Rereading 1 Samuel 13:1

King Saul
by Ernst Josephson (1878)
Wikimedia Commons

















The books of the Bible have come to us through the work of scribes who carefully preserved the received text.  Over a period of hundreds of years, the biblical manuscripts were copied and recopied by hand in order to preserve the traditional reading of what was considered sacred text.

No original manuscript of any of the biblical books has survived.  A group of scribes called the “Masoretes” took great care to make copies of the biblical books as accurately as possible.  However, in the process of copying from their sources, the scribes made some errors that are present in the manuscripts used today to translate the Bible.

When copying errors are found in the text, scholars make an attempt to restore the text in order to discover the probable word or words used in the original manuscript.  At times, however, in attempting to correct the text, scholars have proposed solutions that may contradict one another.  One classic example is the textual problem found in 1 Samuel 13:1.

The Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 13:1 reads: Saul was one year old when he began to reign and he reigned over Israel two years.  It is clear that as written, the text is not right, for Saul had grown children when he became king of Israel.  It is evident that the numbers are missing in the text.

Scholars have made different attempts at restoring the text but their efforts have created more confusion.  Below are some attempts made by translators to restore the text.

The New International Version (NIV) translates 1 Samuel 13:1 as follows:
Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years.

The New American Standard Bible translates as follows:
Saul was forty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-two years over Israel.

The New English Bible translates as follows:
Saul was fifty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for twenty-two years.

The Modern Reader’s Bible, a translation done by Richard G. Moulton translates as follows:
Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign and he reigned two years over Israel.

The American Standard Version translates as follows:
Saul was forty years old when he began to reign; and when he had reigned two years over Israel….

The King James Version translates as follows:
Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel….

In the New Testament, Acts 13:21 says that Saul reigned forty-years over Israel.

A good explanation for the length of Saul’s reign is found in John Tullock’s book, The Old Testament Story, 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1981), p.123.  Tullock wrote:

“The length of Saul’s reign is uncertain since a number is missing in the Hebrew text, which simply says, ‘he reigned . . . and two years’ (13:1).  Most scholars would say he ruled about twenty-two years.  If one takes the biblical evidence, twelve years might be more logical.  The ark was captured by the Philistines some time before Saul began to reign.  According to 1 Samuel 7:2, it was kept in Kiriath-jearim ‘some twenty years.’  It was taken to Jerusalem in the early part of David’s reign (2 Sam. 6:1-15), but David reigned for over seven years at Hebron before Jerusalem was captured (2 Sam. 5:5).  If this twenty years is to be taken literally or even as meaning around twenty years, it would seem to limit Saul’s reign to no more than twelve years.”

The different readings for the length of Saul’s reign in the translations are only possibilities.  Thus, if a translation says that Saul was 30, or 40, or 50 years old when he began to reign and then says that he reigned 42, 32, 22, or 2 years over Israel, that translation is not teaching biblical truth but educated possibilities.  The fact is, that since the numbers are contradictory, then one or all of the translations may not be presenting the right information.

This, I believe, is the biggest problem in trying to guess the numbers missing is 1 Samuel 13:1.  Since most students of the Bible only use one translation and never compare one translation against another, they believe that what the translation they are using is saying is what really happened, when in reality the translation may not reflect historical reality.

For instance, take the translation proposed by the KJV: Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel.  People reading the KJV may believe that what follows in 13:2 happened two years after Saul became king.  Other translations, such as NIV and several others, try to harmonize the Book of Acts with the text in Samuel by saying that Saul was king for forty-two years, when the length of his reign probably was much shorter.

Thus, 1 Samuel 13:1 must be reread in such a way that it preserves the dignity of the text and the historical realities related to Saul’s reign.  Lately, several translations are leaving the numbers in the text blank.  For instance, the NRSV and other translations translate as follows:

Saul was . . .  years old when he began to reign; and he reigned . . .  and two years over Israel.

This translation is not elegant and is not what most people want, but it is better to leave the numbers blank than to convey false information to the reader, even when that information is based on an educated guess.

NOTE: For other studies on Saul, read my post Saul, King of Israel.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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13 Responses to Rereading 1 Samuel 13:1

  1. >I cracked open my ESV (which is based on the RSV) and sure enough found ellipses where my NIV had numbers. Just one more reason that I’m starting to like my ESV more and more each day…


  2. >Dear Jeff,The ESV is a good translation. The problem is that very few people know and read the ESV. Keep on reading and studying the Bible for in keeping it there is great reward (Psalm 19:11).Claude MariottiniProfessor of Old Testament


  3. >Fascinating article. Thank you for presenting such an important subject so clearly and understandably.I’ll be linking to your article on my blog this evening. Peace.


  4. >Milton,Thank you for your comments. I appreciate your willingness to make the article available to your readers.Claude Mariottini


  5. graham old says:

    >Fascinating stuff, thanks.What are the chances that the KJV is correct? I.e. is it possible that this is more about when the following events happened than how long Saul reigned?(I’m hoping the answers no, btw! 😉 )


  6. Frank says:

    >Very interesting post and very well written. I found it via Milton Stanley’s site and it is great. I think I will work it into a upcoming Sunday School lesson about conflict..*LOL*. Thanks for your work and your scholarship.Stay strong, be couragous, and serve God in all things.Frank


  7. >Frank,Thank you for your comments. I am happy to know that you can use the article in your ministry. Thank you for visiting my web page. I hope future articles will also be of help to you.Happy New Year.Claude Mariottini


  8. >Graham,I am sorry to disappoint you but the text in the Hebrew Bible is intending to tell us how old Saul was when he began to reign and how long he reigned. The KJV is trying to make sense of a corrupted biblical text. The real numbers are just not there.Thank you for visiting my web page. I hope to hear from you again.Claude Mariottini


  9. Anonymous says:

    >Yes, I would like to say that Saul actually ruled over Israel two years. Cause in the Complete Jewish Bible it says, Saul was… years old when he reign; and he reigned two years. Now, in Jewish literature it states that Samuel was a judge for ten years, and then one year was when Saul was in the process of being anointed, then the next two years was his actual reign. and then you add the seven years of David in Hebron you have a total of twenty years. So the book of Acts well it was an error but hey mistakes happen.LaBrian


  10. Anonymous says:

    >He does seem to strongly assume that an age is being given here. While that is possible, my take is there are also other valid explanations… It reads, Sha’uwl malek ben shaneh… or “Saul was the son of a year”. The thing that makes it difficult to be dogmatic about something like this is, we don’t know the idioms and colloquialisms of that particular time… it may seem like a stretch, but certainly not outside the realm of possibility that it was a figure of speech used to denote innocence. This explanation does seem to fit the record of events that unfold in the account. The Targum reads it this way: “as the son of a year, in whom there are no faults, so was Saul when he reigned;” Although the Targum does contain much midrashic expansion of the texts, here it seems to be understood by the rabbis as a figure of speech. This seems much more plausible to me, it just seems kind of incredible that scribes could make such an obvious mistake and lose the original age and time during the reign. Plus these Rabbis were not trying to work their way around a problem text… they were just paraphrasing it as they understood it. So the jist here is that for the first couple of years, he was innocent and did no wrong… after that however, well, you know the story… he was a rather naughty boy, lol.After that, “and when he had reigned two years over Israel” The chronologers (Seder Olam Rabba, c. 13. p. 35. Juchasin, fol. 11. 1. ) understand the whole of his reign to be two years. Now that seems pretty incredible, especially since Acts gives it a time frame of 40 years. Some interpret it he reigned two years well, and the rest in a tyrannical way; or that at the end of two years, when David was anointed, the kingdom was not reckoned to him, but to David; and to this purpose Dr. Lightfoot writes, that he had been king one year from his first anointing by Samuel at Ramah, to his second anointing by him at Gibeah (Gilgal I suppose he means); and he reigned after this two years more, before the Lord cast him off, and anointed David; and the time he ruled after that was not a rule, but a tyranny and persecution. If it is a MUST that the 2 years must be a total time of reign; if the intent is to give us that time, than this explanation makes the most sense. The official reign recognized by God from that point would be 2 years. Yet in human terms, he reigned a total of 40. This agrees with the perspective of the chronologers, and gives an actual time span of recognized reign. Now I do know that some insist there are numbers missing here, but I find it interesting that some experts such as Lightfoot seem to have no problem with this text… not a clincher but it seems to add credibility to the notion that to insist that numbers are missing and an attempt at giving an age of Saul is in view here at least could possibly be misunderstanding the text… of course I wouldn’t be dogmatic about it and of course respect very much your opinion :)And of course it’s possible the age information etc could be left out, as I believe inerrancy is of course referring to the “original documents”.Regards,Brian


  11. >Brian,All the proposed solutions that you give to solve the problem are only hypotheses. The fact is that even the rabbi had problems with the text. Some of the solutions you propose are creative ways of addressing the problem but some of them are just impossible. For instance, the one that he was innocent. What the rabbis probably meant was that “mentally” Saul was one year old.The other proposal, that he reigned 2 years as a good king and 38 years as a tyrant is a stretch of the imagination. If you read my explanation, 12 years for Saul’s reign fits the historical facts in 1 Samuel.I believe it is much better to accept the fact that the number is missing in the text. This view fits well with other biblical passages were words and even numbers were omitted by mistake.Claude Mariottini


  12. Marcy Powell says:

    So what’s to be done with Acts 13:21? Paul was a Pharisee from Saul’s tribe. What better source, besides Samuel, could you have on Saul’s reign?


    • Marcy,

      Paul was not a good source for Saul’s reign. Paul lived 1,000 years after Saul and what Paul learned about Saul, he learned from the writing of the rabbis who also learned from the rabbis who came before them.

      Samuel could not know how long Saul reigned because the Bible says that Samuel died before Saul died.

      Thank you for reading and commenting on the post.

      Claude Mariottini


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