years before entering Canaan, the roughly 390 years encompassed by the chronology in the book of Judges, and David’s forty years as king, per 2 Samuel 5:4—a total of 470 years—that leaves little time for Saul’s reign. (Even if Judges’ chronology is a little inflated, we must still account for the time between the battle of Jericho and the death of Joshua, after which a “new generation” arose. That would potentially add at least another twenty to forty years.)

Finally, we know that Samuel was already old when he anointed Saul as king, yet Samuel also anointed Saul’s successor, David, per 1 Samuel 16:13, when David was probably an adolescent or a young man. Samuel must have lived a very long time if Saul ruled forty years.

Questions to ponder or discuss: Assuming Paul was mistaken about the length of Saul’s reign, how does that impact your view of Paul’s preaching and his letters, if at all? Can people in the Bible—and the authors of the Bible—be fallible and still be telling the truth? Does the Bible have to be completely mistake-free to be true—or to be God’s word?

Copyright 2018 by Don Davidson

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