The Bodies of Saul and His Sons
Why were the bodies of King Saul and his sons burned instead of buried in 1 Samuel 31:12?
In this record, the Philistines took the slain body of Saul, cut off his head, stripped off his armor, and fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan" (1 Samuel 31:10). The men of Jabeshgilead "took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Bethshan, and came to Jabesh, and burnt them there." [Note: According to 1 Chronicles 10:10, the head of Saul was fastened in the temple of Dagon.] Then they "took their bones, and buried them under a tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days" (1 Samuel 31:12-13).
Since the Jews normally buried and did not burn (or cremate) their dead, this burning of the bodies of Saul and his sons raises the question as to why they did differently here. Since the text does not say specifically, we must draw conclusions from the evidence the best we can. In the case of Saul, his body had been mutilated (with his head cut off) and desecrated (his head being fastened to the pagan temple of Dagon; see Judges 16:23; 1 Samuel 5:1-5). This called for some act of cleansing.
It was the practice in several of the tabernacle ceremonies to burn that which was unclean.
Leviticus 7:19 And the flesh that toucheth any unclean thing shall not be eaten; it shall be burnt with fire: and as for the flesh, all that be clean shall eat thereof.
Leviticus 13:55 And the priest shall look on the plague, after that it is washed: and, behold, if the plague have not changed his colour, and the plague be not spread; it is unclean; thou shalt burn it in the fire; it is fret inward, whether it be bare within or without.
Most likely, the bodies of Saul and his sons were considered to be unclean. They had been killed by the uncircumcised Philistines (Judges 14:3; 1 Samuel 17:26, 36). Their bodies had been mutilated. But more, their bodies had been desecrated by being fastened on walls for display. Saul's head was fastened to the wall of a heathen temple. The burning was probably for the sake of cleansing the defilement they had received. Then, their bones were carefully given a proper burial and their rescuers fasted for seven days in order to give proper respect.