Today I continue my study on suicide in the Bible. Today’s post on Saul’s suicide is the fourth post in this series. When the series is complete, there will be a total of ten posts on suicide. To read my previous posts on suicide, read my initial post, Suicide in the Bible.
The Text: 1 Samuel 31:1-4
Now the Philistines fought against Israel; and the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and many fell on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchishua, the sons of Saul. The battle pressed hard upon Saul; the archers found him, and he was badly wounded by them. Then Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me.” But his armor-bearer was unwilling; for he was terrified. So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it.
Saul’s Emotional Condition
Saul’s suicide comes at the end of Saul’s kingship, a kingship that began with great potential but ended with a tragic conclusion. Although kingship in Israel was not God’s intent (see 1 Samuel 8:7), Saul was chosen by God to lead the nation to fight against the Philistines. Most of Saul’s years as a king were spent fighting wars against the Philistines, against the Ammonites, against the Moabites, and against the Amalekites.
Saul had the potential of becoming a great king in Israel, but a series of events occurred that ended in the destruction of his reign and his family. Because of his disobedience and lack of trust in God, Saul was rejected by the prophet Samuel twice, which in turn led Saul to be rejected by God, who refused to answer him when he inquired of the Lord (1 Samuel 28:6).
These events were the reason for Saul’s emotional instability, which probably led him to have a nervous breakdown. Saul’s mental problem is expressed by what appears to be an act of hostility by God against Saul: “Now the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him” (1 Samuel 16:14).
Many things contributed to Saul’s mental problems. One of Saul’s problems was his inferiority complex. Although he was the king of Israel, Saul was little in his own eyes (1 Samuel 15:17). Another problem was the emotional drain caused by many wars he fought during the years of his reign. This is known today as combat fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder. Saul’s greatest problem was his rejection by God. Once Saul was rejected by Samuel, Saul was unable to maintain his relationship with God.
The event that led Saul to take his own life was the threat the Philistines posed to Israel: “The Philistines assembled, and came and encamped at Shunem. Saul gathered all Israel, and they encamped at Gilboa. When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. When Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets” (1 Samuel 28:4-6).
Saul felt isolated, without the help of God and unable to discover God’s will on what to do about the Philistine threat. With little hope of succeeding in his struggle against the Philistines, Saul made a desperate decision: he went to consult a medium to get help from her: “Saul said to his servants, Get me a woman who has control of a spirit so that I may go to her and get directions. And his servants said to him, There is such a woman at Endor” (1 Samuel 28:7).
When the woman summoned the spirit of Samuel, Saul said to Samuel: “I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams; so I have summoned you to tell me what I should do” (1 Samuel 28:15). The spirit of Samuel said to Saul: “the LORD will give Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines; and tomorrow you and your sons shall be with me; the LORD will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 28:19).
What was foretold by the spirit of Samuel came to pass when the army of Israel battled the Philistines on Mount Gilboa. The encounter between the army of Israel and the army of the Philistines was devastating for Saul and his men. Saul was badly wounded by the Philistine archers. Klein (2006:285) says that a better translation is that Saul “was in severe pain from the archers.” According to Klein, it was the severe pain and Saul’s distress that led Saul to take his own life.
Badly wounded, Saul asked his armor-bearer to kill him: “Saul said to his armor-bearer, ‘Draw your sword and thrust me through with it, so that these uncircumcised may not come and thrust me through, and make sport of me’” (1 Samuel 31:4). Saul’s request to his armor bearer was to avoid the humiliation that his enemies would cause him. Saul knew that if he was captured alive, the Philistines would torture him or treat him with contempt (1 Samuel 31:4). When his armor-bearer refused to kill him, Saul fell upon his own sword and killed himself. Thus, on Mount Gilboa, Saul and his three sons, Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchishua, and many Israelite warriors were killed by the Philistines. A fourth son, named Eshbaal (1 Chronicles 8:33; he appears as Ishbosheth in 2 Samuel 2:8), survived and was proclaimed king of Israel by Abner, the commander of Saul’s army. Eshbaal reigned in Israel two years (2 Samuel 2:10).
Suicide in the Old Testament is very rare. There is no word for suicide in the Hebrew Bible. In addition, there is no law condemning or prohibiting suicide. Saul took his own life because he was facing a desperate situation. In taking his own life, Saul was revealing the troubled aspect of his life and his isolation from God.
However, Saul’s suicide and his effort to avoid the humiliation at the hands of the Philistines did not accomplish what Saul desired because on the next day, when the Philistines came to plunder the bodies of the dead soldiers, they found the bodies of Saul and his sons. They cut off his head and stripped off his armor and impaled his body on the wall of Beth-shan in an effort to mock and ridicule the people of Israel. The biblical author does not say whether the bodies of Saul’s sons were also desecrated.
The Philistines placed Saul’s armor in the temple of the goddess Ashtaroth (also known as Astarte). To place the armor of a dead warrior in the temple of a god was a common practice in the Ancient Near East. The sword of Goliath was placed in an Israelite sanctuary of Nob under the supervision of Ahimelech. Ahimelech said to David: “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you killed in the valley of Elah, is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod” (1 Samuel 21:9). In addition, the Philistines took the head of Saul as a trophy of war in the same way that Goliath’s head was taken to Jerusalem after David killed him (1 Samuel 17:54).
The Philistines used the death of Saul for political purposes. The Philistines “sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to the houses of their idols and to the people” (1 Samuel 31:9). But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, they came to Beth-shan by night and took the bodies of Saul and his sons. They returned to Jabesh-gilead and there they cremated the remains of Saul and his sons and then they took their bones and gave them an honorable burial (1 Samuel 31:12-13). Cremation was not practiced in ancient Israel. Burning the body of the dead was allowed only under certain serious crimes (Leviticus 20:14).
The Second Account of Saul’s Death
There is a different account regarding Saul’s death in 2 Samuel 1:10. In this account an Amalekite approached David and told him that he had killed Saul. When David asked the Amalekite to describe what happened, he said to David: “[Saul] said to me, ‘Come, stand over me and kill me; for convulsions have seized me, and yet my life still lingers.’ So I stood over him, and killed him, for I knew that he could not live after he had fallen. I took the crown that was on his head and the armlet that was on his arm, and I have brought them here to my lord” (2 Samuel 1:9-10).
Most scholars believe that the Amalekite’s story is a fabrication. Both the writer of Samuel and the writer of Chronicles affirm that Saul killed himself by falling upon his sword. Both the writers of Samuel and Chronicles go against the narrative in 2 Samuel 1-10 where the Amalekite says that he killed Saul. In addition, 2 Samuel 21:12 says that David went to get the bones of Saul and his sons who were killed by the Philistines.
Some people believe that Saul did not commit suicide. In his commentary on the Bible, Adam Clark wrote:
To the question, “Was not Saul a self-murderer?” I scruple not to answer, “No.” He was to all appearance mortally wounded, when he begged his armor-bearer to extinguish the remaining spark of life; and he was afraid that the Philistines might abuse his body, if they found him alive; and we can scarcely say how much of indignity is implied in this word; and his falling on his sword was a fit of desperation, which doubtless was the issue of a mind greatly agitated, and full of distraction. A few minutes longer, and his life would in all probability have ebbed out; but though this wound accelerated his death, yet it could not be properly the cause of it, as he was mortally wounded before, and did it on the conviction that he could not survive.
The Bible is clear on the issue of Saul’s death: he committed suicide: “So Saul took his own sword and fell upon it . . . So Saul died” (1 Samuel 31:3, 6).
Shemesh, in his study of six cases of suicide in the Hebrew Bible, concludes that, in extreme situations, suicide may be viewed with sympathetic eyes. He wrote:
We can infer from these stories that suicide is a legitimate option in exceptional and extremely difficult situations and that a person who chooses that route is not to be condemned out of hand. In the case of Samson, the biblical narrator praises him for the manner of his death, which continues his mission of avenging the Israelites against the Philistines (2009:167).
The Old Testament does not forbid suicide, but it is silent about whether it is allowed. Although Judaism condemns suicide, the Midrash says that under mitigating circumstances, suicide is not wrong. For instance, Genesis Rabba does not condemn Saul because he “committed suicide to save himself from the Philistines” (Gen. R. 34:13). It does not also condemn Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah “Who risked their lives, which is akin to suicide, in order to sanctify God’s name.”
Judaism also makes a distinction between suicide “while of sound mind” and suicide “while of unsound mind.” A suicide “while of sound mind” requires a deliberate intent to kill oneself. A suicide “while of unsound mind.” requires a special circumstance, as in the case of Saul, who feared that he would be tortured or exposed to ridicule.
As Christians, we believe the preservation of life is of supreme importance because human beings are created in the image of God. Suicide is a heinous act, but suicide should not be classified as murder. Although the Old Testament is silent on the issue of suicide, the Old Testament does not approve suicide nor does it say that suffering is a valid reason for suicide.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Ralph W. Klein, 1 Chronicles. Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.
Shemesh, Yael, “Suicide in the Bible.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 37 (2009): 157-168.