What does Mark 2:26 mean?In 1 Samuel 21:1–9, David lies to the priest, saying he is on a special mission, commissioned by King Saul, and has had no time to gather food for himself and his men. David requests "five loaves of bread, or whatever is here." The priest has only showbread, which is to always be on display in the temple and meant to be eaten only by the priests (Leviticus 24:8–9). At David's urging, the priest is willing to give this bread to the men provided they are ceremonially pure, sexually. David assures the priest they are, and the priest gives them the holy bread. Throughout the history of Judaism, David has never been accused of a crime for this act, and the Pharisees continue the tradition.
However, they are willing to accuse Jesus' disciples for "working" by picking and eating grain on the Sabbath. Jesus' response here is meant to point out this hypocrisy. If an exception to the literal letters of the law can be made, for David, and in such a blatant case, isn't that proof of a greater purpose to the Law?
There are several theories offered as to why traditionalists like the Pharisees did not accuse David of sinning in this situation:
- David is God's anointed king, even if he's not the current legal king, therefore the priest has an obligation to serve him. In other words, David has "special permission" to eat the bread.
- David is a priest in the order of Melchizedek (see 2 Samuel 8:18; 24:18–25), and therefore qualified to eat the bread, though this doesn't justify his men.
- The bread is old and stale, and the priest is free to do as he wishes with it.
- David and his men are sexually pure, and therefore qualified to eat the bread.
None of these are supported by the text, and most are directly contradicted by the established rules regarding the bread. In fact, the regulations around the bread are fairly simple, and quite clear. It is for the priests, and the priests alone, and only for a specific place and time. Any priest speaking with David would have known this. What's more likely is that the priest, by giving David the bread, and David, by giving the bread to his men, both acknowledged a "higher law" at work. In that case, that the command to have mercy on the needy supersedes the purely ceremonial law limiting who can eat the bread.
The Mosaic Law includes several passages which express how to take care of the hungry and poor. While not explicitly stated, implicitly woven into the Law is the idea that feeding the hungry is a God-given priority. The priest, in the incident with David, ensured that the men were morally and ceremonially clean, and fulfills his moral obligation to see to their needs.
Mark's account includes one difference from the story in 1 Samuel. Mark names the priest as Abiathar. First Samuel says it was Ahimelech, Abiathar's father. There are several theories to reconcile this. It could be that Ahimelech was elderly, and Abiathar co-served as high priest with his father. Or that Jesus meant "in the time of Abiathar." Or possibly that Jesus didn't mean the "High Priest" as the official position, but a great priest, as one of the higher-ranked priests at that time.