What do you think about 1 Samuel 13:1? In my Bible it states that the Hebrew manuscripts state "Saul was … years old when he became king; and he reigned two years over Israel". I’ve looked at several different versions of the verse and some state one year old, and two years over Israel and others state thirty years old and forty two years over Israel. I understand that numbers sometimes are copied down differently and there could have been a copyist error. However, none of the Hebrew manuscripts state thirty and forty, only the Septuagint. Thus I wanted to get your thoughts on this passage. Once again thanks Dr. Oakes for your hard work and love for God.


It is apparent that you are aware that there is a particular difficulty with accurate copying of numbers in Hebrew texts. Their number system was similar to Roman numerals, in that it used letters to represent numbers. A quick glance at the Hebrew letters used for the numbers will show that some of them are rather similar in shape, making the likelihood of a copying error particularly great. Add to this the fact that context is not particularly helpful when copying numbers. For example, when I see the word worle I recognize that this is a spelling error and guess the actual word is world. If the number 770 is miscopied as 760, there is nothing in the number which tells us there is a copying error.
This is relevant to the question of 1 Samule 13:1. Clearly there are variations in the Hebrew manuscripts based on problems with copying the number. Here are two articles I found on the internet at and

I like the second article better than the first and tend toward the conclusion that the actual time of is reign was about 42 years and Paul rounded off in Acts to 40 years. The number 30 in the Septuagint is almost certainly a copying error. The number 2 in some manuscripts of 1 Sam 13:1 probably represents a loss of the first digit in the 22, 32 or 42 years of Saul’s reign.

John Oakes

Article #1

The reign-length of Saul
The purpose of this page is to consider the reign-length of Saul, as indicated by the various pieces of information in 1 and 2 Samuel. The difficulty arises because the passage in which Saul’s age at accession, and regnal length, has been damaged at an early stage of transmission of the text. Hence other secondary clues must be used, and the results are not certain. The resolution of the problem has bearing on how the book of Judges dovetails with the books of Samuel, as well as links with external matters.
Basic information
Assumptions and inferences
Timelines and interpretations
Chronological implications
Basic information
The basic Old Testament information on which this study is based is as follows:
The damaged text: 1 Samuel 13:1
Saul was XXX years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel for XXX-two years.
A few late Septuagint manuscripts have thirty for the first figure, but it is missing from the Hebrew. Many modern translations insert forty for the second figure, following Acts 13:21.
1 Samuel 9:2 – description of Saul
He [Kish] had a son named Saul, an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites – the word bahur is used here, suggesting not youthfulness but vigour (the word often being used of warriors). The emphasis is on Saul’s capacity for rule, not his age.
1 Samuel 10:1 – Saul anointed for rule.
Samuel … "Has not Yahweh anointed you leader over his inheritance..
1 Samuel 11 – Saul confirmed as king by the people
A campaign to relieve Jabesh Gilead from the Ammonites, ending with So all the people went to Gilgal and confirmed Saul as king.
1 Samuel 13:3, 4 – Jonathan at Saul’s accession
A thousand men were with Jonathan at Gibeah … Jonathan attacked the Philistine outpost at Geba…
1 Samuel 14:49 – Saul’s family
Saul’s sons were Jonathan, Ishvi and Malki-Shua. The name of his older daughter was Merab, and that of the younger was Michal. His wife’s name was Ahinoam…. 1 Chronicles 8:33 lists the sons as Jonathan, Malki-Shua, Abinadab and Ish-Baal. 2 Sam. 21:8 tells us that Saul also had a concubine Rizpah, with whom he had two sons Armoni and Mephibosheth. The preceding verses indicate a series of campaigns, and the following chapter describes a prolonged action against the Amalekites. At the start of the following chapter, Samuel anoints David as a young man for future kingship.
1 Samuel 16:18 – David enters Saul’s service
"… a son of Jesse … is a brave man and a warrior …" … David came to Saul and entered his service. The description suggests a mature man who had already gained the respect of others.
1 Samuel 17:33 – David at the confrontation with Goliath
You [David] are not able to go out against [Goliath] and fight him: you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth. It is often thought that this recounts a rather earlier episode concerning Saul and David, than the account in chapter 16 of David entering military service. It is otherwise hard to account for several features, including Saul’s inability to recognise David on his arrival.
1 Samuel 18 – David’s rise to fame
David rises in rank in Saul’s army, marries Michal, and develops a close friendship with Jonathan, at the same time arousing Saul’s jealousy.
1 Samuel 19-27 – David in exile, pursued by Saul
David leaves Saul, Jonathan and Michal, and moves repeatedly from place to place to elude Saul. He remains in Gath for 1 year 4 months, as well as unspecified times in more remote locations. During this time Samuel dies, and David marries Ahinoam and Abigail, Michal having been given in marriage to Paltiel.
1 Samuel 28-31 – the death of Saul and Jonathan
The Battle of Gilboa, at which Saul and his sons Jonathan, Abinadab (previously unmentioned in the books of Samuel) and Malki-Shua die. Saul’s body is publicly displayed at Beth-shan, but recovered by men of Jabesh Gilead for burial.
2 Samuel 2 – Regnal details for David and Ish-bosheth
David moves to Hebron, where he reigns for 7 years 6 months. Also Ish-bosheth son of Saul was forty years old when he became king over Israel, and he reigned 2 years.
2 Samuel 4:4 – Jonathan’s son
Jonathan … had a son … He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel … His name was Mephibosheth. 1 Chronicles 8:34 names him as Merib-Baal.
2 Samuel 5:4 – Sumamry of David’s reign
David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned for forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah for seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah for thirtythree years
Acts 13:21, recording a speech by Paul
[God] gave them Saul … who ruled for forty years.
Josephus, Antiquities Book 6, Ch. 14:9
Saul reigned 18 years while Samuel was alive and after his death 2 years.
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Assumptions and inferences
As well as the basic pieces of information above, the following extra items appear reasonable:
Saul was about 20 when Jonathan was born – it is more likely he was a little older, given the apparent tendency of Israelite kings to have children in their mid-twenties.
Jonathan was about 18 at the start of Saul’s reign – he was entrusted with leading an attack on a Philistine outpost at this time (1 Samuel 13:2,3). Again, a higher figure is more probable. The sum of these first two gives Saul’s age at his accession to the throne – in this case 38. It is difficult to see how this could be realistically reduced to 30 years to fit the Septuagint reading of 1 Samuel 13:1, though a few years’ reduction could be made.
Ish-bosheth – presumed to be the same as Ishvi of 1 Samuel 14:49 – was younger than Jonathan.
Jonathan and David were approximately the same age – the closeness of their friendship does not preclude widely differing ages but renders it less likely.
David was a young man at the time of the encounter with Goliath, during Saul’s reign. 1 Samuel 17:33 contrasts David "you are only a boy" with Goliath "he has been a fighting man from his youth", and the same Hebrew word na’ar is used in both phrases. The same word is, for example, used of Joseph at age 17. This would suggest that Saul had reigned long enough for David to have encountered him once as a youth – probably in his teens – in connection with Goliath, and a second time rather later when he entered his service in a military capacity.
Samuel is getting old when he anoints Saul for kingship (1 Samuel 8:1-4). Since his sons were old enough (though not moral enough) to be judges themselves at this time, they must be presumed to be around 30, and Samuel at least 50 years old. He lived to anoint David as well, but died before the battle of Gilboa.
As a starting-point, it will be supposed that the XXX-two value for Saul’s reign length should be replaced with 2, 12, 22, 32, or 42 – in other words just the tens figure has been lost and the units figure is correct.
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Timelines and interpretations
The following diagrams show how the above pieces of information can be combined.
First, suppose Saul reigns for 2 years. Jonathan is about 18 at the start of Saul’s reign, and David is 30 at the end of it, so David is about 10 years older than Jonathan. Mephibosheth – five years old when Saul and Jonathan die – was born when Jonathan was only 15. Ish-bosheth was at most 20 when he became king over Israel. This combination seems improbable given the basic information listed above, as few of the implied connections fit vey well. The age difference between David and Jonathan could be lessened by supposing that Saul and Jonathan were both older than the values shown – for example if Saul was about 10 years older and Jonathan in his late twenties at the time of his father’s accession. However, it is not at all clear that 2 years is sufficient time for all of the events recounted in 1 Samuel 13-27 (David’s rise to fame within Israel, his marriage, and subsequent flight from place to place) to fit within a two year span, given that rather over a year is accounted for purely at Gath. Additionally, David would be 28 when Saul took the throne, and it is not clear that the description of him as a youth would have been used.
Now suppose Saul reigns for 12 years. David and Jonathan are about the same age, thus making this an appealing solution. Both are about 18 when Saul becomes king. Mephibosheth is born when Jonathan is about 25, again a reasonable value. Ish-bosheth is at most 30 when he takes Saul’s place as king. Saul is about 50 when he leads his troops to the defeat at Gilboa.
If Saul reigned for 22 years, David is about 10 years younger than Jonathan, and is less than 10 years old when Saul takes the throne. Ish-bosheth could be nearly 40 when he took the throne (depending how long after Jonathan he was born), fitting with 2 Samuel 2. Jonathan would be about 35 when Mephibosheth was born. Presuming Samuel anoints David at around 20 years of age, he would have been at least 60 at this point of time, a realistic figure. This reign-length also fits with Josephus’ information, though not of course with Paul’s as recorded in Acts. Saul would be around 60 at Gilboa.
Suppose Saul reigned for 32 years. David is about 20 years younger than Jonathan, and is himself born a few years after the start of Saul’s reign. He would also, of course, be substantially younger than Michal, Saul’s younger daughter. Jonathan is about 45 when his son Mephibosheth is born. Samuel would be rather over 70 years old when anointing David, and Saul around 70 at the Battle of Gilboa.
Finally, what if Saul reigned for 42 years? David is about 30 years younger than Jonathan. He was born over a decade after the start of Saul’s reign. Once again he is substantially younger than Michal. Jonathan is about 55 when his son Mephibosheth is born. Samuel would be rather over 80 years old when anointing David, and Saul would be leading his army at the Battle of Gilboa at an age of around 80.
It is clear from the above that a 2-year reign seems unlikely. Hardly any of the basic pieces of information can be preserved. Conversely, a reign-length for Saul of more than 30 years suffers from opposite problems. David and Jonathan differ considerably in age, and Jonathan is unusually old for Mephibosheth to be his firstborn. It also seems unlikely that Saul would still be actively leading his army to battle at over 70 years of age.
So the balance of probability seems to favour a reign between 10 and 20 years. This means that most of the basic information points and reasonable suppositions about the lives of the individuals concerned can be met, and agrees with the tradition Josephus knew.
However, it does not fit with the speech of Paul at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. There are a number of possible resolutions to this. It is possible that Paul’s intention was to say that David (who he goes on to mention immediately after) reigned for forty years, and that the clause has become misplaced from one sentence to the other. Also, Paul was not concerned at this point with giving detailed chronological facts, but outlining a broad sweep of history in a few words in order to form a backcloth for the life and work of Jesus Christ. Finally, it may well be that several diverse traditions concerning Saul were in existence, and that the forty year option was the one Paul had been taught.


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.
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.

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