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ABIATHAR ə bī’ ə thər (אֶבְיָתָ֣ר, father of abundance). Son of Ahimelech, high priest at Nob during the reign of Saul. His descent is traced back to Phinehas, Eli’s son (1 Sam 14:3 where Ahiah is presumably the apocopated form of Ahimelech), and further to Aaron’s son, Ithamar (1 Chron 24:3).

David, while fleeing from Saul, stopped at Nob and requested five loaves of bread from the head priest, Ahimelech, father of Abiathar (1 Sam 21). By making his request, David involved himself in a lie and Ahimelech and his associates in a massacre. An Edomite named Doeg, Saul’s boss of the herdsmen, was being detained at Nob that day and he overheard the conversation between the priest and the fugitive David. When Doeg returned to Saul, he came forward with the information that David had asked for an oracle from the Lord as well as having received provisions and Goliath’s sword (1 Sam 22:10). Of these three items (1 Sam 21), the account has nothing to say concerning any “inquiry made before the Lord” while it does in general support the other two items. Was Doeg falsely adding to the story? Ahimelech denied this charge (1 Sam 22:15). There would seem to be more reason to trust the priest rather than Doeg, not only as a better character reference, but also from the point of view that if David would have received an oracle from God, it is strange that it is not included as a theological interpretation and a blessing upon the legitimacy of David’s claims and actions. This would have served to warn the priests also of the significance of the events in which they found themselves involved. David later acknowledged his share in the guilt connected with their deaths (1 Sam 22:22). Afterward he would return to this topic as an example of the wrong use of the tongue (Ps 52).

Abiathar escaped with the ephod and joined himself to David, becoming his priest and means of discovering the divine will (1 Sam 22:20-23; 23:6, 9; 30:7, 8). Later he was frequently mentioned with Zadok; both being described as high priests under David with the one noticeable fact: Zadok is always mentioned first (cf. 2 Sam 15:35; 19:11; 20:25; etc.).

In the Adonijah rebellion, Abiathar supported Adonijah while Zadok remained loyal to David and Solomon (1 Kings 1:7, 19). Since Adonijah’s rebellion failed, Abiathar was in trouble; however, Solomon spared him because of his association with David and he was exiled to Anathoth (2:26, 27) and Zadok was the sole high priest. (Note Jer 1:1 where Jeremiah was “of the priests who were in Anathoth.”) The predicted word (1 Sam 2:27-36) concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh was now fulfilled (1 Kings 2:27).

On the critical problem of the name of the father of Abiathar, it must be noted that his name was Ahimelech (1 Sam 21:1) which could be shortened to Ahia (1 Chron 5:15). The spelling of Abimelech (18:16 KJV) is a scribal error for Ahimelech as Kittel’s notes on this v. suggest (12 MSS, the Vul. and Syr. read Ahimelech). As for the alleged reversal of the son of Abiathar, Keil (with others like Oehler and Bertheau) see the line in this way: Ahimelech, Abiathar, Ahimelech (a patronymical pattern of names which is no oddity in the Near E).

The further problem of Jesus’ reference in Mark 2:26 to Abiathar being the priest when David asked for the shewbread is answered not by a dispute about how many days after Ahimelech, who actually gave David the bread, did Abiathar become priest, but by allowing the evangelist Mark to speak. He said that it was “in the days of Abiathar the priest” and thereby denotes only the period when he served as priest, including those while his father was living. It may also be a more convenient reference for the people of Jesus’ day, since the priest associated so long with David was more famous than his father.


H. G. Judge, “Aaron, Zadok, and Abiathar,” JTS, new series 7 (1956), 70ff.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

a-bi’-a-thar, ab-i-a’-thar (’ebhyathar, "father of super-excellence," or, "the super-excellent one is father." With changed phraseology these are the explanations commonly given, though "a father remains" would be more in accord with the ordinary use of the stem yathar. The pious Abiathar was still conscious that he had a Father, even after the butchery of his human relatives):

1. The Biblical Account: The Scriptures represent that Abiathar was descended from Phinehas the son of Eli, and through him from Ithamar the son of Aaron; that he was the son of Ahimelech the head priest at Nob who, with his associates, was put to death by King Saul for alleged conspiracy with David; that he had two sons, Ahimelech and Jonathan, the former of whom was, in Abiathar’s lifetime, prominent in the priestly service (1Sa 21:1-9; 22:7 ff; 2Sa 8:17; 15:27 ff; 1Ch 18:16; 24:3,6,31).

See Ahimelech; Ahitub.

Abiathar escaped from the massacre of the priests at Nob, and fled to David, carrying the ephod with him. This was a great accession to David’s strength. Public feeling in Israel was outraged by the slaughter of the priests, and turned strongly against Saul. The heir of the priesthood, and in his care the holy ephod, were now with David, and the fact gave to his cause prestige, and a certain character of legitimacy. David also felt bitterly his having been the unwilling cause of the death of Abiathar’s relatives, and this made his heart warm toward his friend. Presumably, also, there was a deep religious sympathy between them.

There are two additional facts which, in view of the close relations between David and Abiathar, must be regarded as significant. One is that Zadok, Abiathar’s junior, is uniformly mentioned first, in all the many passages in which the two are mentioned together, and is treated as the one who is especially responsible. Turn to the narrative, and see how marked this is. The other similarly significant fact is that in certain especially responsible matters (1Ch 24; 18:16; 2Sa 8:17) the interests of the line of Ithamar are represented, not by Abiathar, but by his son Ahimelech. There must have been something in the character of Abiathar to account for these facts, as well as for his deserting David for Adonijah. To sketch his character might be a work for the imagination rather than for critical inference; but it seems clear that though he was a man worthy of the friendship of David, he yet had weaknesses or misfortunes that partially incapacitated him.

The characteristic priestly function of Abiathar is thus expressed by Solomon: "Because thou barest the ark of the Lord Yahweh before David my father" (1Ki 2:26). By its tense the verb denotes not a habitual act, but the function of ark-bearing, taken as a whole. Zadok and Abiathar, as high priests, had charge of the bringing of the ark to Jerusalem (1Ch 15:11). We are not told whether it was again moved during the reign of David. Necessarily the priestly superintendence of the ark implies that of the sacrifices and services that were connected with the ark. The details in Kings indicate the existence of much of the ceremonial described in the Pentateuch, while numerous additional Pentateuchal details are mentioned in Ch.

A priestly function much emphasized is that of obtaining answers from God through the ephod (1Sa 23:6,9; 30:7). The word ephod (see 1Sa 2:18; 2Sa 6:14) does not necessarily denote the priestly vestment with the Urim and Thummim (e.g. Le 8:7,8), but if anyone denies that this was the ephod of the priest Abiathar, the burden of proof rests upon him. This is not the place for inquiring as to the method of obtaining divine revelations through the ephod.

Abiathar’s landed estate was at Anathoth in Benjamin (1Ki 2:26), one of the cities assigned to the sons of Aaron (Jos 21:18).

Apart from the men who are expressly said to be descendants of Aaron, this part of the narrative mentions priests three times. David’s sons were priests (2Sa 8:18). This is of a piece with David’s carrying the ark on a new cart (2Sa 6), before he had been taught by the death of Uzza. "And also Ira the Jairite was priest to the king" (2Sa 20:26 the English Revised Version). "And Zabud the son of Nathan was priest, friend of the king" (1Ki 4:5 the English Revised Version). These instances seem to indicate that David and Solomon had each a private chaplain. As to the descent and function of these two "priests" we have not a word of information, and it is illegitimate to imagine details concerning them which bring them into conflict with the rest of the record.

2. Critical Opinions Concerning Abiathar: No one will dispute that the account thus far given is that of the Bible record as it stands. Critics of certain schools, however, do not accept the facts as thus recorded. If a person is committed to the tradition that the Deuteronomic and the priestly ideas of the Pentateuch first originated some centuries later than Abiathar, and if he makes that tradition the standard by which to test his critical conclusions, he must of course regard the Biblical account of Abiathar as unhistorical. Either the record disproves the tradition or the tradition disproves the record. There is no third alternative. The men who accept the current critical theories understand this, and they have two ways of defending theories against the record. In some instances they use devices for discrediting the record; in other instances they resort to harmonizing hypotheses, changing the record so as to make it agree with theory. Without here discussing these matters, we must barely note some of their bearings in the case of Abiathar.

For example, to get rid of the testimony of Jesus (Mr 2:26) to the effect that Abiathar was high priest and that the sanctuary at Nob was "the house of God," it is affirmed that either Jesus or the evangelist is here mistaken. The proof alleged for this is that Abiathar’s service as priest did not begin till at least a few days later than the incident referred to. This is merely finical, though it is an argument that is sometimes used by some scholars.

Men affirm that the statements of the record as to the descent of the line of Eli from Ithamar are untrue; that on the contrary we must conjecture that Abiathar claimed descent from Eleazar, his line being the alleged senior line of that family; that the senior line became extinct at his death, Zadok being of a junior line, if indeed he inherited any of the blood of Aaron. In making such affirmations as these, men deny the Bible statements as resting on insufficient evidence, and substitute for them other statements which, confessedly, rest on no evidence at all.

All such procedure is incorrect. Many are suspicious of statements found in the Books of Chronicles; that gives them no right to use their suspicions as if they were perceptions of fact. Supposably one may think the record unsatisfactory, and may be within his rights in thinking so, but that does not authorize him to change the record except on the basis of evidence of some kind. If we treat the record of the times of Abiathar as fairness demands that a record be treated in a court of justice, or a scientific investigation, or a business proposition, or a medical case, we will accept the facts substantially as they are found in Samuel and Kings and Chronicles and Mk.

Willis J. Beecher