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How Long Did Saul Reign?

I’ve salvaged the last dozen or so posts from the old blog that I’d kind of like to hold onto. Here is one of them: a sketch of some of the problems surrounding the reign-length of Saul, Israel’s first king.

I. The Textual Evidence in 1 Sa 13:1

A. Literal translation

A literal translation is impossible: “Saul was one year old [lit., a son of one year] when he began to reign, and two years he reigned over Israel.” So, how are we to deal with this text?

B. The Majority View

The majority scholarly conclusion is that two numbers have dropped out of the Hebrew text (due to copyists’ errors, deterioration of the manuscripts, etc.). This is how most modern translations deal with it. They assume “…and two” to be the final digit of a larger number, usually 12 or 22 (cf. NEB), although some translations make it 32 or 42:

1. NASB 1 Sa 13:1: “Saul was forty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-two years over Israel.”

2. NIV has Saul’s accession at age 30 and his reign length 42 years.

C. One Number Dropped?

Others think only one number has dropped out (Saul’s age at accession) and take the other number, the two-year reign-length, at face value.

1. This is how the JPS translation deals with it: “Saul was … years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel two years.” A footnote explains, “The number is lacking in the Heb. text; also, the precise context of the ‘two years’ is uncertain. The verse is lacking in the Septuagint.”

2. Up until the 19th century, it was commonly assumed that only one number had dropped out, and that Saul indeed “reigned two years.” But does that mean the totality of his reign or how long before he was rejected?

D. No Missing Numbers?

Finally, some insist there are no missing numbers, but find a way to interpret them that goes beyond a face-value reading of the text.

1. One common reading is that Saul was as innocent as a one-year old when he began to reign.

The Targum: “like a one-year-old who had no sins.” The Vulgate: “Saul was a child of one year when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel.” The Douay version note on this verse explains, “That is, he was good and like an innocent child, and for two years continued in that innocency.”

2. Pett suggests, in the absence of a professional court recorder, the Deuteronomic historian fell back on a more primitive way to use numbers: “Saul was a young man when he began to reign and he reigned until his maturity.” This would be an attractive solution in that it could accommodate just about any reign length, but the problem is that there seems to be at least the appearance of real chronological data in Judges, even if we are at a loss as to how to interpret it. If there was no need to resort to this method of counting in the Judges period, why here?

E. The King James Translation

KJV translation is literal, to be sure, but it is not “face-value.” The same formulaic expression is used throughout 1 Kings to describe a king’s age at accession and the length of his reign. The burden of proof is on those who would see some other significance to these words.

II. Later Jewish Traditions

A. Face-Value Reading

Some, apparently the majority, seem to accept the two-year reign length at face value.

1. Seder Olam Rabbah (ca. AD 160) gives a two-year reign.

2. The Talmud says Saul reigned for three years, one of which was together with Samuel. (Temuroth 15a).

If there were a year between Saul’s anointing and 1 Sa 13:1, this would be in conformity with the Masoretic Text. We must also keep in mind the phenomenon of accession reckoning, by which a king’s first regnal year begins with the new year after his accession. If Saul’s rule were calculated according to accession reckoning, the MT’s “two years” could be expanded to nearly three.

3. Rashi also gave Saul a three-year reign.

B. Other traditions give Saul a longer reign.

1. This Jewish chronology assigns Saul 10 years (or 11 if using non-accession reckoning): from 2882 to 2892 AM. Unfortunately, I can find no reference to the primary source from which this reign-length is derived.

2. Abarbanel gives 17 years

3. Josephus sometimes gives 20 years; sometimes 40.

Ant. 6:378: “Now Saul, when he had reigned eighteen years while Samuel was alive, and after his death two and twenty, ended his life in this manner.”

[NB: the “and twenty” is mathematically impossible unless we suppose that David, 30 years old at his accession [2 Sa 5:4], was 8 years old when Samuel died, having by that point already defeated Goliath, married Michal, etc.!]

Ant. 10:143: “And after this manner have the kings of David’s race ended their lives, being in number twenty-one, until the last king, who all together reigned five hundred and fourteen years, and six months, and ten days; of whom Saul, who was their first king, retained the government twenty years, though he was not of the same tribe with the rest.”

4. Paul: 40 years (Ac 13:21).

III. Tentative Conclusions.

A. Factors Suggesting a Longer Reign

Certain chronological indicators seem to favor a reign longer than two or three years.

1. There seems to be a progression from Saul the bachur (a man in the prime of life) in 1 Sa 9 to Saul the capable military leader in 1 Sa 11 to Saul the father of an adult warrior in 1 Sa 13. This would suggest there are a few missing years in the narrative of Saul’s early reign, which is borne out by the description of the events surrounding his accession:

In 1 Sa 10:27a “some worthless fellows” rejected Saul’s kingship from the start and refused to bring him gifts‚ an act of outright rebellion that would also have imposed financial limits on the nascent government. From the Jewish Encyclopedia:

Saul probably could not as yet safely assume the rule over Israel; but the desperate straits into which the people of Jabesh-gilead had fallen before Nahash the Ammonite soon furnished him with his opportunity.

From Tony Cartledge’s 1-2 Samuel Commentary:

Saul appears as an active farmer when the narrative begins, suggesting that the story originated separately from the preceding accounts of his anointing. (1-2 Samuel [Smyth & Helwys, 2001] 153)

Saul’s earlier anointing by Samuel had provided no evidence of his ability to deliver Israel from its enemies (see 10:27), but his leadership in the liberation of Jabesh-gilead offered indisputable confirmation of his aptitude for kingship. Thus, Saul’s earlier anointing at Mizpah is reenacted publicly at Gilgal, an ancient sanctuary site near Jericho where Israel had reenacted their covenant ceremony upon entering Canaan (154).

2. David is called a na’ar (a child or adolescent) and an ‘elem (“stripling” NRSV, “young fellow” JPS; i.e., someone of marriageable age or close to it) in 1 Sa 17:56, but he is 30 upon his accession at the end of Saul’s reign. The usage of na’ar may be pejorative when Goliath uses it and may suggest “servant” when Saul does (cf. 1 Sa 9:3), but ‘elem definitely points to a young adult. If these indications are correct, Saul’s reign must have lasted at least 10-12 years. Even so, we must consider the majority rabbinic tradition that Saul indeed reigned for two (or three) years, and that David must therefore have necessarily been in his late 20’s when he faced Goliath. The Köhler-Baumgartner Hebrew Lexicon gives “young, vigorous man” as a possible translation of ‘elem. He was by no means a “shepherd boy” as is usually understood. Rather, he was old enough to be interested in finding a wife! But at what point would he have stopped being an ‘elem? Twenty years old? Twenty-five?

3. The closer Saul’s son Jonathan and David were in age, the more plausible is their fast friendship. If all the numbers are taken at face value, Jonathan had to be at least 11-12 years older, since Saul’s second son, Ishbaal, was 40 years old when he began to reign compared to David’s 30. Jonathan was clearly an adult by 1 Sa 13:2 as commander of one-third of Saul’s army (Nu 1:3 stipulates age 20 for military service). He may have been older than 20 at this time, but he could not have been younger.

4. We can track an optimum date for the taking of Geba and Michmash (1 Sa 13) and David’s defeat of Goliath (1 Sa 17) as follows:

If we assume Jonathan was age 41-42 at his death in 1011 BC (when David was 30), then the taking of Geba and Michmash could have occurred no earlier than ca. 1033-1032 BC. He would have been twenty at that time. Pushing the date of the events of 1 Sa 13 up any further requires extending the age difference between Jonathan and David. Pushing the dates down makes Jonathan older at the time of the offensive but does not narrow the difference in ages between him and David. If we assume David was age 17-22 when he faced Goliath, that puts this incident ca. 1024-1019 BC. If we are willing to assume that the Hebrew word ‘elem can refer to someone as old as age 25, we can push the faceoff with Goliath down to about 1015. Also, if we allow for “age 30” to be a round number, we might buy another year or two.

Therefore, Saul’s reign (at least the interesting parts!) seem to require at least five or six years and perhaps as many as twenty-two.

B. “Forty Years”: Too Long

Even so, Paul’s “forty years” seems to be stretching it.

1. “Forty” is an almost archetypical round number in the Bible.

  • Many of Israel’s early leaders are recorded as ruling for forty years: Moses (Josh 5:6), Othniel (Jdg 3:11), Gideon (Jdg 8:28), Eli (1 Sa 4:18), David (2 Sa 5:4), Solomon (2 Ch 9:30).
  • Pett’s discussion of use of numbers in ancient cultures suggests that often, especially in the earlier parts of Scripture, numbers indicate approximate, traditional, or hyperbolic figures rather than exact data. “Forty years” may suggest a suitable period of time (many of the patriarchs were married at age 40), a long time, a full generation, etc.
  • Ishbaal’s age of “40 years” may well be such an approximation or traditional use of numbers, but it is difficult to believe he was not David’s elder by several years.

2. There may well have been a gap or two in the narrative (I would suggest between 10:27a and 27b and between 13:1 and 13:2), but can these gaps span 20 years or more?

3. Finally, the chronology of the judges is awfully tightly-packed as it is. Even assuming a mid-15th century exodus, I can only get the Judges data to fit the time frame allowed by overlapping Ehud and Deborah’s judgeships and the Ammonite and Philistine oppressions. By adopting the Seder Olam’s notices for (1) the number of years between the death of Moses and the Aramean oppression in Judges 3, and (2) the judgeship of Samuel after the victory at Mizpah, I calculate a reign of Saul that has to be precisely 12 years. By fiddling around with chronology of 1 Sa 1-7 you can probably get another 10 years, but I’m not sure there is much more slack than that to be found.

technorati tags: chronology, david, samuel, saul


  1. Darrell,

    I enjoyed you article on Saul’s reign. I also have a post on Saul’s reign and came to the conclusion that Saul reigned 12 years. You can read my post, ” Rereading 1 Samuel 13:1″ here: http://www.claudemariottini.com/blog/2005/12/rereading-1-samuel-131.html.

    Claude Mariottini


  2. D. P. says:

    Thanks, Claude. Glad you stopped by.


  3. Ian Hamilton says:

    Interesting. have you considered what we are told in 1Sam.7:20 and 2Sam.6:3? If the ark lay for 20 years in KJ and David brought it ultimately to Jerusalem (after 20 years?), what does this say about the length of Saul’s kingship? Thank you.


  4. Darrell Pursiful says:

    Hi Ian. Thanks for commenting.

    Claude Mariottini figures the 20 years of 1 Sam 7:2 span from the incident noted there to David’s transfer of the ark to Jerusalem in 2 Sam 6:3. You can read the post linked in his comment for details. I prefer to see the 20 years as the span between the capture of the ark (1 Sam 5:1) and Samuel rallying Israel at Mizpah (1 Sam 7:5), an event the Seder Olam Rabbah places 10 years before the accession of Saul.


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