Abiathar (Hebrew אֶבְיָתָ֑ר, father of abundance) (fl. 1064 BC–1015 BC) was the eleventh High Priest of Israel and the one high priest mentioned in the Bible who lost his job for political reasons. His is a tragic story of a once highly favored public servant who stepped onto the wrong side of history and paid dearly for that misstep.
Abiathar was a descendant of Eli and the last high priest of the line of Ithamar. His father was Ahimelech I, whom Saul executed for treason after he had given food and weapons to David during the civil war between them.
Priest in exile
In the spring of 2940 AM (1064 BC), Doeg the Edomite executed eighty-five priests and the entire population of Nob, including Ahimelech I, the high priest. But Abiathar escaped that slaughter and joined David. He brought with him the sacerdotal garments, including the ephod, the Breastplate of Judgment, and the Urim and Thummim, so that he could inquire of God on behalf of David when needed.
Almost immediately David called on Abiathar to inquire of God—twice— about going into combat. David had heard that the Philistines had laid siege to the town of Keilah. David wanted to know whether he ought to march to Keilah to raise the siege. Abiathar made the inquiry, and the answer was yes. Then David's men expressed their fear that Saul's army was formidable enough, and Philistines might be worse. Again Abiathar made the inquiry, and again God said that David should fight the Philistines, and that he would win.
David did win that battle, and he and his men stayed in Keilah. Then David heard that Saul was marching to Keilah himself in pursuit of David. David asked Abiathar's help again in inquiring of God, and God told David that if he stayed, the men of Keilah would surrender him to Saul. So David and his men, including Abiathar, left the city and camped in the hills of Ziph. (1_Samuel 23 )
Eventually David sought asylum from King Achish, one of the Five Lords of the Philistines. Achish assigned David the city of Ziklag. Then in 2949 AM, while David and his army were abroad, Amalekites attacked Ziklag, burned it to the ground, and took many people captive, including two of David's wives and the wives of several of his men. David asked Abiathar to inquire of God whether to pursue the Amalekites. God said yes. So David took four hundred of his men, caught up with the raiding party, killed the raiders, rescued their hostages, and recovered all the spoil that they had taken. (1_Samuel 30 )
Two days later, Saul and his three elder sons died in the Battle of Gilboa. David heard of this from an Amalekite who had escaped the battlefield. The Amalekite said that he personally had killed Saul, so David had him summarily executed. (2_Samuel 1 )
A few days later Abiathar helped David ask God whether he should march toward a city of the tribe of Judah. God named Hebron, and David marched to that city. The city fathers welcomed him, and the tribal elders came and anointed him as their king. (2_Samuel 2 )
Seven and a half years later, King Ishbosheth, Saul's successor, was assassinated. David now became king of the United Kingdom of Israel. David marched to Jerusalem, infiltrated its water tunnel, and took it over in a bloody battle. Jerusalem now became the capital city of Israel. (2_Samuel 5 )
David now ordered the ark of the covenant brought to Jerusalem. The first attempt to bring it, by placing it in a cart, ended in tragedy when a man touched it out of turn. Three months later, David had the ark hand-carried into the city, which was the proper procedure. (2_Samuel 6 )
Abiathar remained as high priest throughout David's reign. When Absalom revolted against David, Abiathar remained loyal. Once, he and Zadok brought the ark out of Jerusalem after David fled the city. David ordered Abiathar and Zadok to return the ark to Jerusalem and remain there, because David was confident that God would restore David to his throne. (2_Samuel 15:24-29 ) In fact, Abiathar and Zadok, together with their respective sons Jonathan and Ahimaaz, became part of David's spy network in Jerusalem until Absalom was defeated and killed.
Toward the end of David's life, Abiathar made the mistake that cost him his career. He took the side of Adonijah, one of the sons of David, against Solomon, another son of David and David's chosen successor. To demonstrate this, Abiathar sacrificed many oxen and fatlings and sheep. King David was old and ill at the time, but was still able to issue orders. He ordered Nathan and Zadok and another trusted servant, Benaiah, to anoint Solomon as his viceroy. Jonathan, one of Abiathar's two named sons, brought the news to Abiathar and Adonijah. Adonijah promptly abandoned his bid for the throne and abased himself before Solomon. (1_Kings 1 )
But later Adonijah asked Solomon for permission to marry Abishag, the last concubine of David. Solomon then suspected that Adonijah was making another bid for the throne, and had Adonijah executed. He then removed Abiathar as high priest and conferred that honor upon his colleague Zadok. But Solomon did not have Abiathar executed; instead he banished him to his village of Anathoth, a village in Benjamite territory that had been set aside for the Aaronids. (1_Kings 2:26-27 )
Many scholars interpret certain passages (e.g. 2_Samuel 8:17 ) as suggesting that Abiathar and Zadok served jointly as high priests, and even that the names of Abiathar and Ahimelech were transposed. A transposition would be highly unlikely to escape detection in the meticulous cross-checking of every manuscript during copying (see Biblical Inerrancy). Moreover, the Bible gives no definite evidence that Zadok was actually high priest before Solomon removed Abiathar from that office.
New Testament reference
Jesus Christ said that "during the days of Abiathar," David had been given leftover showbread to eat, though only priests were allowed to eat showbread. (Matthew 12:1-8 ) Most scholars have determined that "the days of Abiathar" referred to the lifetime of Abiathar and not his career.
- "Abiathar," Light of Life, n.d. Accessed January 7, 2009
- Konig G and Konig R, "Abiathar," AboutBibleProphecy.com, n.d. Accessed January 7, 2009.
- Easton M, "Abiathar," Easton's Bible Dictionary. Cited in Christian Classics Ethereal Library, July 13, 2005. Accessed January 7, 2009.
- Kent CF and Ginzberg L, "Abiathar," The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906. Accessed January 7, 2009.