How could David’s sons have been priests?

In my last two posts I’ve been exploring the boundary God established between kings and priests in ancient Israel.  Saul was rejected as king, I argued, because he overstepped that boundary by offering sacrifices; this was likely an indication of the aggrandizing direction his rule and dynasty would have taken had they continued.  David, by contrast, didn’t actually overstep the boundary when he ate the consecrated bread, since this was a priestly privilege but not a priestly function (and in addition,David wasn’t yet king at that point, although he had been anointed).

Before I leave the topic of the king-priest boundary I’d like to address one more question related to it.  The book of Samuel-Kings lists David’s royal officials once he has been established as king in Jerusalem, and at the end of this list it notes, “David’s sons were priests.”  How could they have been, when only Levite descendants of Aaron were supposed to be priests?  As I asked last time, was David trying to go through the “back door”  and set up a priest-king dynasty starting in the next generation?

Some have suggested that the Hebrew word kōhēn, the general word for priest through the Old Testament, may have either another meaning or a broader meaning (“as a term of grandeur and position, rather than specifically tribal priest,” as noted here), so that what is really intended is that David’s sons served as royal advisors. The NIV observes in a footnote that the parallel passage in Chronicles says they were “chief officials” and suggests that this could be the meaning in Samuel-Kings as well.  However, because the term kōhēn so commonly means priest, and it could so easily have been misunderstood to mean that in the case of David’s sons, I doubt any biblical writer would have used it in such a sensitive context when less ambiguous terms were available.

Another suggestion, also noted here, is that David’s sons were in charge of the priests.  In this understanding, the statement about them should be understood together with the description of the preceding official and it should all be translated, “Benaiah son of Jehoiada was over the Kerethites and Pelethites and David’s sons were [over the] priests.”  However, I don’t think this really works syntactically.  There is no article (“the”) before “priests,” and there would be no need for the verb that follows directly afterwards if the meaning were being carried forward from the previous phrase.  To me it’s a pretty clear statement in Hebrew:  “sons-of David priests were.” Besides, it was the chief priest of Israel who was supposed to be in charge of all the other priests; usurping that role would be no less a violation of the king-priest boundary.

So the explanation that makes the most sense to me is that David’s sons were considered priests in the order of Melchizedek.  As I explain in this post, quoting from my study guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews, “After the Israelites conquered Jerusalem, their own kings took over the title Melchizedek from the Jebusite kings who formerly ruled there. Since those kings had also been priests, the Israelite kings  assumed an honorary role as priests and interceded for the nation in prayer. But they were not allowed to offer sacrifices; this was reserved for the descendants of Aaron under the law of Moses.”  “Accordingly,” as the New American Commentary explains, “Davids sons would have possessed the inherited title and performed whatever duties were associated with the office.”  But these duties would not have included any of the functions reserved for the Levitical priests, so that there would have been no violation of the king-priest boundary.

It’s interesting to realize that Jesus Christ himself may therefore have become a priest in the order of Melchizedek as an heir to the throne of David–not through descent from the tribe of Judah, as the book of Hebrews carefully notes, reserving the hereditary priesthood for the Levites–but by way of royal succession.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

3 thoughts on “How could David’s sons have been priests?”

  1. I think these verses are also relevant:

    Exo 19:5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine;
    Exo 19:6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

    That is, God desired all Israel to be priests in some sense, but not in the sense of being a Levitical priest from Aaron, obviously. And then the NT takes up this theme, as all believers (including gentiles) are priests (again, in some sense, but not the Levitical sense).

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