The story of Zadok
Zadok appears by name for the first time in 2 Samuel 8:15-18 as part of a list of David’s officials: Joab is the head of the army, Jehoshaphat is the recorder, Seraiah is secretary, and Zadok, the son of Ahitub and Ahimelech, the son of Abiathar, are priests, as are David’s sons.
Zadok returns to the David narrative in 2 Samuel 15:24-29 in the context of Absalom’s rebellion. When David decides to flee from Jerusalem, Zadok and all the Levites accompany him, carrying the Ark of the Covenant. After crossing the Kidron Valley, David commands Zadok to return to the city and to take the Ark with him. David thus continues up on the Mount of Olives whereas Zadok, escorted by his sons and the priest Abiathar, return to Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant.
Zadok appears again in 1 Kings 2:27, 35 (compare 1 Chronicles 29:22). During the fight for the throne between Adonijah and Solomon, Zadok sides with the latter together with the prophet Nathan and Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother.
In addition to these passages, many scholars detect an allusion to Zadok in the prophecy recorded in 1 Samuel 2:35. In view of the sins of Eli’s sons, this passage promises that God will raise up a reliable priest who will act with God’s heart.
The scholarly discussions about Zadok
The scholarly discussions about Zadok fall roughly into one of three categories:
1. Zadok’s origin
Zadok’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Who was he and where did he come from? Zadok, called the son of Ahitub, is mentioned in 2 Samuel 8:15-18 alongside another priest named Ahimelech who is called the son of Abiathar. The reader of the Deuteronomistic history is already familiar with Abiathar and knows that he stems from the priestly house of Eli (associated with the shrine at Shiloh). Abiathar is depicted as the last of this priestly family and the only survivor of Saul’s massacre (1 Samuel 22:20; 23:6). In contrast, the reader has never met Zadok before.
The later material in 1 Chronicles 12:24-29 probably reflects an attempt to complement Zadok’s thin background story. This passage mentions a Zadok who is described as ‘a brave young warrior’ from the tribe of Levi who supported David at Hebron. It is likely that this man can be identified with David’s priest Zadok (also Josephus, Ant. 7:2, §2).
1 Chronicles 6:4-8 (Hebrew 5:30-34) adds further information about Zadok’s origins. This passage lists Zadok, the son of Ahitub, among Aaron’s descendants. The same is true for 1 Chronicles 24:3 where again Zadok is described as a descendant of Eleazar, Aaron’s third son, while the aforementioned Ahimelech (2 Samuel 8:15-18) is described as a descendant of Ithamar, Aaron’s fourth son.
All the information about Zadok’s priestly lineage is thus found in the Chronicler’s account and not in the Deuteronomistic history. As a result, scholars have voiced doubts about Zadok’s family ties. Could it be that his Aaronite ancestry is nothing but a fabrication which seeks to legitimize his office as priest? Could it be that he actually was a man who lacked not only priestly but also Israelite descent? Several factors support these suspicions:
- The name Zadok brings to mind Melchizedek, the king of Salem (Jerusalem) and the priest of El Elyon who blesses Abraham (Genesis 14). It is also reminiscent of another non-Israelite king of Salem, namely Adonizedek (Joshua 10:1-3).
- Zadok appears in the Deuteronomistic history only after David’s conquest of Jerusalem. His appearance in the story at this point is suggestive of a Jerusalem connection rather than a connection with the older priestly house at Shiloh.
- After David’s death, David’s sons Adonijah and Solomon fight for the throne. Zadok sides with the prophet Nathan and the dowager queen Bathsheba in favour of the Jerusalem-born Solomon (1 Chronicles 14:3-4; compare 2 Samuel 12:24), against the claim of the elder son Adonijah born in Hebron (2 Samuel 3:4) who, in turn, was supported by the priest Abiathar.
Zadok’s association with Jerusalem (rather than with Shiloh), combined with the absence of a background story, has caused scholars to offer a wide range of theories pertaining to Zadok’s origins. Was he really a member of the older clergy located at Shiloh, or was he rather a member of a rival priestly family from Hebron? Could he have been a priest from Gibeon, or a Jebusite priest from Jerusalem, or even a member of the old royal Jebusite family? As of today, there is no consensus view in this matter, yet most scholars tend to see Zadok as a ‘new man’ without ties to the early Israelite priesthood at Shiloh.
What is Zadok’s role in the David Narrative? How, for example, is the character of Zadok portrayed in the narrative about David’s flight from Jerusalem during Absalom’s rebellion (2 Samuel 15:24-29), what role did he play in the rivalry between Adonijah and Solomon (1 Kings 2:27, 35), and how can we understand his role in the crowning of Solomon (1 Kings 1:39, 44-45)? These questions are in part connected to the aforementioned issue of Zadok’s origin.
Many of these questions concern the relationship between David and his two chief priests Zadok and Abiathar. While Zadok was probably a newcomer, Abiathar was the last descendant of the old priestly house of Eli at Shiloh. According to 1 Kings 2:35, King Solomon replaced Abiathar of the House of Eli with Zadok. These two characters may constitute historical persons but they may also, in parallel, serve as symbols for the later conflict between the Zadokite and the Elide priests.
David’s relationship with Zadok and Abiathar may also shed light on the relationship between the cult and the crown. 2 Samuel 8:15-18 seems to suggest that the priests were royal appointments and part of the royal administration, whereas 1 Kings 1:39, 44-45 depict a situation where the religious personnel (prophet and priest) are independent from and also on a par with the monarch.
3. The post-monarchic conflict between the Zadokites, the Aaronites, and the Levites
The name Zadok has given rise to the idea of a ‘Zadokite priesthood’ (compare Sadducees) which denotes priests who trace their descent to Zadok. It should be noted, though, that the term Zadokite appears neither in the Deuteronomistic history nor in the Chronicler’s history. Moreover, few priests in the monarchic era are described as being descendent of Zadok, the two exceptions being Zadok’s son Azariah (1 Kings 4:2) and Azariah, the chief priest during Hezekiah’s reign (2 Chronicles 31:10a).
The expression ‘sons of Zadok’ is unique in the Hebrew Bible to Ezekiel 40:46; 43:19; 44:15-20; and 48:11. These texts state that only the ‘sons of Zadok’ are worthy of approaching the altar in the temple. This statement begs the question of different priesthoods in the post-monarchic era. Does the distinction between those priests who saw themselves as the ‘sons of Zadok’ and other priestly groups such as the Aaronites and the Levites reflect historical reality in post-monarchic Yehud (Judah) or does the text of Ezekiel describe an envisioned (but possibly never existing) ideal?
The notion of a superior group of priests associated with the figure of Zadok has a bearing on the understanding of the later history of the High Priesthood where the High Priests traced their lineage back to Aaron via Zadok. In parallel, it should also be noted that the teachers in the Qumran community were referred to as the ‘sons of Zadok.’
Bartlett, J. R. “Zadok and His Successor at Jerusalem.” JTS 19 (1968): 1-18.
Cross, Frank M. “The Priestly Houses of Early Israel.” Pages 195-215 in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.
Olyan, S. M. “Zadok’s Origins and the Tribal Politics of David.” JBL 101 (1982): 177-93.
Rooke, Deborah W. Pages 11-39, 43-79 in Zadok’s Heirs: The Role and Development of the High Priesthood in Ancient Israel. Oxford Theological Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.