How Long Did Saul Reign in Israel?

In a recent post on Saul, the first king of Israel, Tyler F. Williams wrote:

When we turn to the book of Chronicles, Saul’s fate is even worse! All that is left of Saul’s two year reign is a couple geneological [sic] notes (1Chron 8:33; 9:39) and a short chapter detailing his death on Mount Gilboa (1Chron 10:1-14).

The statement that Saul reigned only two years in Israel finds no support in the biblical text. It is true that a proper regnal formula is missing in 1 Samuel 13:1. The reason for this is because the numbers in the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 13:1 are missing.

The New Revised Standard Version recognizes the problem of the missing numbers by leaving blank spaces. This is how the NRSV translates 1 Samuel 13:1:

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

Over the years, biblical translators have made several attempts at guessing how old Saul was when he became king of Israel and how long his reigned lasted. Here are a few examples:

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 Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) translates 1 Samuel 13:1 as follows:
“Saul was 30 years old when he became king, and he reigned 42 years over Israel.”

The New English Translation (NET) translates as follows:
“Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign; he ruled over Israel for forty years.”

The New American Standard Bible (NAB) 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 (NEB) translates as follows:
“Saul was fifty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for twenty-two years.”

The TNK translates as follows:
“Saul was . . . years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel 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 Douay-Rheims Bible (1899 American Edition) translates as follows:
“Saul was a child of one year when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel.”

The American Standard Version (ASV) 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 (KJV) 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.

These translations reveal several factors:

1. No one knows how old Saul was when he began to reign in Israel because the text does not give his age when he ascended the throne.

2. Although the text does not say how long Saul reigned, the total years of his reign was a number that ended in two since the number missing in the Hebrew text ends in two.

3. The idea that Saul’s reign lasted forty-two years is based on a harmonization of the forty-years mentioned in Acts 13:21 with the number two that appears at the end of 1 Samuel 13:1.

A better 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.

Readers who only use one translation of the Bible will struggle to know the truth about Saul’s reign. 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. Translations such as the NIV and the others listed above 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, although no one knows how old Saul was when he became king of Israel, it is possible to know how long he reigned as king. However, it was not forty-two years, nor forty years (the reference in the New Testament notwithstanding), nor thirty-two years, nor twenty-two years, and not even two as Tyler proposed. I believe that the twelve years proposed by Tullock better fits the events narrated in 1 Samuel.

For a longer study of the problem of Saul’s reign, read my post, Rereading 1 Samuel 13:1.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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10 Responses to How Long Did Saul Reign in Israel?

  1. Hey Claude,Good catch… my mistake!

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  2. Tyler,

    I did not set out to catch a mistake. I thought your position was that Saul had reigned only two years. However, your post inspired me to reflect on the issue of Saul's reign.I hope you were not offended by my post.

    Claude Mariottini

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  3. Anonymous says:

    >Firstly, I'd like to say thank you for this tread post. Professor Mariottini, if you don't mind, I need some clarity on the quote from Tullock. I'm not sure how his desciption leaves a 12 year reign for Saul. Let me explain:Just for the example sake let's say David began his reign in Judah in year 100. If David didn't bring the Ark back into Jerusalem until 7 years into his reign, when he conquered it, that would place the year in 107. If we minus the approx. 20 years the Ark was in Kiriath-Jearim it brings us back to year 87. Then recognizing the 7 months the philistines had the Ark and the carry over 6 months of David before he took Jerusalem, we subtract 1 more year, bringing us to year 86. Subtracting 86 from 107 gives us a 21 year window. Not a 12 year window. Please explain. Ultimately, in my studies right my goal is to determine how long the Ark was displaced from Jerusalem before David brought it back. Thank again for posting this thread.Joshua

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  4. Joshua,

    Thank you for visiting my blog and for your comment.The problem with your reasoning is that you are doing your math backward and that does not work.If you read 1 Samuel 7:2, it says that the Ark was taken to Kiriath-jearim in the days of Samuel, before Saul became king and stayed there 20 years. So, these 20 years must include a few years before Saul became a king, all the reign of Saul, and the seven and a half years of David's reign.So, do the math again and you will see that your calculation was incorrect.

    Claude Mariottini

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  5. So if Saul reigned 12 years, why does the New Testament say he reigned 40 years?

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  6. Claude says:

    Timothy,

    The Old Testament never says how long Saul reigned. The number mentioned in the New Testament comes from Jewish tradition. The Jewish historian Josephus is the only one who says that Saul reigned for 40 years.If you follow the narrative of 1 Samuel and do the calculations, you will see that 12 years make better sense for the length of Saul's reign.

    Claude Mariottini

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  7. Hernandez, Leslie says:

    I had just finished talking to my mother about this exact passage (1 Samuel 7:2), Dr. Mariottini. I came across your post in search for why it says what it does in Acts 13:21. Thank you for letting us know that the reason why it mentions the space of 40 years is because it came from Jewish tradition. I also wanted to add that in 2 Samuel 5: 4-5 it says the following: 4David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. 5At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty-three years over all Israel and Judah. This then makes sense that Saul would tell him in 1 Samuel 17:33 what he did, ‘Then Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are but a youth while he has been a warrior from his youth.”’ If at this point David is a youth let’s say 15-16 years of age then he waits 14-15 years until he begins to reign. Then, by that point the ark has been in Kiriath-Jearim for about 5 years which when we read all the Scripture with ages and years that are actually written out in the original text we see that it doesn’t add up to more than 20 years of Saul reigning as king. The number of how long he did reign I still am uncertain of because of the original text of 1 Samuel 13:1 Reading “בֶּן” or “son of” as the first word found in the original text…Anyway, this is a bit more clearer to me that it was not as long as 40, 30, or even 20. Thank you for this write up! God keep giving you wisdom and insight through HIs Holy Scriptures and Spirit.

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    • Leslie,

      Thank you for your nice words and thank you for visiting my blog.

      In my blog I try to deal with passages such as this one because people have questions and sometimes it is difficult to find good answers to these problems in the Bible. I encourage you to read my book because there I deal with many other similar passages in the Old Testament. You can find a link to my book in the blog.

      Thank you for your comment.

      Claude Mariottini

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  8. Richard says:

    It does make sense especially if we accept that David entered the royal court as a teenager maybe around 17-19 and did not become king in Israel until he was 30. Sauls reign could therefore be guessed to be between 11 – 15 years

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