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.
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.