Abiathar: The Meaning of Biblical Names
Abiathar was a high priest during the reign of David (2 Sam. 20:25). Although he appears frequently in the narratives of 1&2 Samuel, he is a minor character. He never speaks in the narrative, except once indirectly when it is said that he informed David of Saul’s slaughter of the priests (1 Sam. 22:21). The main importance of Abiathar is that he provides a way for David to communicate with God. When he escapes from the slaughter of the priests, we are informed that he brought the ephod with him (1 Sam. 23:6). The ephod was a priestly garment which contained pockets in which the Urim and Thummim were kept (Exod. 28:28-30). In some way, not exactly clear to us, the high priest used these items to determine God’s will.
Although no particular attention is drawn to the meaning of Abiathar’s name in the narrative, its various meanings fit the context of 1&2 Samuel quite nicely. The following is an excerpt on the meanings of Abiathar’s name from my book Family Portraits: Character Studies in 1&2 Samuel, including a few explanatory comments in parentheses.
One of the most intriguing things about Abiathar is his name, which has an interesting range of meaning. “āḇ” means “father” in Hebrew. The second part of his name comes from the Hebrew word yāṯār meaning “remainder,” or “what is left over,” and is also related to the idea of “abundance.” Therefore, his name can mean “the father’s (God’s) abundance,” or “the father’s remnant.”
Both of these meanings have an important relationship to what we have learned about Eli’s family in 1 Samuel (see Family Portraits here for more detail). When yāṯār is translated as “abundance,” it can be used as “a technical sacrificial term that always occurs in conjunction with the liver” (cf. Exod. 29:13, 22; Lev. 3:4, 10, 15). It refers to an appendage or covering of fat that is to be sacrificed along with the liver” (emphasis mine).
It might be recalled that Eli’s family has a notorious history concerning “fat” (1 Sam. 2:16, 29; 4:18). In addition, the word for “liver” is from the word kāḇēḏ (the word “heavy” in the Eli story). This is not to suggest that Abiathar is guilty of stealing the fat as Eli and his sons did, at least not literally (I explore the potential ramifications for this later in the chapter however). Rather, his name may be a celebration of the “abundance” that his family had experienced since the destruction at Shiloh. In spite of the fact that people like Ichabod, Ahitub, and Ahijah may have died prematurely, 1 Samuel 22:18 tells us that the house of Eli consisted of 85 men before the destruction at Nob. Therefore, “Abiathar” may be an expression of thanks for God’s “abundance,” in spite of the prophecy of doom which hung over the family. Whatever the reason, it is interesting to note that the idea of “fat” continues to follow the family of Eli. However, this “fatness” becomes “leanness” when Saul kills all the priests at Nob except Abiathar, which leads to a consideration of the second meaning of Abiathar’s name.
Because the word yāṯār carries the meaning “what is left over” it can refer to “excess” (hence “fat”), or to “what remains,” which invokes the idea of scarcity. This word is sometimes used interchangeably with another Hebrew word which means “remnant” (shaʾar). Therefore, yāṯār can be used in the sense of “few,” or even “none” (e.g., Exod. 10:15; 2 Kgs. 4:43-44). This meaning is, of course, very applicable to the name “Abiathar” after the destruction of the priests at Nob, since he alone escapes (1 Sam. 22:20).
Abiathar’s “aloneness” is confirmation of the prophetic word of judgment (1 Sam. 2:27-35), but it is also a word of grace. The concept of “remnant” in Scripture is set within the context of grace. The idea is that, in spite of mankind’s wickedness, God does not utterly destroy, but always leaves himself a remnant. In the days of Ahab and Jezebel, God tells Elijah that he has reserved for himself a remnant of 7,000 that have not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). The concept of a godly remnant is also very important to the book of Isaiah (e.g., Isa. 7:3). Discussing the biblical principle of the remnant, Paul writes, “Even so at this present time there is a remnant according to the election of grace” (Rom. 11:5). So while Abiathar’s name is a reminder of the judgment that fell on the house of Eli, it is also a reminder of God’s grace. (Family Portraits, pp. 89-91).