In 1 Samuel 21, David is on the run from Saul. David comes to the town of Nob, where the tabernacle was, and meets with Ahimelech the priest. David asks for food, but Ahimelech has nothing but the showbread, which was consecrated for use in the tabernacle. Despite the law that reserved the showbread exclusively for the sons of Aaron (Leviticus 24:9), “the priest gave him the consecrated bread, since there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence that had been removed from before the Lord and replaced by hot bread on the day it was taken away” (1 Samuel 21:6).
The issue of David eating the showbread comes up in Jesus’ response to the Pharisees when they accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath. His disciples had been picking some kernels of grain and eating them as they walked through a field (Matthew 12:1–8; Mark 2:23–28; Luke 6:1–5). The Pharisees objected: “Look!” they said to Jesus. “Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:2).
In response, Jesus cites 1 Samuel 21: “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests” (Matthew 12:3–4). Jesus seems to use what David did regarding the showbread as a justification for what His disciples were doing. If that is the case, then David must have been in the right. There are several views on if or why it was allowable for David to eat the showbread.
Some have postulated that, since this was the old bread for the priests to eat, not fresh bread currently in use, the priests could give it to someone else. However, there is nothing in the law regarding the showbread that indicates that the priests were allowed to give it away—they were supposed to eat it (Leviticus 24:8–9).
Later in the narrative of 1 Samuel, Saul accuses the priest of “inquiring of God” for David (1 Samuel 22:13). This fact leads some to suggest that the priest asked for and received special permission from the Lord to give the bread to David. However, the text is not clear that the priest did actually inquire of the Lord for David, much less that the inquiry was about bread and that the Lord responded affirmatively. This view goes beyond anything even remotely suggested in the text.
Third, some suggest that, in the case of an emergency, the ceremonial rules could be set aside for the “greater good.” David seems to appeal to the priest on this basis, and, ultimately, this may have been why the priest gave him the bread. The priest did make sure that David and his men had “kept themselves from women” (1 Samuel 21:4–5), as sexual relations would have made them ceremonially unclean for the day (see Leviticus 15:18).
Finally, it is possible that both David and the priests simply have an inadequate understanding of the law. They both seem to assume that, if David’s men are in a state of ritual purity, then eating the showbread would be proper. (Of course, it is also possible that this was simply a quick justification that would not have held up under scrutiny.)
If Jesus had never commented on this incident, there would be little question about David’s actions. In fleeing for his life, he lied to a priest, tricked him perhaps, and ate bread that was not meant for him. While David was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), he had many failures and shortcomings, and he is not an example to follow in every instance.
The words of Jesus seem to make clear that David was violating the law by eating the showbread. Jesus says it was unlawful: “He went into the house of God, and he and his companions broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread” (Matthew 12:4, NLT). Taken at face value, these words show that David was a lawbreaker.
On the other hand, it is possible that Jesus was using irony when He said David did what was “not lawful.” Jesus could have been using what today we call “air quotes.” In the next verse, Jesus also says that the priests “desecrate” the Sabbath in the performance of their Sabbath-day duties (Matthew 12:5). It is obvious that, when Jesus uses the word desecrate, He is speaking tongue-in-cheek. Could He be doing the same thing with the description not lawful in verse 4?
As Jesus pointed out, priests work on the Sabbath, so, clearly, there are some exceptions to the Sabbath-day rule (Matthew 12:5). Could this also imply that there are some “common sense” exceptions to other laws—such as the one regarding the special bread that David ate? In Matthew 12:7 Jesus quotes from the Old Testament: “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). This suggests that alleviating human suffering is more important than following the letter of the law. Yes, David broke the letter of the law, but those in need received mercy.
In a parallel passage, Jesus states, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words, the Sabbath was designed to serve and benefit man, not the other way around. Caring for human needs takes precedence over keeping the letter of the law. Jesus uses this principle of caring for others as a rationale for healing on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9–14). This line of reasoning corresponds with the third view, above: in cases of emergency or to extend mercy, the ceremonial rules can be bent. There’s no need to stand on ceremony when someone is in distress.
In the same context, Jesus also points out that He is Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8; Luke 6:5). That is, He is the One who makes the rules—a definite claim to deity. As Lord of the Sabbath, He can determine what is allowable on the Sabbath. Certainly, God could have granted David special permission to eat the showbread, just as Jesus could grant special permission for the disciples to pick and eat grain on the Sabbath.
Jesus’ main point seems to be that the Pharisees are being hypocritical nitpickers. What David did was not lawful, yet they saw David as a great hero. What Jesus’ disciples did was lawful since they were not truly harvesting grain but simply plucking some grains to munch on as they walked along. The Pharisees did not condemn David for actually breaking the law, but they were willing to condemn Jesus for doing something that was actually allowable.
If the Pharisees justified David in eating the showbread because of the “greater good,” then they should have no problem with what Jesus did. If the Pharisees justified David on the premise that God could have given him special permission, then they should have no problem with Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, who had the authority to make exceptions. If they had no problem with David, a flawed man doing something unlawful, then they should have no problem with David’s greater Son doing something they did not like, but which was legal. Ultimately, Jesus’ commentary is not on what David did but on the Pharisees’ opinion of David versus their treatment of Jesus, the Son of David.
It seems clear that, when David ate the showbread, he broke the law, as he did many other times in other ways. God overlooked David’s sins in view of the final sacrifice that would be offered on the cross (Romans 3:25–26).
There are many places in the Old Testament where the biblical characters do things that are neither condemned nor commended. In such instances, we must be careful about using their actions as patterns to follow.