|Achimelech gives David the sword of Goliath|
Tuesday in the Second Week of Ordinary Time, Mark 2:23-28
And [Jesus] said to them: Have you never read what David did when he had need, and was hungry himself, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God, under Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the loaves of proposition, which was not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave to them who were with him?
St. Mark specifies Jesus’ question to the Pharisees in a way that St. Matthew (12:1-8) does not, for St. Mark mentions that our Lord declared Abiathar to be the high priest when David came and ate of the hallowed bread. However, if we look to the text cited (1 Samuel 21:1-6) we see that Achimelech was the high priest and that Abiathar was his son who succeeded him shortly thereafter.
Jesus says that Abiathar was the high priest when David came and ate the bread of offering, but 1 Samual says that Achimelech was the high priest at that time. Could it be that our Savior misquoted 1 Samuel 21? Did Truth himself confuse the son with the father? Of course not!
Why then does Jesus say Abiathar instead of Achimelech?
David’s flight to Achimelech
In 1 Samual 21, when David goes to Nobe to the house of God (for it was in the days before the Temple had been constructed in Jerusalem), the son of Jesse is not yet the king of Israel. Rather, king Saul is seeking to kill David, on account of his jealousy over the fame which David won by slaying Goliath.
David flees from Saul and come to Nobe and begs the assistance of the high priest Achimelech – for his men were on the point of starvation and had no food. Now there was no bread there, excepting the bread of the offering which was hallowed to the Lord and which was not lawful for any but the priests to eat.
However, because David and his men had kept themselves pure, Achimelech gives the loaves to David so that he and his men may not collapse. Together with this bread, Achimelech also gave David the sword of Goliath.
Though David went his way, Doeg the Edomite (a secret enemy of David who was present that day) went and told all to Saul. The king then had Achimelech and all the priests killed (cf. 1 Samuel 22).
Achimelech and Abiathar
And the king said: Dying thou shalt die, Achimelech, thou and all thy father's house. […]But one of the sons of Achimelech the son of Achitob, whose name was Abiathar, escaped, and fled to David. (1 Samuel 22:16,20)
Abiathar was the son of Achimelech, and he alone escaped the brutal slaughter perpetrated by Saul and Doeg. Thus he fled to David and found safety. David then swore to Abiathar that he would protect him, since it was on David’s account that Abiathar’s father had been slain.
After David became king, Abiathar was elevated to become the high priest, and he plays an important role in David’s reign – especially in helping David during the time of the rebellion of his son Absalom (cf. 2 Samuel 15 and 20). He also served with Zadok as priest under Solomon.
Abiathar’s life and ministry as priest was very closely associated with David.
Still, the fact remains that 1 Samuel 21 says that Achimelech was the priest who gave David the bread, while our Savior (in Mark 2) says that it was Abiathar – hence, it appears that we have a contradiction.
Some have impiously claimed that Jesus misquoted this verse. Others (blaspheming) state that Mark erred in writing his text. But we know that Truth himself speaks truly, and that the Spirit of Truth cannot inspire falsehood. Hence, it must needs be that our Lord did not err but spoke truly when he said that Abiathar was the high priest – and this can be accounted for in (at least) three ways.
From Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide:
1) “I answer, first, that Abiathar was even then the pontiff together with his father, because when his father was absent, or sick, or otherwise engaged, he discharged the High Priest’s office; and he was shortly to succeed his father, at his death, in the pontificate. Listen to Bede: That the Lord calls Abiathar the High Priest instead of Ahimelech involves no discrepancy, for both were on the spot when David came and asked for and received the loaves. And when Ahimelech was slain by Saul, Abiathar fled to David, and was his companion through the whole of his exile. Afterwards, when David was king, he received the rank of the high-priesthood; and continuing in the pontificate during the whole of David’s reign, he became much more celebrated than his father, and so was more worthy to be called High Priest by the Lord, even during his father’s lifetime.”
And to this we add that Caiaphas is called the high priest at the time of the Crucifixion, though it was his father-in-law Annas who was the high priest that year.
2) “Second, and better, It is clear from Scripture that both father and son bore both names, and were called sometimes Abiathar, sometimes Ahimelech. This appears from 2 Sam. viii. 17, 1 Chron. xviii. 16 and xxiv. 6. So Jansen, Toletus, &c.”
2 Samuel 2:17 (and 1 Chronicles 18:16) – And Sadoc the son of Achitob, and Achimelech the son of Abiathar, were the priests.
And I don’t mind adding that such is common even today – for a man may be named Leo Michael (jr) after his father. But while the family calls him “Mike”, we are not surprised to hear some call him “Leo”. Hence, while “Leo” sometimes refers to the father, it also can be used to refer to the son. And “Mike” could theoretically refer to either father or son as well.
A mystical interpretation
To these two excellent interpretations given by Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide, we add a third – which is really only meant as the hint of an explanation.
After the slaughtering of Achimelech and the priests by Saul, Abiathar flees to David who says: Abide thou with me, fear not: for he that seeketh my life, seeketh thy life also, and with me thou shalt be saved. (1 Samuel 22:23)
David here preserves a pure remnant from the priests. He proposes a union with Abiathar, such that the priest will be saved through remaining united to king David. Indeed, it is also important to recall that Abiathar was priest through the transition from the time when the Ark remained in the tabernacle in the country to the time when Solomon built the Temple.
Thus, the transition from Achimelech to Abiathar (and from Saul to David, and even to Solomon) seems to propose something of the promise of a new priesthood to be established with the new covenant which was to come through the Christ. Could it be that our Savior calls our attention to Abiathar the son of Achimelech in order to indicate that a new priesthood is being established?
The Lord refers to this passage in the midst of a dispute with the Pharisees over the interpretation of the Law. It would be a fitting time for him to direct our minds to contemplation of the new covenant, as he tells us: Therefore the Son of man is Lord of the sabbath also. (Mark 2:28)