If you read the accounts of Saul’s death in battle you invariably get the impression of two seemingly contradictory stories. 2 Samuel 1: 1, 17-27 which is the First Reading for Proper 8 (Year B) alludes to one of the stories in which an Amalekite reports finding Saul mortally wounded. Upon Saul’s request, the Amalekite kills Saul, “for I knew he could not live after he had fallen” (2 Sam. 1: 10). Then he took Saul’s crown and armlet and delivered them to David at Ziklag.
While the Amalekite expected to be rewarded by David, he was slain instead. “Were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?” David remarked.
The second account is in 1 Samuel 31 in which the Philistine army prevailed over Saul’s at Mount Gilboa killing many including Saul’s sons Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchishua. As in the other account, Saul was mortally wounded by the Philistine archers. Saul asked his armor-bearer to slay him rather than be defiled – if you like – by the barbarians. Again, Saul was not going to be alive much longer at that point.
Unlike the Amalekite, Saul’s armor-bearer could not lift his hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed. Determined, Saul fell on his sword – he committed suicide – and his armor-bearer followed suit.
There has been a lot of discussion as to which of the two is the actual record of what happened. Did he commit suicide or was he killed by the Amalekite?
The Amalekite brought Saul’s crown and armlet to David, three days after Saul’s death. In the second account it was the day after Saul’s death that the Philistines discovered his and his sons’ bodies. They cut off Saul’s head and impaled his body on the wall of Beit-She ‘an.
There is no doubt that Saul died at the hands of the Philistine army – that is the larger view. Had the events of the battle at Gilboa not happened, had he not been mortally wounded, he would have lived. The details, or the narrow view makes the second account more plausible than the Amalekite story. It would appear that the Amalekite did indeed come upon Saul’s dead body and retrieved his crown and armlet. When the Philistine army arrived at the scene later, the crown and armlet were gone; so they impaled the bodies on the wall.