Domenico Gargiulo, David Bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, 1640s, Pushkin Museum, Moscow

So far in this series I’ve argued that major differences between the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles are the result of them being written, or edited, by conflicting groups of scribes and priests, each presenting their own view of Israel’s history and protecting their own interests as religious leaders or influencers. But how did this conflict begin, and what led to the development of two groups with such opposing ideas? Not surprisingly, the roots of the conflict are revealed in both Kings and Chronicles, and, also not surprisingly, they provide differing accounts. The problem, in my view, begins with Solomon’s treatment of two priests: Abiathar and Zadok.

We are first introduced to Abiathar in 1 Samuel 22:20 after king Saul had killed 85 priests, including his father Ahimelech and “all his father’s house” (a story for another time). Abiathar, however, escaped and fled to David. He is described there as “the son of Ahimelech/Ahimelek son of Ahitub.” Ahimelech (אֲחִימֶלֶךְ) is an interesting name, meaning my brother is king, or brother of a king, or possibly (but unlikely) my brother is Melech/Melek (מלך melek is a common word, meaning king, but as far as I can tell is only used once in the Hebrew Bible as a personal name, in 1 Chron 8:35; 9:41). Whether or not he was actually related to a king, and if so which one, we aren’t told. His father’s name was אֲחִטוּב Ahitub, my brother is good. Abiathar (אֶבְיָתָר) means my father is abundant, or pre-eminent (but possibly excessive). An interesting thing about these names is how they emphasise family connections: my father is … my brother is … etc. Later, in 2 Samuel 8:17, we are told that “Zadok son of Ahitub, and Ahimelech son of Abiathar, were priests.” This looks like an error because according to the earlier account Abiathar was son of Ahimelech, not the other way around.* If Zadok’s father Ahitub is the same Ahitub who was Abiathar’s grandfather, then the two priests were related and Ahimelech (“my brother is king”) was Zadok’s brother, making Abiathar the nephew of Zadok. I’ll come back to this later, but whatever their familial connection, if any, the two priests are often mentioned together in the Samuel account of David’s life with the recurring phrase “the priests Zadok and Abiathar”. For example, when David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem 2 Samuel 15:29 links them together – “Zadok and Abiathar carried the ark of God back to Jerusalem.”

We don’t get any indication of a conflict until late in David’s life when he was arguably too old to properly carry out his kingly duties and his son Adonijah prepared to take over the role. Adonijah conferred with Joab, David’s military commander and right-hand man, and with the priest Abiathar, and they both supported Adonijah. But the priest Zadok, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and the prophet Nathan, and Shimei, and Rei, and David’s own warriors did not side with Adonijah” (1 Kings 1:7-8). Thereafter we get a longish account of how Nathan the prophet and Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, conspired to convince David that Solomon should be named as his successor instead of Adonijah. To cut a long story short, David then sent Nathan and Zadok to anoint Solomon as king over Israel.** We aren’t given any rationale for this choice, but the way the story reads in 1 Kings 1 it seems that Nathan and Bathsheba tricked an old man whose memory was failing into thinking he’d promised the job to Solomon but had forgotten, and needed to set it right. We don’t get any clue in the story that Adonijah was unsuitable – in fact, he seems to have been a very popular choice – or why Solomon was a better choice. But what happened next was a turning point in Israel’s history which ultimately led to civil war and a division of the nation into two kingdoms. After being anointed as king Solomon turned his attention to eradicating all opposition. He had his brother Adonijah murdered, as well as Joab who was both his cousin, commander of David’s army, and David’s right-hand man, because he supported Adonijah’s (reasonable) claim to the throne. He would have had the priest Abiathar murdered as well were it not for the fact that he played a principal role in bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. “The king said to the priest Abiathar, “Go to Anathoth, to your estate; for you deserve death. But I will not at this time put you to death, because you carried the ark of the Lord GOD before my father David, and because you shared in all the hardships my father endured.” So Solomon banished Abiathar from being priest to the LORD” (1 Kings 2:26-27).

We don’t hear much about Abiathar after that, or what happened when he got to Anathoth, except we read that centuries later Jeremiah the prophet was “of the priests who were in Anathoth” (Jeremiah 1:1). The most likely explanation for this connection to Anathoth was that Abiathar continued to minister there as a priest and this priestly order continued to the time of Jeremiah. Interestingly, many scholars have noted that Jeremiah’s “writing style” including his use of certain key words and phrases is very similar to the book of Kings and the other books in what we call “the Deuteronomistic History” (Joshua, Judges and Samuel). Some scholars argue that the book of Kings was actually written, or edited, by priests/scribes who belonged to this priestly community set up by Abiathar in Anathoth. Of the thirty occurences of the name ‘Abiathar’ in the Hebrew Bible, only four are in Chronicles and the rest are in Samuel-Kings. That alone tells us that this priest was of considerably more interest to the writer of Kings than he was to the writer of Chronicles. It’s likely that the writer of Chronicles wasn’t interested in Abiathar or the line of priests who descended from him, or didn’t recognise their legitimacy as priests. It was a two-way street of course, suggested by the fact that Jeremiah was later vocal with his concerns about Temple practices and the Temple-priests. As an interesting aside, it’s worth noting that even though they were contemporaries, and both priests, Jeremiah and Ezekiel never mention each other and adopt different positions on several issues. Ezekiel was very pro-Zadokite, especially in chapters 40-48, but Jeremiah never mentions them.

Coming back to possible familial connections between Zadok and Abiathar, we find that Samuel-Kings and Chronicles are full of such connections. The first nine chapters of Chronicles are long geneologies, and the writer thereafter repeatedly includes lists of names and makes family connections. The royal families of Saul and David were inter-connected by marriage, David’s military leaders and counsellors were relatives, the family trees of the kings and priests were intertwined. Nepotism was rife in the ancient world, and power, property and position all depended on one’s ancestry and familial relationships. The book of Samuel-Kings often uses name puns as a subtle means of making a point. It’s possible that names like “My brother is …” and “My father is …” is a literacy device to reinforce a point about familial connections (and in the naming of one of Zadok’s sons as אֲחִימַעַץ Ahimaaz, my brother is fury, the writer could be having a little joke by contrasting the families). Many scholars have picked up the similarity between the names Zadok, Melchizedek and Adoni-Zedek to build a case for an argument known as “the Jebusite hypothesis” which speculates that the priest Zadok was descended from the Jebusite king-priests, and ultimately Melchizedek, who served at the sanctuary of El-Elyon, The Most High God, in Jerusalem. As I noted earlier, if Ahimelech, my brother is king/Melech, and Zadok were brothers, both sons of Ahitub, then their two names come together in Melchi-Zadok, which may further support the Jebusite hypothesis of king-priests. If the theory is right, then Zadok was chosen by David as a pre-eminent priest because of his position at the Jebusite-Jerusalem sanctuary before its conquest by David and Joab. It’s clear enough that at this time in Israel’s history priesthood was not confined to the decendants of Aaron, as the descendants of Moses were also priests (e.g. Judges 18:30), non-Aaronic Levites were referred to as priests, and even David’s sons, who were not descended from Levi, Aaron or Moses, were priests (2 Samuel 8:18). There may have been no difficulty in bringing the Jebusite priests of The Most High God into service as priests of the god of Israel.

Several scholars have argued that descent from Aaron became an issue later in Israel’s history. By the time of Ezra-Nehemiah it seems to have become necessary to prove one’s priestly legitimacy by establishing descent from Aaron. Ezra’s own lineage is problematic, as it skips generations for example, but goes back to Aaron, the High Priest (Ezra 7:1-5). However, Ezra’s pedigree also includes Zadok, and depending on which was written first – Ezra or Chronicles – this may very well be the first attempt to link the priestly lines of Zadok and Aaron. This may go somewhat towards explaining the discrepancies and ‘corruptions’ in the genealogies, as these details could have been manufactured and added in at a later time to legitimate the claims of the Zadokite priests. It’s also interesting that while Chronicles provides a geneology for Zadok back to Aaron (1 Chron. 6:8), it doesn’t do the same for Abiathar. It does note that only two of Aaron’s sons carried on his line, and connects Zadok with one of them and Ahimelech with the other (“Zadok of the sons of Eleazar, and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar”), but says nothing in this context about Abiathar (1 Chron. 24:1-6) even though Zadok and Abiathar were jointly named as David’s chief priests. It appears as though the writer of Chronicles was attempting to air-brush Abiathar from history. As Abiathar was originally one of the “priests of Nob”, descendants of Eli who relocated after the destruction of the sanctuary at Shiloh, while Zadok was associated with Jerusalem, some scholars see in these accounts attempts to consolidate the centrality of worship in Jerusalem and to oppose any shrines operating elsewhere in the country. For the writers of Chronicles the conflict between Abiathar and Solomon went beyond Abiathar’s support for Adonijah – it represented the ongoing struggle between the Jerusalem Temple cult and the traditional and historical places of worship throughout the country, between rural Israel and urban Jerusalem, between country and city. The solution was to establish the legitimacy of the Zadokite priesthood and to villainise any opponents, or to airbrush them from history. For the writers of Kings, on the other hand, the issues were the same but they were seeing them from another perspective.

To be continued …

* If it is an error then it was made very early on in the transmission of manuscripts as 1 Chronicles 18:16 and 24:6 also have “Ahimelech son of Abiathar”. In all these cases the Septuagint follows the same order as the Hebrew Masoretic Text, so if there was an error, wherever it was, it was apparently made before the ancient translation into Greek. The error, of course, could have been in 1 Sam 22:20, where the Septuagint also names Abiathar’s father as Αβιμελεχ, Abimelech – not Ahimelech – so there seems to have been some corruption of one or more of these texts from an early time.

** As an aside, George Frideric Handel’s anthem “Zadok the priest” is a musical arrangement of this text in 1 Kings 1:38-40, composed for the coronation of King George II in 1727 and sung at British coronations ever since. The same text, in other forms, has been used at all English and then British coronations since the coronation of King Edgar in 973.