(1Sa 21:1-4 ESV) Then David came to Nob to Ahimelech the priest. And Ahimelech came to meet David trembling and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no one with you?”
2 And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has charged me with a matter and said to me, ‘Let no one know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.’ I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. 3 Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.”
4 And the priest answered David, “I have no common bread on hand, but there is holy bread–if the young men have kept themselves from women.”
The holy bread or “show bread” is set out because of this passage —
(Lev 24:5-9 KJV) 5 And thou shalt take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes thereof: two tenth deals shall be in one cake. 6 And thou shalt set them in two rows, six on a row, upon the pure table before the LORD. 7 And thou shalt put pure frankincense upon each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, even an offering made by fire unto the LORD. 8 Every sabbath he shall set it in order before the LORD continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant. 9 And it shall be Aaron’s and his sons’; and they shall eat it in the holy place: for it is most holy unto him of the offerings of the LORD made by fire by a perpetual statute.
The bread is set aside to be eaten only by the priests, and only in the “holy place,” which is an area of the temple reserved for priests.
We see that David lies and that he persuades the priest to give him the showbread to eat.
(1Sa 21:5-6 ESV) 5 And David answered the priest, “Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?” 6 So the priest gave him the holy bread, for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the LORD, to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.
Some commentators rationalize reasons why this might not violate the Law, but Jesus presumes that it does — and surely he was right! (His reading makes the best sense.)
(1Sa 21:7 ESV) 7 Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before the LORD. His name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of Saul’s herdsmen.
Doeg shows up later.
(1Sa 21:8-10 ESV) 8 Then David said to Ahimelech, “Then have you not here a spear or a sword at hand? For I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.”
9 And the priest said, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you struck down in the Valley of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it, for there is none but that here.”
And David said, “There is none like that; give it to me.” 10 And David rose and fled that day from Saul and went to Achish the king of Gath.
Now, as so often happens, we find ourselves confronted with a moral dilemma. Jesus doesn’t specifically approve of David’s lie, but he certainly approves the eating of the show bread —
(Mat 12:1-4 ESV) At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”
3 He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 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?”
Jesus wasn’t merely offering a moral puzzle to distract the Pharisees. He was making a point about how to interpret the Bible — a very important point indeed. See the explanation I propose at this link. Now, this is, to me, a key principle of hermeneutics and well worth spending a lot of time on. Jesus’ point is, I think, that a legalistic approach to the Bible will always misunderstand God’s will because God is not a legalist. Yes, God had a purpose in laying out the showbread, but God would not want his anointed to fail in mission (survival!) over such a matter.
Notice, that Jesus interprets David as having compansions with him, which makes sense. He evidently brought along some loyal soldiers for help.
The requirement that David and his men abstain from women is puzzling, because the Law imposes no such rule — except the fact that sex makes a man and woman unclean until they wash. The priest may have been demanding ritual cleanness — but then why not ask whether these soldiers had touched a corpse — which would also make them unclean?
It could be that the priests had expanded on this passage —
(Exo 19:15 ESV) 15 And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.”
In context, this command was preparation for the Israelites to “meet God” at Mt. Sinai —
(Exo 19:16-17 ESV) 16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain.
It’s easy to imagine that the priests had concluded that entering the tabernacle was to “meet God” and so required the same preparation.