|Vol. 10, No. 8||© James B. Jordan, 1998||August, 1998|
THE PROBLEM OF SAUL'S REIGN
by James B. Jordan
The first piece of chronological information we have regarding Israel's kings is very cryptic, and it serves as an guide to the interpretation of some later mysterious statements we shall find as we go along.
1 Samuel 13:1 literally says: "A son of one year was Saul when he became king, and two years he reigned over Israel." There are two obvious problems with this verse. First, how could Saul become king when he was one year old, and especially since he obviously was much older? Second, how can it be said that Saul only reigned two years, when clearly he reigned for many more (including the whole time David was in exile)? As we have seen, the actual number of years Saul reigned was 40, which settles the larger chronological question, but which forces us again to consider what to do with 1 Samuel 13:1.
One solution, which we find in the New International Version, is to assume that 1 Samuel 13:1 has become corrupted in transmission. A few late manuscripts of the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament read that Saul was 30 years old when he began to reign, so that is how the NIV renders the first half of the verse. Then, taking Acts 13:21 into account, the NIV assumes that a number had dropped out of the second half of 1 Samuel 13:1, so that it should read, "and 42 years he reigned over Israel." The NIV footnotes explains that the translators have assumed that Acts 13:21 is giving a round number when it says he only reigned for 40 years.
If, however, there is a way to interpret 1 Samuel 13:1 without changing it, we should do so. Besides, Saul must have been older than thirty at this time because he had a grown son, Jonathan, who was old enough to serve in the army with him. Saul was probably about 40 when he began to reign, reigned 40 years, and died at about 80 years of age.
Martin Anstey points to a better interpretation, but misses the mark. With many older commentators, he states that Saul's 2-year reign only covers the time when he legitimately ruled Israel. For the remainder of his reign, he says, "are years of the unrecognized and illegitimate tyranny of Saul, the usurper of David's throne, and the rejected of the Lord."
The problem with this interpretation is that David was not yet anointed, so Saul could not be usurping David's throne. In fact, David would not be born for eight more years. Also, David never regarded Saul's reign as an illegitimate usurpation of the throne. In fact, David went out of his way to accord Saul respect as the Lord's anointed and as Israel's proper ruler.
The first half of the verse, Anstey maintains, should not be translated "A son of one year was Saul when he began reigning," but rather "A son of one year was Saul in his reigning." In other words, 1 Samuel 13:1 means that Saul has already reigned one year, and has only two more legitimate years to reign. This is how the translators of the original and new King James versions interpreted the clause, for they rendered it: "Saul reigned one year."
It is true that the phrase translated "when he began reigning," is literally in Hebrew "in his reigning," but this is the phrase used everywhere else in the Old Testament to denote the beginning of a man's reign (2 Samuel 2:10; 5:4; 1 Kings 14:21; etc.) Unless it means something else here, which is what Anstey asserts, we shall have to look for another interpretation.
So, then, first of all, what does it mean that Saul was only one year old when he began to reign? The answer is not hard to find. As I have shown elsewhere, Saul was adopted by Samuel as his son when Samuel anointed him king (1 Samuel 10:9). Thus, Saul was said to be in the company of the prophets, "and who is their father?" (1 Samuel 10:12). Their father was Samuel, and so at this point Saul was adopted by Samuel.
After this adoption, Saul was made a judge, and he defeated Nahash ("serpent") the Ammonite. After that victory, Saul was proclaimed king (1 Samuel 11).
Now we are in a position to understand the meaning of 1 Samuel 13:1a in context. It means that a year after Saul's adoption by Samuel, or within that year, he became king "when he was one year old." This interpretation does full justice to the grammar of 1 Samuel 13:1a as well as to its context.
Now, what about the second half of 1 Samuel 13:1? What were Saul's two years of reign? Many older expositors link this half of the verse with verse 2, so that it reads: "and when he had reigned two years over Israel, Saul chose. . . ." This is also the way the translators of the original and new King James versions took it. The problem with this translation is, again, that the phrase is a formula used everywhere else for the actual length of a king's reign (2 Samuel 2:10; 5:4; 1 Kings 14:21; etc.).
Moreover, the King James translation does not make much sense: "Saul reigned one year. And when Saul had reigned two years. . . ." Why not just write, "And after Saul had reigned two years"? If the writer of Samuel meant to say this, why would he use words identical to a formula he will later use to denote the king's age at the time of his accession, and the length of his reign?
We have seen that in context Saul can properly be said to have been one year old when he became king. Now, the text tells us that he reigned for two years. What happened during these two years? The events are recounted in 1 Samuel 13-15, which record the three falls of Saul. At the end, after Saul's third and final rebellion against the Lord, Samuel announced to him that the kingdom had been taken from him, and that he had been rejected from being king (1 Samuel 15:26-28). Yet, even though Saul was rejected at this point from being king in a spiritual sense, Samuel continued to treat Saul as king in a national sense (1 Samuel 15:30). Saul's kingship was not illegal (contrary to Anstey), but it was assuredly doomed.
What we need to learn from this interpretation is this: Sometimes the chronology will date a king's reign not from his natural birth, but from some other spiritual event in his history, or in Israel's history. Sometimes the length of a king's reign will be given in terms of something other than his literal rule over the nation.
What this means for us is that we cannot simply run through the text of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles and add up years, assuming in every case that they measure the literal age of a man when he begins his reign and the literal number of years he reigns. In most cases, of course, such a procedure is proper, but in every case we have to read the information in context, comparing Scripture with Scripture, and make sure that our interpretation is sound before adding up the numbers.
SAUL IN CONTEXT
As we have seen, the death of the judge Abdon in the year 2909 provoked a national crisis. Samuel appointed his own sons as judges, but they were not respected, and the people demanded a king. Thus, in this year, Saul was anointed king by Samuel, led the people in a victory over the Ammonites, and was crowned king of Israel. The year 2910 was his first year of reign. Samuel was around 49 years old at this time. Saul was probably around 40, since he had a grown son.
David was 30 when Saul died, so that David was born in the tenth year of Saul's reign (2 Samuel 5:4). Samuel was around 58. Saul had already been rejected for eight years. Since Jonathan was already a member of the army when Saul was rejected, he must have been at least 20 at that time (Numbers 1:3). Thus, Jonathan was about 30 when David was born (a matter worth paying close attention to). If David was anointed by Samuel at the age of 10, this would be at the mid-point of Saul's 40-year reign, and Jonathan would be 40. Samuel would be around 68.
If David was 15 when he slew Goliath, Jonathan would be 45 years old at the time he and David formed their friendship. Samuel was around 73.
David served as Saul's armor bearer for several years, and then joined the army at age 20. He became so popular that Saul drove him out into exile, probably at the age of 23 or so. Samuel was about 81. Jonathan would be about 53 at that time. During David's exile, Samuel died (1 Samuel 25:1), perhaps at the age of 85.
David became king when Saul died at the age of about 80, and Jonathan died at the same time, at about 60 years of age. Saul's youngest son, Ishbosheth, was 40 (1 Samuel 14:49; 31:2; 2 Samuel 2:10).
2909 Death of Abdon; Samuel appoints sons, rejected; anointing of
Saul; accession of Saul. Saul is around 40. Jonathan is around 20.
2910 Saul year 1. Samuel is 49.
2919 Birth of David. Samuel is 58.
2929 (Hypothetical) anointing of David at age 10. Samuel is 68.
2934 (Hypothetical) David kills Goliath. Jonathan around 45.
2939 David, age 20, enters army; rapidly becomes famous.
2942 (Hypothetical) David driven away by Saul. Jonathan around 53.
2949 Accession of David. Jonathan dies at around age 60.
2950 David year 1.
2989 Accession of Solomon.
2990 Solomon year 1.
2993 Foundation of Temple laid, 480 years after Exodus.
3000 Completion of Temple.
Copyright 1998, James
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