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.