Difficult Bible Passages – King Saul’s age: 1 Samuel 13:1

This verse is often mistranslated. The text clearly states that Saul was, in some sense, one year old when he first began to reign as king of Israel.

[1 Samuel 13]
{13:1} Filius unius anni erat Saul cum regnare cœpisset, duobus autem annis regnavit super Israel.
{13:1} When he began to reign, Saul was the son of one year, and he reigned over Israel for two years.

Most translators, reading this passage, cannot understand how Saul could be one year old at that time. Therefore, they suppose that the text has been corrupted. They then substitute some other wording for what the text actually says.

King James Bible:
Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel,
This translation supposes that the one year refers to the length of his reign. But since the rest of the same verse speaks of a point two years into that reign, this translation does not make sense.

Douay-Rheims Bible
Saul was a child of one year when he began to reign, and he reigned two years over Israel.
This version changes the Hebrew expression “son of” into “child of”. In some passages, child or children can fittingly be used instead of son or sons. But in this case, the Hebrew phrase “son of” something is idiomatic. Changing the idiom to “child of” from “son of” obscures the idiom.

For example: “son of death” is a dead body; “son of perdition” is someone who is lost (spiritually). Or again, “sons of adultery” are those who behave as if their parents were adulterers (on the basis of the convention that parent teach children according to their own lives). So even if you have virtuous and chaste parents, you are a “son of adultery” if you live a life of grave sexual sins.

Also, using “child” makes it seem as if Saul was literally a child when he began to reign. The previous verses about Saul make it clear that he began to reign as king only in adulthood.

The New American Bible Revised Edition (on the USCCB.org website) has this text:
[Saul was…years old when he became king and he reigned…-two years over Israel.]*
The translators assumed that the number indicating Saul’s age was lost, and that have of the number indicating how long he had reigned was also lost.

Some versions insert 30 years for Saul’s age and 40 years for reign, but this attempt to amend the text is not based on the oldest manuscripts. It is a later interpolation (as the NABRE comments).

So what is the correct reading? It’s very simple.

The expression “son of …” is a common idiomatic expression in Hebrew. Examples: son of death, a dead body; son of perdition, one who is lost (usually spiritually, as in Jn 17:12) . Another example is “sons of adulterers”, these ‘sons’ are not the children of persons who have committed adultery, but rather it is the sons themselves who have committed adultery, behaving as if they are sons of adultery personified.

Saul was appointed king by the people one year after he was anointed king by Samuel, that is, one year after the Spirit of the Lord came to him, so that he became a new man with a new heart, as explained in chapter 10.

[1 Samuel]
{10:6} And the Spirit of the Lord will spring up within you. And you shall prophesy with them, and you shall be changed into another man.

That is why Sacred Scripture says figuratively that Saul was the son of one year when his reign began. He became a new man when the Spirit entered him and transformed him. So the devout authors of this book of the Bible refer to him as a “son of one year”, meaning that he was born again in the Spirit one year earlier.

Usually, when the age of a person in the Old Testament is stated, the expression ‘son of …’ is not used. Instead, the age is simply stated plainly. The use of ‘son of …’ indicates a figure of speech, not a statement of the number of years from birth.

Then Saul reigned for two years after being appointed king by the people. So the war, which is being discussed in the larger passage here, occurred three years after Samuel anointed Saul, but two years after he was appointed king. The two years is not the full length of Saul’s reign, but the length to that point in time.

The foolish claim that the correct numbers have been dropped from the text must be false. God’s providence does not permit even the least truth to drop out of Sacred Scripture, nor to become corrupted, nor the least falsehood to enter into Sacred Scripture. Also, from a human point of view, the Jewish scholars gave great weight to numbers and to their figurative meaning. This is reflected in numerous passages where numbers are used symbolically, and this continued even into the New Testament. For example, the 144,000 in the Book of Revelation is a symbolic number. So the Rabbis would not have lost two numbers, from one verse, pertaining to the first king of Israel. It could not have been lost from the written text, not only because of their scrupulosity, but also because the numbers would have been passed on verbally, in their instruction to each generation. Therefore, these numbers are correct.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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