Did King David Break the Law in 1 Samuel 21?
In response to the Pharisee’s accusation that Jesus’ disciples had broken the Law of Moses by plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath, the master Teacher called His critics’ attention to the time when King David was hungry and “entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests” (Matthew 12:4). Jesus was referring to the incident recorded in 1 Samuel 21 when David feared for his life, fled from King Saul, and ate the holy bread of the Tabernacle. One questioner recently asked: “Was it not the case that David, in 1 Sam. 21-22, had divine authorization to eat the showbread which was not otherwise lawful? Three times in chapter 22, it is said that the priest, who gave the showbread to David, ‘inquired of the Lord’ for him. Did David not acquire permission from God before getting the showbread?” If so, how could Jesus say that David’s actions were “unlawful” (Matthew 12:4; Mark 2:26; Luke 6:4)?
First, it certainly was the case that the consecrated showbread of the Tabernacle was reserved for the priests. Moses specifically noted that “Aaron and his sons shall eat…the bread that is in the basket, by the door of the tabernacle of meeting…. [B]ut an outsider shall not eat them, because they are holy. And if any…of the bread remains until the morning then you shall burn the remainder with fire. It shall not be eaten, because it is holy” (Exodus 29:32-34). “[I]t shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place” (Leviticus 24:9).
Second, simply because the treacherous and murderous Doeg and the incensed, unstable, and envious King Saul accused Ahimelech, priest of Israel, of inquiring of the Lord on David’s behalf does not mean that he did (1 Samuel 22:9-10,13). But didn’t Ahimelech himself confess to consulting the Lord in 1 Samuel 22:15? Admittedly, many English translations render the verse in such a way that certainly leaves the impression that Ahimelech asked something of the Lord on David’s behalf. (“Was that day the first time I inquired of God for him? Of course not!”—NIV.) However, could Ahimelech have actually meant that he did not inquire of God on David’s behalf? “Have I today begun to inquire of God for him? Be it far from me” (ASV). Could this statement possibly mean, “I have never inquired of God on David’s behalf, and I did not start doing so today”?
Third, even if Ahimelech did actually inquire of God on David’s behalf, such mediation does not mean that he asked God if David and his men could eat the consecrated showbread, which the Law of Moses prohibited. Notice that King Saul accused Ahimelech of having “given him bread and a sword, and have inquired of God for him, that he should rise against me to lie in wait, as it is to this day” (1 Samuel 22:13). To assume and to assert that David was not guilty of breaking a law of Moses because he received special permission to eat the showbread when the priest consulted the Lord on David’s behalf, is to say much more than the text actually states. If Ahimelech did actually ask the Lord something on David’s behalf (which 1 Samuel 21 does not record, and may have all been a lie started by Doeg), then it could have been about any number of things, including (and most likely) about where David should go and whether he should travel to the Philistine city of Gath in order to escape the grasp of King Saul. Nothing is stated in the text that Ahimelech inquired of God as to whether he should give David the showbread.
Fourth, though David was a great servant of the Lord, he was not without his sins. Did he eat the forbidden showbread? Yes. And in the same account, do we not also learn that David told a blatant lie? Indeed, he lied to Ahimelech when he claimed, “The king has ordered me on some business, and said to me, ‘Do not let anyone know anything about the business on which I send you, or what I have commanded you.’ And I have directed my young men to such and such a place” (1 Samuel 21:2). King Saul never ordered David on “some business;” David was fleeing from Saul in order to save his life. If David was willing to lie to save his life at a weak moment, we should not be surprised that he was also willing to consume forbidden food.
The fact is, Jesus rightly and masterfully pointed out the unlawful actions of David to a group of hypocritical Pharisees who apparently had overlooked their beloved David’s blatantly sinful actions in 1 Samuel 21. Yet these same Pharisees wrongly criticized Jesus and His apostles for breaking the Sabbath. In truth, the only “law” Jesus’ disciples broke (at least on this occasion) was the Pharisaical misinterpretation of the law (which seems to have been more sacred to the Pharisees than the Law itself).
[*For further explanation of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 12:1-14, see our other articles “Did Jesus Condone Law-Breaking?” and “Situation Ethics—Extended Version.”]