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 (1 Samuel 21:1-9; 22:7; 2 Samuel 8:17; 15:27; 1 Chronicles 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.
Abiathar seems to have been at once recognized as David's priest, the medium of consultation with Yahweh through the ephod (1 Samuel 22:20-23; 23:6,9; 30:7,8). He was at the head of the priesthood, along with Zadok (1 Chronicles 15:11), when David, after his conquests (1 Chronicles 13:5; compare 2 Samuel 15:24), and are so mentioned in the last list of David's heads of departments (2 Samuel 20:25). Abiathar joined with Adonijah in his attempt to seize the throne (1 Kings 1:7-42), and was for this deposed from the priesthood, though he was treated with consideration on account of his early comradeship with David (1 Kings 2:26,27). Possibly he remained high priest emeritus, as Zadok and Abiathar still appear as priests in the lists of the heads of departments for Solomon's reign (1 Kings 4:4). Particularly apt is the passage in Psalms 55:12-14, if one regards it as referring to the relations of David and Abiathar in the time of Adonijah.
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 (1 Chronicles 24; 18:16; 2 Samuel 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" (1 Kings 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 (1 Chronicles 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 (1 Samuel 23:6,9; 30:7). The word ephod (see 1 Samuel 2:18; 2 Samuel 6:14) does not necessarily denote the priestly vestment with the Urim and Thummim (e.g. Leviticus 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 (1 Kings 2:26), one of the cities assigned to the sons of Aaron (Joshua 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 (2 Samuel 8:18). This is of a piece with David's carrying the ark on a new cart (2 Samuel 6), before he had been taught by the death of Uzza. "And also Ira the Jairite was priest to the king" (2 Samuel 20:26 the English Revised Version). "And Zabud the son of Nathan was priest, friend of the king" (1 Kings 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.
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 (Mark 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.