If Saul wasn’t allowed to offer sacrifices, why could David eat the consecrated bread?

This question was asked in a comment on my previous post.

Q. I agree with you that Saul was wrong to offer sacrifices, but I think you also need to explain how you see David eating the bread of the presence. (Jesus refers to this episode in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) In both cases the royal/priest boundary was crossed.

You’re right that both Saul and David did things that only priests were supposed to do.  And as I observed last time, it was extremely important in ancient Israel that the monarchy and the priesthood not be combined. So we do need to account for why Saul is punished for his actions while David is not.

This issue arises again during the reign of Uzziah, and in his case, the nature of the offense is made very explicit:  “But after Uzziah became powerful, his pride led to his downfall. He was unfaithful to the Lord his God, and entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense. Azariah the priest with eighty other courageous priests of the Lord followed him in. They confronted King Uzziah and said, ‘It is not right for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is for the priests, the descendants of Aaron, who have been consecrated to burn incense. Leave the sanctuary, for you have been unfaithful; and you will not be honored by the Lord God.’”

For crossing the royal/priest boundary, Uzziah was struck with leprosy and he lived out his reign in seclusion, with his son acting in his place as regent.  For the same offense, Saul was rejected as king. So you’d think that God would have had as much of a problem with David eating the consecrated bread as He did with Saul offering sacrifices or Uzziah burning incense.  But instead, Jesus cites David’s actions as a precedent for his own disciples lawfully plucking and eating grain as they travel through a field on the Sabbath.  In Matthew and Luke, this incident is paired with a Sabbath healing episode, suggesting that David also provides a precedent for Jesus healing on the Sabbath.  In other words, his actions are seen as positive and exemplary, not negative and dangerous.

So what’s going on here?  I think the best explanation is that there is a distinction between the privileges of a priest and the functions of a priest.

One of the privileges of a priest is that “those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and . . . those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar,” as Paul observes in 1 Corinthians when arguing for his own right to be supported as an apostle. In other words, as Leviticus explains, once consecrated bread has been replaced with fresh bread and removed from God’s presence, it “belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is a most holy part of their perpetual share of the food offerings presented to the Lord.”  So no one but the priests had a right to this bread, as it was part of the priests’ support.  But Ahimelek the priest was nevertheless free to share this bread with David and his hungry companions–to “do good,” as Jesus put it, with the food at his disposal.  David was not arrogantly demanding priestly privileges for himself as king; he wasn’t even king yet at this point.  He was simply a hungry man asking for food and receiving it from God’s sanctuary.

By contrast, both Saul and Uzziah were usurping priestly functions, and in both cases it seems they were doing so as an assertion of their own expanded powers.  This, as I noted last time, threatened to assimilate the Israelite monarchy to the Canaanite priest-king or god-king model, and it could not be allowed.

There’s one more related issue that I’ll take up in my next post.  According to the book of Samuel-Kings, during his reign in Jerusalem, “David’s sons were priests.”  Was David trying to go through the “back door”  and set up a priest-king dynasty starting in the next generation?  I’ll explore that one next time.

Statuary, “David receives sacral bread from the priest Ahimelech,” in the Ceremoniall Hall of the Hradisko Monastery, Olomouc, Czech Republic. Sculptor: Josef A. Winterhalder, 1734.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

14 thoughts on “If Saul wasn’t allowed to offer sacrifices, why could David eat the consecrated bread?”

  1. I understand it differently.

    Luk 6:3 And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him:
    Luk 6:4 how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?”

    Luke says that what David did was not lawful.

    Mat 12:3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him:
    Mat 12:4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?

    Matthew says that what David did was not lawful.

    Mar 2:25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him:
    Mar 2:26 how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?”

    Mark says that what David did was not lawful.

    So I want to agree with Jesus that what David did was not lawful.

    And here is the regulation in the Law/Torah.

    Lev 24:5 “You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf.
    Lev 24:6 And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD.
    Lev 24:7 And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD.
    Lev 24:8 Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever.
    Lev 24:9 And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD’s food offerings, a perpetual due.”

    So David did something that was not allowed by Lev 24. Yet we have this assessment of David:

    1Ki 15:4 Nevertheless, for David’s sake the LORD his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him, and establishing Jerusalem,
    1Ki 15:5 because David did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

    So SOMETHING is going on that the above analysis is missing. I see it as something puzzling to figure out. What I think is going on is that David is meeting a greater commandment by eating the bread, one that trumps the prohibition of eating the bread of the presence. That is, the Jews count some 613 commandments in Torah, what happens when one commandment is in conflict with another and a Jew cannot do both, which one do they do? The answer is that a Jew does the “greater” (higher priority) commandment, however greater is figured out.

    1. Actually, what I think is going on in this exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees is that he is playing off their legalistic definition of what is “lawful” and showing that it is not consistent with what people are able to do in the Old Testament and still be “innocent.” It’s the Pharisees who first introduce the term. In all three Synoptic accounts, they accuse the disciples of “doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.” But there was no specific law prohibiting plucking grain while walking through a field on the Sabbath; the Pharisees had decided this was included in the definition of “work” and that it was therefore “unlawful.” Their sense of what was “lawful” was oppressive and imposed hardships. Jesus counters this by asking, “Have you never read how David and his companions ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for them to do”–by your definition! But it seems that Jesus saw David as “innocent,” because he appeals to his example to establish the “innocence” of the disciples. Similarly he points out how the temple priests “work” on the Sabbath but are nevertheless “innocent.” So Jesus is not providing guidance on how to tell what commandments take precedence over others, but rather challenging the Pharisees’ understanding of the term “lawful.” In the following episode in Luke’s account, which I believe is deliberately paired with the grain fields episode, Jesus asks, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” In Matthew the Pharisees ask, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” and Jesus replies, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” So Jesus’ sense of “lawful” was doing good and saving life. In that sense Abimelek the priest was acting within the law when he fed David’s hungry men. (Nevertheless he took pains to preserve the consecrated status of the bread by ensuring that the men were at least ritually clean.) So once again I don’t see it as a matter of figuring out which “law” takes precedence over another, but rather as a matter of understanding how to apply every law, and the whole law, in a life-giving way, to “do good.”

      1. There is a specific law against harvesting or reaping grain on a Sabbath.

        Exo 34:21 “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.

        The word translated as harvest is the Hebrew qatsiyr or kotzer depending on the way transliteration is done and means harvesting or reaping. What the disciples did also constituted threshing and winnowing. These 2 other acts are prohibited in the Mishnah but derived from Scripture; these distinctions needed to be specified as otherwise justice could be arbitrary, with one judge claiming something was work and another claiming it was not work. Since breaking Sabbath could involve the death penalty, what was and was not considered work needed to be clearly defined.

        Exo 31:14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

        Jesus speaking
        Mat 12:5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?

        Jesus does not say that what the priests do is not work, he agrees it is work and that they profane the Sabbath, but they are held guiltless and not punished. Why? I think it is because they are doing work that God has elsewhere in Torah told them to do, in other words, for Mosaic priests doing temple service, there are greater rules to follow that trump the Sabbath restrictions.

        Mat 12:3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him:
        Mat 12:4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests?
        Mat 12:5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?
        Mat 12:6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
        Mat 12:7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.

        The way I read the above is that Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that (in terms of the rules in Torah) (1) by David’s example with the bread of the presence, the need to preserve human life trumps the temple service and (2) the temple service trumps Sabbath restrictions, so by logical inference, (3) the need to preserve human life trumps Sabbath restrictions.

        This also helps explain what Jesus means by the 2 “greatest” commandments, these 2 trump all others if there is a conflict.

      2. Well, I don’t want to prolong this discussion as it appears we simply see these things differently, but I’m a little concerned about the idea that we can appeal to one law to “trump” another, as it becomes easy to justify just about anything under the guise of “loving our neighbor,” e.g. excusing any kind of behavior on their part so as to be encouraging and accepting towards them. Instead I see principles (“the Sabbath is a day for doing good”) behind the laws being followed, rather than one rule superseding another. But I think we’ve had a full and informative discussion here, and that you’ve ably and articulately explained and defended your view. Thanks very much for your ongoing contributions to the discussions on this blog!

      3. I agree, to profane the Sabbath means to treat it as any other day. For a Jew, I think this breaks the Sabbath commandment.

        Exo 20:8-10: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.

        Do you agree that the priests then do work and profane the Sabbath which violates the Sabbath commandment to keep it holy, considered by itself (as holy and profane are contrasting ideas)? I think this is one of the main points of Jesus’s argument.

      4. No, I would still say that Jesus understood the priests to be keeping the Sabbath, in the sense of recognizing it as a day to “do good.” (It would not have been good for them to let the lamp of the presence go out, fail to offer the daily offerings, etc.) Jesus says specifically that they are “innocent” or “blameless” or “guiltless” (ἀναίτιος) for carrying out their work on the Sabbath as on any other day. It’s difficult to think that Jesus believed they were violating the Sabbath commandment if he declared them guiltless. I believe Jesus understood the Sabbath as a positive commandment: “Here is a day of complete rest, on which you are to be refreshed, and refresh others.” I don’t think he saw it as a negative commandment: “You can’t do this and you can’t do that.” I believe that Paul in Ephesians develops this understanding with other commandments, for example, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” In other words, “Thou shalt not steal” is not primarily a negative commandment—you haven’t fulfilled it simply if you haven’t taken anything from someone—but a positive commandment: “Make sure that everyone has what they need.” At the very least, don’t steal something that another person needs. But go way beyond that. Similarly “having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor”: not just “don’t bear false witness,” but “speak the truth.” And so forth.

    2. Agreed. I desire mercy not sacrifice! God knows how hungry David and his men were and no doubt David knew God had yummy bread on the altar so he naturally took the bread which would have been ok seeing as they may have died without it and hey what did they have to loose? It is like the story of the three lepers. If they don’t eat it they die, if they eat it they might live. Naturally, they took their chances and God gave his approval knowing David was being hunted like an animal! Mercy triumphs over all!

  2. Deuteronomy 23:24 ” When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, then you may eat grapes until you are fully satisfied, but you shall not put any in your basket. 25 ” When you enter your neighbor’s standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not wield a sickle in your neighbor’s standing grain.

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