Rereading 2 Samuel 8:18: “David’s Sons Were Priests”

Last week, in my post on Jesus: A High Priest After the Order of Melchizedek, I wrote that after David conquered Jerusalem and made the city the capital of his government, he “incorporated the original inhabitants of Jerusalem into the population of Israel and became their king.”

I also wrote that David became a priest of the people who lived in Jerusalem, “not because he was a Levite, but because he continued the tradition established by Melchizedek.” Then I concluded: “Melchizedek now becomes a type of the Davidic king. The descendants of David will be kings and they will be priests; this is clearly expressed in 2 Samuel 8:18: ‘and David’s sons were priests.’”

The statement in 2 Samuel 8:18 that “David’s sons were priests” is very controversial and even the translations disagree on how to translate the word kohanim (“priests”) in this section of the verse.

The following translations translate the word kohanim in 2 Samuel 8:18 as “priests”:

The Bible in Basic English (BBE), the English Standard Version (ESV), the New American Bible (NAB), the New English Translation (NET), the New Jerusalem Bible (NJB), the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Jewish Publication Society (TNK), the New English Bible (NEB), and the Today’s New International Version (TNIV).

Other translations are not willing to accept that David’s sons were priests. Instead, they reinterpret the word and say that David’s sons were his advisors. These are the ways the word kohanim is translated:

“Chief ministers”: the American Standard Version (ASV), the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), and the New King James Version (NKJV).

“Chief officials”: the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

“Chief rulers”: the King James Version (KJV), the Revised Webster Bible (RWB), and the Geneva Bible (GNV).

“Princes”: the Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB).

“Royal advisers”: the New International Version ( NIV).

“Priestly leaders”: the New Living Translation ( NLT).

“Princes of the court”: the Septuagint ( LXX).

In defense of the translations of kohanim as “chief rulers” or “royal advisors,” some commentators acknowledge that the word “kohen” means “priest,” but that in early Israel the word was also used to designate a royal minister or a person who advised the king.

Keil (p. 369), in order to justify translating the word kohanim as “confidants,” cites 1 Kings 4:5, where Zabud, Nathan’s son, is a kohen (“priest”) and “the king’s friend,” that is, the king’s confidential advisor..

Most of the translations that say that David’s sons were advisors base their translations on the interpretation offered by the Chronicler in 1 Chronicles 18:17 where David’s sons are called “the chief officials in the service of the king.” This description of the office occupied by David’s sons reflects the post-exilic perspective of the Chronicler, where only Levites could serve as priests. Thus, the designation of David’s sons as priests was unacceptable to the Chronicler.

Many English translations follow the Chronicler’s unwillingness to acknowledge that individuals who were not Levites could become priests. Since the Chronicler does not use the word “priests” but calls the sons of David “chief officials at the king’s side” (NIV), many English translations follow the reading of the Chronicler.

But, as P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. (p. 255) concluded:

“Almost all critics, therefore, have agreed that the readings of I Chron 18:17 and the versions in II Sam 8:18 are interpretive paraphrases of the reading of MT by scribes who considered it impossible that there should be non-Levitical priests.”

In conclusion, it is better to translate the word kohanim as “priests” rather than “royal advisors.” Since David performed some priestly functions in the Jerusalem cult, it is very possible that he delegated some of his priestly responsibilities to his sons.

References:

C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary of the Books of Samuel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950.

P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., II Samuel. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1984.

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Book of 2 Samuel, David, Melchizedek and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Rereading 2 Samuel 8:18: “David’s Sons Were Priests”

  1. D. P. says:

    >Interesting! You’re bringing back fond memories of my dissertation work in Hebrews (although my particular topic did not involve Melchizedek to any great extent).I hope you’ll eventually delve into ancient ideas about sacral kingship. Sometimes the king also acts as the society’s “chief priest” (I’m thinking especially of Egypt but there are many other examples) and sometimes there is a division of labor involving two kings: one for ritual functions and one for “secular” administrative duties. Wasn’t this more or less the Spartan system?

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  2. >Once again, you’ve offered a compelling argument I’d never considered before. And once again, I was paying attention enough to nitpick: in the fourth paragraph, didn’t you mean “New American Bible (NAB)”?Peace.

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  3. >D. P.,Thank you for your comment. It has been a long time since I read Ivan Engnell’s book Studies in Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East. The book was published in 1965. I am not an expert on the topic but I am very curious. Maybe I need to do some additional reading in this area.Claude Mariottini

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  4. >Milton,Thank you for your comment. You are right, the NAB should be the New American Bible. I will correct the error in my post. I hope things are well with you.Claude Mariottini

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  5. David Larsen says:

    >Thank you so much for this post. I am grateful for your research on this topic. I just have a couple of questions that perhaps you can enlighten me on:If David got his Priesthood solely due to the fact that he conquered Jerusalem and decided to take on the functions of that city’s tradition, why should we consider his Priesthood legitimate? Why would God allow him to function as a priest if God did not give him the priesthood (compare Hebrews 5:4)? And why would Jesus be connected to the Melchizedek Priesthood if David’s claim to it is so dubious?My thought is that the Melchizedek Priesthood was given to David by the prophet Samuel, who anointed him to be King. Furthermore, the Priesthood of Melchizedek was passed on from Melchizedek, who I take to be Shem, on to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and then to Moses and subsequent prophets of Israel. Both the kings and the prophets, then, held this priesthood, which is why prophets like Elijah were able to carry out priestly functions. Does that make any sense or not really? :)Thanks again for your wonderful blog.

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  6. David Larsen says:

    >Also, I forgot to mention that my wife is Brazilian and I lived in Brazil for 2 years as a missionary. Brazilians are wonderful people. Que Deus lhe abencoe.Abraco,David

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  7. >David,You must read Hebrews 5:4 in light of Hebrews 5:1: “Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.” The priesthood in Israel was hereditary but many people who were not Levites still served as priests.How can you say that David’s priesthood was not legitimate, when the Lord himself said it was: “The LORD has taken an oath and will not break his vow: ‘You are a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek’” (Psalm 110:4).There is no biblical evidence that Shem was Melchizedek. This is an old speculation only to give legitimacy to Melchizedek as a priest of the true God. Melchizedek was the king of Salem and Salem is identified with Jerusalem in Psalm 76:2, thus, Melchizedek was a Canaanite, or a Jebusite who worshiped El Elyon, a Canaanite God.Another thing, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the prophets and Elijah were not priests. The fact is, that before the reforms of Josiah in 622 B.C. there was no rigid requirement that people could not offer sacrifices to God. A detailed study of the Old Testament clearly shows that they did.Say hallo to your Brazilian wife.Claude Mariottini

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  8. David Larsen says:

    >Thank you for your great response.I’m sorry I was not clear on this, but I wasn’t actually descrediting David’s Priesthood. I fully believe it was legitimate. I was making a hypothetical argument to disagree with your conclusions concerning how David got his priesthood. I believe that the prophets had the priesthood and that it was Samuel that passed it on to David.I don’t think Josiah’s reforms changed God’s pattern for only allowing those with priesthood authority to sacrifice. Can you show me where just anyone was allowed to offer sacrifice? I believe that others offered sacrifice besides aaronic priests, but not just anyone. There was always a distinction between priesthood and laymen.Clement of Rome, commenting before 100 AD, said: For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to laymen.The “Apostolic Constitutions” made this idea even more clear:Neither do we permit the laity to perform any of the offices belonging to the priesthood; as, for instance, neither the sacrifice, nor baptism, nor the laying on of hands, nor the blessing, whether the smaller or the greater: for “no one taketh this honour to himself, but he that is called of God.” For such sacred offices are conferred by the laying on of the hands of the bishop. (Apostolic Constitutions 3:10, in ANF 7:429.)Why is Melchizedek such a significant figure in both biblical and extra-biblical literature if he was merely a pagan Canaanite priest? Why would it say that Jesus was a priest after the order of Melchizedek, instead of “after the order of David,” who was the legitimate king/priest of God? Were the Jebusites the original and/or only inhabitants of Jerusalem? Could there not have been a legitimate Semitic king/priest ordained to that position by God at an earlier time? I don’t believe that there is any biblical evidence that he was a pagan. Abraham certainly seemed to respect him as an authoritative figure.Despite my arguments, I do respect your brilliant research very much. I do not mean to turn your blog into a debate. Thank you for the great work you do.

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