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The Family of King Saul

The Family of King Saul


Saul’s story begins with him searching for his father’s missing donkeys. He finds the prophet Samuel, who anoints him to be Israel’s first king. Samuel later publicly declares Saul king, and Saul begins to lead Israel in fighting against their enemies. Chapter 15 shows Saul disobey an order from Samuel, sparing the life of the Amalekite king Agag. Samuel curses Saul, telling him that Yhwh will replace him with a new king. Saul begs forgiveness, but doesn’t receive it. The part which puzzled me was that, near the end of chapter 14, in the middle of the story of Saul’s military exploits, there is a brief detour. For just three verses we are suddenly told the identities of Saul’s family members.

1 Samuel 14.49–51

Now the sons of Saul were Jonathan, Ishvi, and Malchishua; and the names of his two daughters were these: the name of the firstborn was Merab, and the name of the younger, Michal. The name of Saul’s wife was Ahinoam daughter of Ahimaaz. And the name of the commander of his army was Abner son of Ner, Saul’s uncle; Kish was the father of Saul, and Ner the father of Abner was the son of Abiel.

I found this paragraph to be intrusive. It interrupts the surrounding narrative to address a question that was not, at this point, of any concern to the reader. In any case, I paired this with 1 Sam 9.1–2, where we learned that Saul is the son of Kish, son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah.

Saul’s children Jonathan and Michal are prominent in the Book of Samuel, but I had never heard of Ishvi or Malchishua, nor did I know that Abner is Saul’s cousin. I decided to track them down in the narrative, to see if I’d missed something important about them. As I did so, I followed up after other of Saul’s family members mentioned along the way. In doing so, I found a variety of confusing or contradictory things in Saul’s story.

Saul’s Extended Family

Saul’s father, Kish, is mentioned several times, but he only appears once in the entire narrative of the Book of Samuel. Kish’s donkeys go missing, so he sends Saul to find them (1 Sam 9.3ff). We never see him after this. He is again mentioned as Saul’s father, in 1 Chr 8.33 and 9.39. Kish is stated to be the son of Abiel, who is the son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah (1 Sam 9.1). However, none of these men are found in Saul’s ancestry in 1 Chr 8 or 9 (although Saul’s great-grandfather Zeror (צרור) is just one letter different from Zur (צור), one of Saul’s great-uncles in 1 Chr 8–9). Already there’s a conflict in Saul’s ancestry, since 1 Sam and 1 Chr don’t agree on who his paternal grandfather is.

First Sam 14.50–51 identifies Ner as the son of Abiel, and hence Saul’s uncle. Ner’s son, Abner, is Saul’s cousin and the commander of his army. Abner is introduced in 1 Sam 17.55, and remains a prominent character up through the early years of David’s monarchy, when he defects to serve David, but is promptly assassinated. Abner’s family relationship to Saul is never mentioned in the narrative. When Abner is accused of sleeping with Saul’s concubine, his indignant response—‘I keep showing loyalty to the house of your father Saul, to his relatives, and to his friends’—never indicates a family relationship to Saul.

Ner’s relationship to Saul in 1 Sam 14 contradicts the genealogy in 1 Chr 8–9.

The Saulite ancestors (I Sam ix 1) do not correspond to the Chronicler’s scheme here [1 Chr 8]. According to I Sam xiv 51, Ner and Kish were brothers, not father and son. Rudolph and Goettsberger each suggest that “the son of Ner” has dropped out after Kish in I Sam ix 1 by homoioarkton so that both Kish and Abner were the sons of Ner, grandsons of Abiel. Hence “Saul’s uncle” in I Sam xiv 50b refers not to Ner, but to Abner, and the Chronicler’s genealogy is correct. Otherwise Saul and Abner are cousins, which must be the case if the references to Saul, son of Kish and Abner son of Ner are to be taken literally (I Sam xiv 51; I Chron xxvi 28).1

Not everyone is convinced by decisions to harmonize 1 Chr 8–9 with 1 Sam 9.1–2 and 14.49–51.

Attempts […] which calls [sic] for emending the text of 1 Sam 9:1 by inserting “son of Ner” following Kish, appear to be concerned about a kind of consistency which we repeatedly find absent in the genealogical data before us.2

The identification of Abner’s father Ner as Saul’s uncle cannot be reconciled with 1 Chr 8–9, where Ner is Saul’s paternal grandfather instead of the Abiel from 1 Sam 9 and 14. This is twisted up even more by the apparent presence of two men named Kish in 1 Chr 8–9, one of them being Ner’s brother and so Saul’s great-uncle, the other Ner’s son and hence Saul’s father. Each Kish only partially fits the information given in 1 Samuel.

Saul’s wife Ahinoam is identified as the daughter of Ahimaaz, but she is never seen after the genealogy in 1 Sam 14.49–51. We are later told that one of David’s wives was named Ahinoam of Jezreel (1 Sam 25.43). Although the prophet Nathan does briefly mention that David took Saul’s wives for himself (2 Sam 12.7–8), and some scholars assume Ahinoam was one of them,3 I find it unlikely David’s wife Ahinoam of Jezreel is the same woman as Saul’s wife, since David marries Ahinoam of Jezreel while on the run from Saul, not after his death. The epithet, ‘of Jezreel’, is likewise not used for Saul’s wife, and David’s Ahinoam is not specified as the daughter of Ahimaaz.

Four of Saul’s sons are mentioned only once or twice in the Book of Samuel. Ishvi is found only in that genealogy from 1 Sam 14.49–51. In contrast, Abinadab is only mentioned at the time of his death (1 Sam 31.2). Malchishua overlaps with the two; he is named in the genealogy, and is next seen only when he dies alongside Abinadab. Armoni, Saul’s son by his concubine Rizpah, is seen only when David hands him over to Saul’s enemies for execution (2 Sam 21.1–9).

Jonathan, Merab, and Michal

David’s friendship with Jonathan, the son of Saul, is well known. Jonathan is first introduced in 1 Sam 13, serving in his father’s army and sharing many of his victories. Jonathan’s friendship with David begins after the death of Goliath (1 Sam 18.1–4). Jonathan shows up again to momentarily dissuade Saul from killing David (19.1–7), then features prominently in a story where he and David devise secret means of communication (20). Jonathan makes a short appearance while David is on the run from Saul (23.15–18), and only returns once more to the narrative, when we are told of his death (23.16–18). The people of Israel mourn the death of Jonathan (2 Sam 1), and his son Mephibosheth becomes a recurring character after that. Many years later, David retrieves Saul’s and Jonathan’s bones to bury, when they’d been stolen (2 Sam 21.7–14).

Merab is seen only twice in the Book of Samuel. Saul attempts to send David to his death by offering his daughter Merab in marriage if he will fulfill a dangerous task; David declines, and Merab is married to another man, Adriel (1 Sam 18.17–19). She is only mentioned again many years later, having five sons with Adriel; David gives her sons to Saul’s enemies for execution (2 Sam 21.8).

After Merab is married to Adriel, the reader is told that Saul’s other daughter Michal loved David. Saul challenges David with an impossible feat; when David succeeds, he and Michal marry (1 Sam 18.20–29). Not long after, David escapes assassins sent by Saul, leaving Michal behind (19.11–17). While David is on the run from Saul, he marries two other women. A brief parenthetical comments informs us Michal has been married off to Palti son of Laish, from Gallim (25.43–44). After Abner defects from Ishbosheth, David demands he bring Michal; Palti pitifully follows them before Abner sends him away (2 Sam 3.12–16). Michal is last seen when David brings the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. She sees David dancing and ridicules him as a fool. David rebukes her, and the narrator tells us she never had children (6.16–23).

We’ve seen some contradicting information with other family members above, but Jonathan, Merab, and Michal pose some bigger problems.

The Greek version of Samuel is quite different when it comes to David’s introduction. First Sam 16–17 contained the account of David’s entry onto Israel’s political stage, when the experienced warrior David becomes a member of Saul’s court and slays Goliath. An alternate version of this story, in which David is a young shepherd who only meets Saul after killing Goliath, was inserted into the book, but not before copies of the earlier text had spread too far to receive this interpolation. The insertion of an alternate version of David’s life into the text continues in 1 Sam 18. Although all three of Saul’s children are still mentioned in LXX 1 Sam 14.49–51, Jonathan and Merab are completely missing from chapter 18. We find only a story where David slays Goliath, after which Saul, full of envy for David’s popularity, offers his daughter Michal if David attempts a heroic feat that will certainly get him killed.

This muddied presentation of David’s relationship with Jonathan, Merab, and Michal actually draws our attention to something not immediately noticeable: Jonathan and Michal never show up in the same stories, nor are they ever mentioned together except in redactionary snippets. They appear to have come from two entirely different traditions about David’s life, fulfilling the same narrative role as his personal connection into the royal family. Taking this into consideration, we also see how Merab and Michal are introduced to the reader in the same way: as a prize for David to risk his life for.

David becomes intimate with a member of Saul’s family. In LXXB it is Michal; in non-LXXB, where Merab is spurned, it is Jonathan. In the series of escape adventures that follow, Saul throws a spear at David, who slips away […] and Michal and Jonathan help David in separate parallel accounts […] they never appear together.4
Michal appears only in LXXB in 1 Samuel; David’s escape with her aid in chapter 19 comes from the same tradition. Merab and Jonathan appear only in non-LXXB in chapter 18; Jonathan’s friendship with David in 19 and later chapters is exclusively part of this tradition.5

In fact, Merab is absent from Samuel’s narrative entirely in the Septuagint. After her introduction in 1 Sam 18, the only other reference to Merab (2 Sam 21.8) replaces her with Michal, including in Hebrew versions. Since a few manuscripts do name Merab here, and because the spelling of Michal’s name varies in the Greek,6 most scholars insist the vorlage must have read ‘Merab’. However, there is little agreement whether the error ‘Michal’ was introduced before or after the translation to Greek.7 I don’t find there to be any satisfactory explanations for why a scribe would change ‘Merab’ to ‘Michal’, since doing so would only cause a contradiction with 2 Sam 6.23. We can easily imagine why the reverse might be true, though: if the text originally identified Michal, then a scribe would be motivated to ‘correct’ that to Merab.8 Nevertheless, identifying Saul’s daughter here as Merab instead of Michal seems preferable, since there is some textual evidence, and it is consistent with the previously mentioned point that Jonathan and Michal never appear together.

Ishbosheth and Mephibosheth

Neither Saul’s son Ishbosheth nor Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth are mentioned until their immediate relevance to the narrative in the Book of Samuel. The Septuagint confuses their names almost immediately; Ishbosheth is initially identified as Ιεβοσθε, but the Greek translator soon switches to calling him Μεμφιβοσθε, the same name used for Mephibosheth. This is an obvious error.

After Saul, Malchishua, Abinadab, and Jonathan all die (1 Sam 31), we are suddenly introduced to another son of Saul, Ishbosheth, whom Abner appoints as king (2 Sam 2.8). Ishbosheth and David contend with one another for a short time, until Abner defects to serve David (3.7–12). Not long after that, Ishbosheth is assassinated (4.1–12).

The short account of Ishbosheth’s assassination is broken in half with the abrupt introduction of Mephibosheth: when news of Saul’s death spread, Mephibosheth’s nurse took him and fled, but he was dropped and his legs crippled (2 Sam 4.4). Years after, David decides to show kindness to Saul’s surviving family, and Saul’s servant Ziba points to Mephibosheth, who is granted some of Saul’s land and possessions (2 Sam 9). David’s courtesy to Mephibosheth is explained as owing to David’s love for Mephibosheth’s father Jonathan. However, Ziba later greets David with gifts, and lies that Mephibosheth is plotting to become king. David grants Ziba possession of all Mephibosheth’s belongings (16.1–4). Mephibosheth protests Ziba’s lie (19.24–30). Finally, Mephibosheth is given to Saul’s enemies to be executed (21.1–9).

‘Ishbosheth’, it turns out, is not this man’s real name. First Chr 8–9 names him instead ‘Ishbaal’. There are a few other cases in the Hebrew Bible of the deity Baʿal being replaced with the word bōšeṯ, ‘shame’ (e.g. ‘shame’ in Jer 11.13 is Βααλ in the LXX; ‘Jerubbesheth’ in 2 Sam 11.21 is Ιεροβααλ). Evidently, as Yahwism prevailed over Baalism, some scribes felt it necessary to scrub uses of Baʿal’s name from their scriptures. Some scholars think Ishbaal may actually be the otherwise unknown Ishvi from 1 Sam 14.49–51. Where some texts changed Ishbaal (man of Baʿal) to Ishbosheth (man of shame), it is suggested the short genealogy changed Ishbaal to the more permissible Ishyo (man of Yah), which was accidentally corrupted as Ishvi.9 If this is the case, then Ishbosheth’s introduction in 2 Sam 2 is not so abrupt after all; we’ve merely lost track of who he is.

In the same way, Mephibosheth is named ‘Meribbaal’ in 1 Chr 8–9. However, there is a minority version of some copies of LXX 2 Sam, which gives his name as neither Mephibosheth nor Meribbaal, but as ‘Memphibaal’ (Μεμφιβααλ). Some suggest all three available names are variants on a now-lost name.

The latter [memph(e)ibaal and memphibaal] reflect the original form of the name, probably *mippî baʿal, “Mippibaal” […] the change from baʿal to bōšet being euphemistic10

However, Mephibosheth’s story contains further problems, found once more in 2 Sam 21. Verse 7 says David ‘spared’ Mephibosheth when Saul’s enemies demanded seven of Saul’s offspring be executed. Then verse 8 names Mephibosheth as one of the offspring whom David handed over to be executed, and 21.9 explicitly says ‘the seven of them died together’; the count of seven only works if Mephibosheth was likewise executed. It could be that verse 7 is an interpolation, meant to harmonize David’s betrayal of Jonathan’s son with David’s earlier oath to protect him, but the sloppy redaction gives us a narrative where Mephibosheth is both spared and executed.11 Yet, this only leads to another predicament, some see here two different men who only happen to share the same name, because verse 8 identifies Mephibosheth not as Jonathan’s son, but as Saul’s son, born to his concubine Rizpah (and hence a half-brother to Jonathan). Could Mephibosheth’s entire relationship to Jonathan be a fabrication, and he was originally meant to be Saul’s son? Some scholars offer a plausible solution.

The confusion between Ishbosheth/Ishbaal and Mephibosheth/Mippibaal in [2 Sam] 3:8 and subsequent verses provides a clue. It is noteworthy that this confusion begins in the primary witnesses (MT, LXXB) in 3:8 and not before, though Ishbosheth/Ishbaal is mentioned as early as 2:8. The probable source of the confusion is 21:8, where Rizpah is involved (21:10), as she is at the beginning of chap. 3 (v. 7), and where alone there is a son named Mephibosheth/Mippibaal […] The confusion next crops up at the beginning of chap. 4 (vv. 1,2). At this point the name Mephibosheth/Mippibaal is shuffled onto a son of Jonathan with a similar sounding name, Meri(b)baal; perhaps this was the reason for the displacement of v. 4 from chap. 9 […] The confusion is thereby resolved (cf. 4:5), and Meri(b)baal is consistently referred to as Mephibosheth/Mippibaal hereafter. I assume, therefore, that Mephibosheth/Mippibaal was the name of the son of Saul mentioned in 21:8, and that Meri(b)baal was, as the Chronicler maintains, the crippled son of Jonathan.12

Succinctly: the textual evidence enables us to reconstruct the name of Saul’s son by his concubine as ‘Mippibaal’, and the name of Saul’s grandson through Jonathan ‘Meribbaal’; when scribes changed ‘-baal’ to ‘-bosheth’ throughout the narrative, Mippibaal and Meribbaal were mistakenly rendered the same way, as ‘Mephibosheth’.

Based on the evidence, 2 Samuel should probably read:

2 Samuel 21.7–9

But the king spared Meribbaal, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, because of the oath of Yhwh that was between them, between David and Jonathan son of Saul. The king took the two sons of Rizpah daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mippibaal; and the five sons of Merab daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel son of Barzillai the Meholathite; he gave them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they impaled them on the mountain before Yhwh. The seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of the barley harvest.

We don’t need to posit the total invention of Jonathan’s relationship with his son, and David’s oath to protect Jonathan’s son is maintained.

Patterns in the Names

Briefly, it’s worth noting the patterns in the names of Saul’s family members, in both Samuel and Chronicles. Several names are honorific to the deities El (Abiel, Jeiel), Baʿal (Baal, Ishbaal, Mippibaal, Meribbaal), and Yhwh (Jonathan, possibly Zecher/Zechariah and Ishvi).

By the time the Hebrew scriptures took the shape we know, Yhwh had almost entirely subsumed El and adopted his name. In contrast, it is surprising that more of Saul’s family members are given Baʿal-based names, considering the Hebrew Bible so flagrantly demonizes Baʿal.13

The changes in these names [from -baal to -bosheth] reflect the supposition that these names witnessed to an acceptance of Baal. However, Eshbaal and Meribbaal belonged to the clan of Saul, in which Yahwistic names are also attested, such as Jonathan, the son of Saul. Why would a Yahwistic family give Baal names, if Baal were a god inimical to Yahweh? […] These names point to three possibilities. In Saul’s family, either baʿal was a title for Yahweh, or Baal was acceptable in royal, Yahwistic circles, or both. […] [Eshbaal and Meribbaal] were possibly Yahwistic names, later understood as anti-Yahwistic in import.14

It could be that the names of Saul’s family members go back to a time when Baʿal worship was normal and unobjectionable among the Israelite tribes. (Compare Gideon, who is given the theophoric name Jerrubbaal, ‘may Baʿal contend’. Judges 7.32 invents a negative connotation to this name, to excuse Gideon taking a pro-Baʿal name.) Or, it could be that ‘-baal’ was originally meant as a title for Yhwh. (A clear example of this use is Bealiah, ‘Yah is master’, in 1 Chr 12.6.) Only later did Yahwist scribes wrongly interpret Saul’s family’s names as referring to Baʿal.


My research was prompted by the awkward framing of 1 Sam 14.49–51 inside of Saul’s conquest narrative. I examined the various members of Saul’s family from that passage, and various other family members who emerged along the way, and compared with 1 Chronicles’ account of Saul’s genealogy. The end result, I think, strongly points to 1 Sam 14.49–51 being an interpolation, though not quite as late as I expected.

There once existed alternate versions of David eclipsing Saul, with different identities of Saul’s children. The presence of 1 Sam 14.49–51 in the Greek shows it was written after these alternate traditions of David had begun coming together in written form, but before this process came to a close. It appears to me that these three verses were written to harmonize the two traditions, taking the alternate children and listing them all together as born to Saul’s otherwise unknown wife.

The contradictions regarding Ner also indicate that Saul’s extended family included someone by that name, but whose precise relationship to Saul hadn’t been settled. In my opinion, identifying Saul’s relative Ner with Abner’s father Ner was an artificial attempt to graft the commander of Saul’s army into Saul’s family tree. If not for 1 Sam 14.49–51, we would never know they were supposed to be related.

Just how much the two versions of Saul’s family—with Jonathan and Merab featured in one, and Michal in the other—can be distinguished in the Book of Samuel is difficult to determine, as additional redaction has snarled some of their features. This was especially the case in 2 Sam 21.7-9, which required extensive comparison of the different manuscript traditions to untangle.

Book of Samuel

Book of Chronicles


1 Jacob Myers, 1 Chronicles, 62.

2 Roddy Braun, 1 Chronicles, unpaged ebook.

3 E.g., Jon Levenson, Baruch Halpern, ‘The Political Import of David’s Marriages’, JBL 99.4, 507–518.

4 Stanley Isser, The Sword of Goliath: David in Heroic Literature, 126.

5 Isser, 145; cf. Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg, I and II Samuel: A Commentary, 159–160.

6 Different copies of the Septuagint give it as either Μελχολ or Μιχολ here, despite all other instances of her name being just Μελχολ.

7 E.g., J. Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel, 439; Benjamin Giffone, ‘Sit at My Right Hand’: The Chronicler’s Portrait of the Tribe of Benjamin in the Social Context of Yehud, 155–156; Philippe Hugo, ‘The Books of Kingdoms Fifty Years after the Devanciers d’Aquila’, The Legacy of Barthélemy: 50 Years after Les Devanciers d’Aquila (eds. Tuukka Kauhanen, Anneli Aejmelaeus), 35; Johannes Schnocks, Das Alte Testament und die Gewalt: Studien zu göttlicher und menschlicher Gewalt in alttestamentlichen Texten and ihren Rezeptionen, 54 fn14.

8 For an example of this minority position, see J.J. Glück, ‘Merab or Michal’, ZAW 77.1, 72–81.

9 Hertzberg, 121; Steven McKenzie, King David: A Biography, 123. Contrast McCarter, 254.

10 McCarter, 124–125.

11 Hertzberg, 383.

12 McCarter, 125.

13 No direct mention is made of Baʿal worship in the Book of Samuel after the titular prophet convinces the Israelites to reject Baʿal and Ashtaroth in 1 Sam 12.10. However, Michal helps David escape Saul’s assassins by placing an idol in his bed (1 Sam 19.11–17).

14 Mark Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, 46.

1 comment:

  1. You know I don't put much stock in the names. However, I appreciate how heavily you have delved into this topic - particularly how one change could have been made which significantly impacted the genealogy to be part of the ruling bloodline. That would certainly make a difference!