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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 31

Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament CommentaryKeil & Delitzsch


Death and Burial of Saul and His Sons - 1 Samuel 31:1-13

The end of the unhappy king corresponded to his life ever since the day of his rejection as king. When he had lost the battle, and saw his three sons fallen at his side, and the archers of the enemy pressing hard upon him, without either repentance or remorse he put an end to his life by suicide, to escape the disgrace of being wounded and abused by the foe (1 Samuel 31:1-7). But he did not attain his object; for the next day the enemy found his corpse and those of his sons, and proceeded to plunder, mutilate, and abuse them (1 Samuel 31:8-10). However, the king of Israel was not to be left to perish in utter disgrace. The citizens of Jabesh remembered the deliverance which Saul had brought to their city after his election as king, and showed their gratitude by giving an honourable burial to Saul and his sons (1 Samuel 31:11-13). There is a parallel to this chapter in 1 Chronicles 10:1-14, which agrees exactly with the account before us, with very few deviations indeed, and those mostly verbal, and merely introduces a hortatory clause at the end (1 Chronicles 10:13, 1 Chronicles 10:14).

Verses 1-7

The account of the war between the Philistines and Israel, the commencement of which has already been mentioned in 1 Samuel 28:1, 1 Samuel 28:4., and 1 Samuel 29:1, is resumed in 1 Samuel 31:1 in a circumstantial clause; and to this there is attached a description of the progress and result of the battle, more especially with reference to Saul. Consequently, in 1 Chronicles 10:1, where there had been no previous allusion to the war, the participle נלחמים is changed into the perfect. The following is the way in which we should express the circumstantial clause: “Now when the Philistines were fighting against Israel, the men of Israel fled before the Philistines, and slain men fell in the mountains of Gilboa” (vid., 1 Samuel 28:4). The principal engagement took place in the plain of Jezreel. But when the Israelites were obliged to yield, they fled up the mountains of Gilboa, and were pursued and slain there.

1 Samuel 31:2-6

The Philistines followed Saul, smote (i.e., put to death) his three sons (see at 1 Samuel 14:49), and fought fiercely against Saul himself. When the archers ( בּקּשׁת אנשׁים is an explanatory apposition to המּורים ) hit him, i.e., overtook him, he was greatly alarmed at them ( יחל , from חיל or חוּל ),

(Note: The lxx have adopted the rendering καὶ ἐτραυμάτισαν εἰς τὰ ὑποχόνδρια , they wounded him in the abdomen, whilst the Vulgate rendering is vulneratus est vehementer a sagittariis . In 1 Chronicles 10:3 the Sept. rendering is καὶ ἐπόνεσεν ἀπὸ τῶν τόξων , and that of the Vulgate et vulneraverunt jaculis . The translators have therefore derived יחל from חלל = חלה , and then given a free rendering to the other words. But this rendering is overthrown by the word מאד , very, vehemently, to say nothing of the fact that the verb חלל or חלה cannot be proved to be ever used in the sense of wounding. If Saul had been so severely wounded that he could not kill himself, and therefore asked his armour-bearer to slay him, as Thenius supposes, he would not have had the strength to pierce himself with his sword when the armour-bearer refused. The further conjecture of Thenius, that the Hebrew text should be read thus, in accordance with the lxx, המּררים אל ויּחל , “he was wounded in the region of the gall,” is opposed by the circumstance that ὑποχόνδρια is not the gall or region of the gall, but what is under the χόνδρος , or breast cartilage, viz., the abdomen and bowels.)

and called upon his armour-bearer to pierce him with the sword, “ lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and play with me,” i.e., cool their courage upon me by maltreating me. But as the armour-bearer would not do this, because he was very much afraid, since he was supposed to be answerable for the king's life, Saul inflicted death upon himself with his sword; whereupon the armour-bearer also fell upon his sword and died with his king, so that on that day Saul and this three sons and his armour-bearer all died; also “ all his men ” (for which we have “all his house” in the Chronicles), i.e., not all the warriors who went out with him to battle, but all the king's servants, or all the members of his house, sc., who had taken part in the battle. Neither Abner nor his son Ishbosheth was included, for the latter was not in the battle; and although the former was Saul's cousin and commander-in-chief (see 1 Samuel 14:50-51), he did not belong to his house or servants.

1 Samuel 31:7

When the men of Israel upon the sides that were opposite to the valley (Jezreel) and the Jordan saw that the Israelites (the Israelitish troop) fled, and Saul and his sons were dead, they took to flight out of the cities, whereupon the Philistines took possession of them. עבר is used here to signify the side opposite to the place of conflict in the valley of Jezreel, which the writer assumed as his standpoint (cf. 1 Samuel 14:40); so that העמק עבר is the country to the west of the valley of Jezreel, and היּרדּן עבר the country to the west of the Jordan, i.e., between Gilboa and the Jordan. These districts, i.e., the whole of the country round about the valley of Jezreel, the Philistines took possession of, so that the whole of the northern part of the land of Israel, in other words the whole land with the exception of Peraea and the tribe-land of Judah, came into their hands when Saul was slain.

Verses 8-10

On the day following the battle, when the Philistines tripped the slain, they found Saul and his three sons lying upon Gilboa; and having cut off their heads and plundered their weapons, they went them (the heads and weapons) as trophies into the land of the Philistines, i.e., round about to the different towns and hamlets of their land, to announce the joyful news in their idol-temples (the writer of the Chronicles mentions the idols themselves) and to the people, and then deposited their weapons (the weapons of Saul and his sons) in the Astarte-houses. But the corpses they fastened to the town-wall of Beth-shean, i.e., Beisan, in the valley of the Jordan (see at Joshua 17:11). Beth-azabbim and Beth-ashtaroth are composite words; the first part is indeclinable, and the plural form is expressed by the second word: idol-houses and Astarte-houses, like beth-aboth (father's-houses: see at Exodus 6:14). On the Astartes, see at Judges 2:13. It is not expressly stated indeed in 1 Samuel 31:9, 1 Samuel 31:10, that the Philistines plundered the bodies of Saul's sons as well, and mutilated them by cutting off their heads; but ראשׁו and כּליו , his (i.e., Saul's) head and his weapons, alone are mentioned. At the same time, it is every evident from 1 Samuel 31:12, where the Jabeshites are said to have taken down from the wall of Beth-shean not Saul's body only, but the bodies of his sons also, that the Philistines had treated the corpses of Saul's sons in just the same manner as that of Saul himself. The writer speaks distinctly of the abuse of Saul's body only, because it was his death that he had chiefly in mind at the time. To the word וישׁלּחוּ we must supply in thought the object ראשׁו and כּליו from the preceding clause. גּויּת and גּויּת (1 Samuel 31:10 and 1 Samuel 31:12) are the corpses without the heads. The fact that the Philistines nailed them to the town-wall of Beth-shean presupposes the capture of that city, from which it is evident that they had occupied the land as far as the Jordan. The definite word Beth-ashtaroth is changed by the writer of the Chronicles into Beth-elohim, temples of the gods; or rather he has interpreted it in this manner without altering the sense, as the Astartes are merely mentioned as the principal deities for the idols generally. The writer of the Chronicles has also omitted to mention the nailing of the corpses to the wall of Beth-shean, but he states instead that “they fastened his skull in the temple of Dagon,” a fact which is passed over in the account before us. From this we may see how both writers have restricted themselves to the principal points, or those which appeared to them of the greatest importance (vid., Bertheau on 1 Chronicles 10:10).

Verses 11-13

When the inhabitants of Jabesh in Gilead heard this, all the brave men of the town set out to Beth-shean, took down the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall, brought them to Jabesh, and burned them there. “ But their bones they buried under the tamarisk at Jabesh, and fasted seven days,” to mourn for the king their former deliverer (see 1 Samuel 11:1-15). These statements are given in a very condensed form in the Chronicles (1 Samuel 31:11, 1 Samuel 31:12). Not only is the fact that “they went the whole night” omitted, as being of no essential importance to the general history; but the removal of the bodies from the town-wall is also passed over, because their being fastened there had not been mentioned, and also the burning of the bodies. The reason for the last omission is not to be sought for in the fact that the author of the Chronicles regarded burning as ignominious, according to Leviticus 20:14; Leviticus 21:9, but because he did not see how to reconcile the burning of the bodies with the burial of the bones. It was not the custom in Israel to burn the corpse, but to bury it in the ground. The former was restricted to the worst criminals (see at Leviticus 20:14). Consequently the Chaldee interpreted the word “burnt” as relating to the burning of spices, a custom which we meet with afterwards as a special honour shown to certain of the kings of Judah on the occasion of their burial (2 Chronicles 16:14; 2 Chronicles 21:19; Jeremiah 34:5). But this is expressed by שׂרפה לו שׂרף , “to make a burning for him,” whereas here it is stated distinctly that “they burnt them.” The reason for the burning of the bodies in the case of Saul and his sons is to be sought for in the peculiarity of the circumstances; viz., partly in the fact that the bodies were mutilated by the removal of the heads, and therefore a regular burial of the dead was impossible, and partly in their anxiety lest, if the Philistines followed up their victory and came to Jabesh, they should desecrate the bodies still further. But even this was not a complete burning to ashes, but merely a burning of the skin and flesh; so that the bones still remained, and they were buried in the ground under a shady tree. Instead of “under the (well-known) tamarisk” ( eshel ), we have האלה תּחת (under the strong tree) in 1 Chronicles 10:11. David afterwards had them fetched away and buried in Saul's family grave at Zela, in the land of Benjamin (2 Samuel 21:11.). The seven days' fast kept by the Jabeshites was a sign of public and general mourning on the part of the inhabitants of that town at the death of the king, who had once rescued them from the most abominable slavery.

In this ignominious fate of Saul there was manifested the righteous judgment of God in consequence of the hardening of his heart. But the love which the citizens of Jabesh displayed in their treatment of the corpses of Saul and his sons, had reference not to the king as rejected by God, but to the king as anointed with the Spirit of Jehovah, and was a practical condemnation, not of the divine judgment which had fallen upon Saul, but of the cruelty of the enemies of Israel and its anointed. For although Saul had waged war almost incessantly against the Philistines, it is not known that in any one of his victories he had ever been guilty of such cruelties towards the conquered and slaughtered foe as could justify this barbarous revenge on the part of the uncircumcised upon his lifeless corpse.

Bibliographical Information
Keil, Carl Friedrich & Delitzsch, Franz. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 31". Keil & Delitzsch Old Testament Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kdo/1-samuel-31.html. 1854-1889.
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