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“One year” or “[missing number]” in 1 Samuel 13:1? (How old was Saul when he began to reign?)

KJV: "Saul reigned one year; and when he had reigned two years over Israel,"

ESV: "Saul was … years old when he began to reign, and he reigned … and two years over Israel."

NIV: "Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned over Israel forty-two years."

NASB: "Saul was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty two years over Israel."

The footnotes to most translations (ESV, NIV, NASB) at 1 Samuel 13:1 say that the Hebrew text is missing the numbers of the years of Saul's age and reign.  The ESV leaves the alleged lacunae blank whereas the NIV and NASB add numbers that seem to corroborate with Acts 13:21.  The Septuagint curiously omits the verse.  However, there is no reason to question the Hebrew text as it is written.  The KJV rendering is justifiable based on the Hebrew text and does not require emendations to the Hebrew text.

"One" is implied

The phrase "בן ___ שנה" (son of ___ year) occurs frequently in the books of Samuel and Kings in the formula for introducing the reign of a king, called the regnal formula.  When this formula is used, the phrase means "___ years old".  For example, "He was a son of forty years" means "He was forty years old" (see: 2 Samuel 2:10).  There is usually a numerical value provided in between "son of" and "year".  The alleged problem with 1 Samuel 13:1 is that there is no numerical value.  The answer to this is that the numerical value of "one" is implied when there is no other explicitly stated numerical value and the Hebrew word for "year" is singular (see: Exodus 12:5, 29:38 and Leviticus 9:3, 12:6).  Even in English, we can say, "I have a year-long lease" and it means the same as "I have a one year-long lease".  The "one" can be implied.

Work from the literal Hebrew

Although the phrase "son of one year" could mean "one year old", it does not have to.  It could simply signify its literal meaning of "son of one year" in relation to whatever description that follows.  This is a crucial point to understand because Saul could not have been one year old at the time of reigning.  At 1 Samuel 13:1, Saul was not a "son of one year" with respect to age, but with respect to reigning.  We can get this meaning from the Hebrew text if we start from the literal Hebrew instead of assuming that the regnal formula is used here.  The literal Hebrew reads (from left to right):

בן־שנהשאולב מלכוו שתישניםמלךעל־ישראל׃
 son of[one] yearSaul in [or with]
reigning andtwoyearshe reigned over Israel

One way to translate this literal Hebrew into more idiomatic English is:

"Saul was a son of [one] year with reigning and two years he reigned over Israel."

This can be taken to mean that Saul was someone having one year with respect to reigning.  When the English is rendered even more idiomatically, we can get the KJV rendering of "Saul reigned one year".

Justifying the departure from the idiom's ordinary meaning

Some might say that the above interpretation of the Hebrew disregards how the phrase with "בן שנה" and "במלכו" is used elsewhere as part of the regnal formula in the historical books.  From 2 Samuel 2:10 to 2 Chronicles 36:11 the phrase in question is always used as part of the regnal formula.  The unconventional non-formulaic use of the phrase at 1 Samuel 13:1 could be explained by supposing two things:
  1. The scribe of 1 Samuel 13:1 was different from the scribes of 2 Samuel 2:10 to 2 Chronicles 36:11.
  2. The regnal formula had not been established yet as a literary trope at the time of the scribe of 1 Samuel 13:1.

1. Different scribes, different use of language

It is generally believed that the historical books of the Bible (Samuel, Kings and Chronicles) either made use of earlier sources or are composite texts of those originally separate sources (the book of Jasher (2 Samuel 1:18), the chronicles of the kings of Israel (1 Kings 14:19), the chronicles of King David (1 Chronicles 27:24), the book of Samuel the seer, the book of Nathan the prophet, and the book of Gad the seer (1 Chronicles 29:29)).  Therefore different scribes may have written different parts of the book of 1 Samuel.  Perhaps Samuel was the scribe who penned 1 Samuel 13:1.  The events described fall during his lifetime.  This portion written by Samuel may in fact be from the book of Samuel the seer referred to in 1 Chronicles 29:29.  The scribe of 2 Samuel 2:10 (the first use of the regnal formula) and onward had to be someone other than Samuel because Samuel had died by the time of 1 Samuel 25:1.  Samuel may have used the phrase with "בן שנה" and "במלכו" differently from the later scribes who used the phrase as part of the regnal formula.

2. Absence of a regnal institution meant the absence of a regnal formula

Prior to the establishment of a monarchy in Israel, there would not have been such a thing as a regnal formula.  Having no king, there would have been no need for a formula for introducing a king.  Samuel most likely learned how to write during his youth.  Yet during his youth there was no such thing as a monarchy in Israel and probably no such thing as a regnal formula.  Even if the use of the regnal formula became current during Samuel's lifetime, Samuel could have still used language in the way he had learned in his youth.  Even today, we can see the older generation using language in such a way that the mainstream generation might deem archaic.  Perhaps Samuel at 1 Samuel 13:1 used the phrase in question in its ordinary literal meaning as he had learned in his youth.  On the other hand, the later generation of scribes from 2 Samuel 2:10 onward were familiar with the regnal formula so they used it.  When the source materials were put together to form the book of 1 Samuel as we have today, the editor did not edit the outdated use of the phrase at 1 Samuel 13:1.

The textual problem of 1 Samuel 13:1 appears at the first and earliest occurrence of the phrase "בן ___ שנה" in the historical books.  It would be more understandable to suppose a copyist error if this textual problem occurred glaringly somewhere in the middle where the regnal formula had been used earlier and later.  However, the fact that this textual problem occurs at the earliest time, both narrative-wise and historically, should alert us that the key to solving the problem lies in understanding the situation in Israel at this earliest time.  The absence of a regnal formula at 1 Samuel 13:1 correlates with the absence of an established monarchical tradition in Israel during the time.  The phrase's transition from its literal meaning to its inclusion in a regnal formula correlates with Israel's transition from the age of judges to a monarchy.  What we see at 1 Samuel 13:1 could be characterized as a linguistic cusp.

There are two ways to resolve the textual problem at 1 Samuel 13:1.  One way is to suppose a copyist error.  The other is to suppose an irregular use of the phrase.  Only one approach is biblical.  God has promised to preserve his word but he has not promised to use idioms consistently throughout the Bible.  Therefore, a copyist error is impossible whereas an irregular use of the phrase is probable, no matter how improbable.  As Arthur Conan Doyle, Sr. eloquently said, "Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth."  Even if the interpretation suggested in this article and adopted by the KJV translators might appear improbable for those critics who insist on the universal use of the regnal formula, the said interpretation is more probable than the impossible.

The Hebrew reading poses no problem to the context

The criticism of the Hebrew reading is not only based on grammar but also on context.  “he had reigned two years over Israel” appears to contradict Acts 13:21, which indicates that Saul was king for forty years.  However, 1 Samuel 13:1 does not say that Saul reigned for only two years.  It only says how many years Saul reigned when the events described began to transpire (Saul's first year of reign was apparently uneventful as suggested by the paratactic syntax of the statement that "Saul reigned one year").  Again, Samuel was not using the regnal formula which describes the total number of years of a king's reign.

The problem for some people, if 1 Samuel 13:1 in the Hebrew text is taken for what it says, is that Jonathan, Saul’s son, already existed just two years into Saul’s reign, which means that Jonathan was an old man by the time David entered the scene near the end of Saul’s reign.  But this is a problem only for those with the assumption that David and Jonathan were close in age.  There is no biblical support for this false assumption although it is an oft perpetuated assumption, especially through artwork.  If Jonathan already existed just two years into Saul’s reign, he was an old man by the time David entered the scene, and Saul was an even older man near the end of his reign.  David and Jonathan were close friends despite their differences in age.