“David’s Sons Were Priests”

Several days ago I wrote a post titled “Melchizedek and Jesus” in which I said 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 (1950: 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. (1984: 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.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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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.

This entry was posted in 1 Chronicles, Book of 1 Chronicles, Book of 2 Samuel, David, Melchizedek, Priests and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to “David’s Sons Were Priests”

  1. This is one of the most remarkable topics I have ever heard about in the studies of the Old Testament. It has been expertly researched by Dr. Mariottini. I read this line by line in awe. I really learned something new and powerful in this article. Something I thought impossible in the Old Testament Laws came to pass under the rule of King David. I believe that this was a foreshadowing of our heritage as spiritual descendants of David and Jesus Christ the root of Jesse. Under the New Testament believers are priests and prophets.
    “Therefore, Jesus has a special anointing by the Holy Spirit (cf Mt 3:16; Lc 4:18; At 4:27; 10:38) in which he allows his whole mystical body to participate: in him all Christians become a “holy and royal priesthood to offer offerings to God through Jesus Christ and to proclaim the miracles of who has called them from darkness into his wonderful light (cf 1 Pt 2:5.9). As high priest and mediator he has made of the Church “a kingdom of priests for God his Father” (Ap 1:6; cf Ap 5:9-10). These texts are the bases for the doctrine of the “common priesthood” “.


  2. Lucia says:

    Thanks so much, Dr. M.! I believe Mark 2:23-28 supports this. Notice that Messiah makes connections to His place in the Davidic line and to His role as “Melchizedekian” Priest:
    One Sabbath He was going through the grainfields, and as they made their way, His disciples began to pluck heads of grain. And the Pharisees asked Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” And He said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and was hungry … how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” And He said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”


  3. Robert Kruman says:

    Wow, I was unaware of this controversy entirely. It IS a thorny one. After all, when good King Uzziah tried to usurp a priestly prerogative (2 Chronicles 26: 16-20), he was vigorously withstood by the priests present at the time, and God Himself struck him with leprosy.

    As far as David goes, I can’t offhand remember him preforming priestly functions beyond wearing the linen ephod as he celebrated bringing the ark into the City of David (2 Samuel 6:14). I’m aware that he arranged a good deal of the worship for Solomons temple, but that’s not the same thing as performing priestly functions. Am I missing something here?.


    • Robert,

      In 2 Samuel 6:12-23) David acted as a priest. David, was dressed in the linen ephod, a vestment usually reserved for priests, David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the LORD, and he blessed the people in the name of the LORD, an action that was reserved for the priests. In his article on David as the Faithful Priest,” Daniel S. Differ says that David is portrayed as priest-like in at least three different passages in the books of First and Second Samuel.

      Claude Mariottini


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