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.
NOTE: For other studies on Saul, read my post Saul, King of Israel.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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