Reconciling two concepts or two facts that seem incompatible is common in most academic fields. The classic example in physics is reconciling the fact that light acts like a wave with the contrary fact that light also acts like a particle. Some scholars who study Old Testament (OT) literature however take the approach that ancient writers of the Scriptures used diverse sources and did not reconcile the sources even if they disagree significantly. With this approach, rather than attempting to see how or why two different accounts can be reasonably reconciled, the scholar assumes that one or both of the stories are not entirely true. The stories of Saul's death in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1 are two accounts that may be seen as either contradictory or as part of a cohesive single story. The most reasonable way to take the two stories of Saul's death is that the original author intended the audience to understand that the Amalekite was lying about having killed Saul.
Some scholars hold that the story in 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1 are two different, conflicting accounts of the death of Saul. (Arnold, p. 409) As is common to OT narratives, an event is repeated in a person's life, for instance, there is more than one account of David sparing the life of Saul. (1 Samuel 24 & 26) One scholar may read these two stories and see two different accounts of the same event preserved. Another scholar may read these passages and see a consistency in the character, habits and outcomes in the lives of people in the Scripture. One scholar sees disorder while the other sees consistency. If one sees disorder, the scholar believes that the human author of the books of Samuel is either unwilling or unable to discern which account best preserves the truth of the event. One must remember that the original books of Samuel were a single work, 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel were one literary piece. However, the author lived in a culture where story telling and other oral communication was a common experience. (Dorsey, p. 16) The author and audience would have easily picked up on the inconsistencies in the stories of 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1. The repetition of similar events in the life of any character in Scripture should be seen as a literary devise meant to teach in a society of aural learners.
If the repetition of a similar story is purposeful, what was the purpose of the repeated story of the Saul's death? The first account of Saul's death explains Saul's tragedy on Mt. Gilboa while battling the Philistines. He falls at the hand of those whom he had been commissioned to fight. The second account of Saul's death in 2 Samuel 1 does not re-enforce the message about Saul so much as it tells the reader about the response of David to the news. The news showed David as one who did not rejoice at hearing that “the Lord's anointed” had fallen. In fact, he executed the one who claimed to have lifted his hand against “the Lord's anointed”. (2 Samuel 1:14,15) This story also parallels David's sorrow of the murder of Abner, his execution of the killers of Saul's son Ishbosheth, his kindness to Mephibosheth, and his mourning of the loss of his son Absolom. (Dorsey, p. 133) The story shows David's righteous judgment against the killer of Saul. (Baldwin, p. 177) Additionally, David's reason for having the crown and armlets is explained. In fact his alibi during the time of Saul's death is given as he was off fighting the Amalekites. (Arnold, p. 410) As David returns from fighting with the Amalekites, another Amalekite approaches him to bring news of Saul's death.
This Amalekite who was a sojourner among the Israelites retold the story of 1 Samuel 31 with a slight difference. He seemingly thought that he would be rewarded for defeating David's adversary. (2 Samuel 4:10) Often half truths make the best lies. He told a story quite close to what one reads in the first account, but only he was the hero in his version. (Arnold, p. 410) It is plausible from his presentation of the crown and armlets to David that he had contact with body of Saul, perhaps as he said on Mt. Gilboa. But it is also possible he obtained them from someone else. Reasonably, he either heard the story from an eye witness or was an eye witness himself of the death of Saul. He lied to get a reward, but instead condemned himself to capital punishment. The Amalekite did not discern the holy status of “the Lord's anointed”. He also did not understand the character of David. David was not a man of vengeance, power, and human effort. Instead he was a man who sought justice from God. He was also a man who enforced justice upon those who were unjust.
The two accounts are unified in the story, the audience is supposed to understand that the Amalekite was lying. The first account from 1 Samuel 31 is from the author of the book, who expects his audience to trust what he said. The second account is from the mouth of the Amalekite, an enemy of Israel and David. We are told clearly that the Amalekite was seeking a reward which explains why he lied to David. (2 Sam. 4:10) Interpretation of the stories of the death of Saul springs from an understanding of God's justice and that justice was expressed through David. The story of the lying Amalekite re-enforces the idea that the anointed leader of Israel does not seek his own kingdom but serves the living and true God. That human king was subject to the heavenly king of Israel. This human king was like the heavenly one who carries out justice but is long suffering even with his enemies. Ultimately we are to glean from the story of the Amalekite that David acted righteously with the house of Saul. David respected Saul even after his death. He did not lift his hand against the Lord's anointed one.
Arnold, Bill T. 1 and 2 Samuel. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.
Baldwin, Joyce G. 1 and 2 Samuel. Ed. Donald J. Wiseman. New York: InterVarsity P, 1989.
Dorsey, David A. The Literary Structure of the Old Testament : A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.