Question: "Why are there contradictory accounts regarding the death of Saul in 1 and 2 Samuel? Did Saul kill himself (1 Samuel 31:4), or did the Amalekite kill him (2 Samuel 1:10)?"
Answer: Critics of the Bible sometimes note the two different versions of King Saul’s death as a contradiction. First Samuel 31 says that Saul was injured in battle and then killed himself. Second Samuel 2 relates an Amalekite’s claim to have killed Saul. Which is true?
The clear answer from the biblical text is that Saul killed himself and that the Amalekite’s story was a fabrication. The biblical text records the story the Amalekite gave but did not affirm it as true. Several reasons support this understanding of the text.
First, the initial report of Saul’s death is that he killed himself. We read, “The fighting grew fierce around Saul, and when the archers overtook him, they wounded him critically. Saul said to his armor-bearer, ‘Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.’ But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him. So Saul and his three sons and his armor-bearer and all his men died together that same day” (1 Samuel 31:3–6). The verses following this account also note several witnesses to this event.
Second, 2 Samuel 21:12 notes that the Philistines were responsible for the deaths of Saul and his sons: “The Philistines . . . struck Saul down on Gilboa.” While Saul took his own life, the suicide was prompted by his being mortally wounded by the Philistines.
Third, the Amalekite who lied needed an explanation for taking Saul’s crown and armlet. He said to David, “I stood beside [Saul] and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive. And I took the crown that was on his head and the band on his arm and have brought them here to my lord” (2 Samuel 1:10). The Amalekite’s hope was that he would receive a reward for sharing this news and bringing these items to David. Instead, David judged him according to his words, putting him to death for daring to “destroy the Lord’s anointed” (2 Samuel 1:13–16).
How did the Amalekite get Saul’s crown and armband? It appears he was the first to reach Saul’s body, grabbing his crown and armlet before the Philistines came and cut off Saul’s head (1 Samuel 31:9). This would have been possible since verse 8 says the Philistines did not come upon Saul’s body until the next day, after the battle.
This would be the correct order of events: Saul is wounded in battle and then kills himself by falling on his own sword. An Amalekite comes across his dead body and takes his crown and armlet. The next day, the Philistines find Saul’s body, behead him, strip him of his armor, send the report, and fasten his body to the wall of Beth Shan (1 Samuel 31:10). Men of Jabesh Gilead travel overnight and take Saul’s body and those of his sons and burn them at Jabesh. The bones are buried under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and the men of that city fast for seven days. The Amalekite arrives at David’s camp on the third day with the crown and armlet, reporting his story. David and his men fast and mourn until evening. David then has the Amalekite killed. David would soon become king and honor the men who buried Saul’s body (2 Samuel 2:4–7).