David came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech. Ahimelech came trembling to meet David, and said to him, ‘Why are you alone, and no one with you?’ David said to the priest Ahimelech, ‘The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, “No one must 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. Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.’ The priest answered David, ‘I have no ordinary bread at hand, only holy bread—provided that the young men have kept themselves from women.’ David answered the priest, ‘Indeed, 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 a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?’ So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except 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.
In context this passage doesn’t reveal David in a good light. He deceives a priest, Ahimelech, by pretending he’s on a mission for Saul to join up with some young men (warriors?) when, according to the narrative, he is fleeing for his life away from Saul. By deception he acquires a supply of food for himself, holy food, symbolic of Israel’s covenant with God and intended to be eaten by priests as part of a ritual (Leviticus 24:5-9; cf. Exodus 25:30). Might this story once have been part of a different narrative?
Reading the passage in isolation it suggests that David secured the support of the priesthood and that he was engaged in activity that was part of a ‘holy war’ to ensure Israel’s victory over the Philistines. From this perspective David’s words about the young men stress their holiness – they are in right relationship with God and fit to be part of his expedition. (Exodus 19:15 stipulates a period of sexual abstinence as preparation for entering the sphere of the holy; and the Hebrew word translated ‘vessels’ is a euphemism for genitals.)
Matthew 12:3-4 reads this story as though David was accompanied by his band of men and they all entered the house of God when they were hungry and ate the bread of the Presence. The story is used to justify Jesus and his disciples gathering grain on the Sabbath, to satisfy their own hunger.
Scripture is God’s living word, that speaks into different contexts in different ways. It is dangerous to assume that there is only one ‘right’ interpretation of a passage; and dangerous to distort one to make it say what we want. The Spirit is given to guide us into truth (John 16:13) – may we always be open to the Spirit as we read.
Holy God, we thank you for your written word, in scripture, your living Word, Christ Jesus; and for your Spirit of truth. Help us to discern your words and to understand their meaning in every situation of life. May we be open to new understandings of familiar passages and at ease when faced by obscure ones, trusting in the Spirit’s guidance as we seek to learn and to respond. Amen.
The Revd Dr Janet E Tollington A retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge