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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

1 Samuel 21

 

 

Verses 1-7

As A Refugee David Visits Ahimelech The Priest And Obtains Provisions And Weapons (1 Samuel 21:1-9).

Recognising that he dare not return home to obtain food or weapons, the refugee David seeks help from Ahimelech the Priest (High Priest). He tells him a false story about being on a secret mission for Saul, and obtains his assistance, with the result that Ahimelech provides him with provisions and a weapon. But unfortunately an Edomite servant of Saul is present at the Sanctuary and misinterprets what has happened, something which will later have unfortunate results.

Analysis.

a Then David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest, and Ahimelech came to meet David deferentially, and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no man with you?” (1 Samuel 21:1).

b And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has commanded me an affair of state (a business), and has said to me, ‘Let no man know anything of the business about which I send you, and what I have commanded you,’ and I have appointed the young men to such and such a place” (1 Samuel 21:2).

c “Now therefore what is under your hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever there is present” (1 Samuel 21:3).

d And the priest answered David, and said, “There is no common bread under my hand, but there is holy bread, if only the young men have kept themselves from women” (1 Samuel 21:4).

e And David answered the priest, and said to him, “Of a truth women have been kept from us about these three days” (1 Samuel 21:5 a)

d “When I came out, the vessels of the young men were holy, though it was but a common journey, how much more then today will their vessels be holy?” (1 Samuel 21:5 b).

c So the priest gave him holy bread, for there was no bread there but the showbread (literally ‘bread of the presence’), that was taken from before YHWH, to put (be replaced by) hot bread in the day when it was taken away (1 Samuel 21:6).

b Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before YHWH (1 Samuel 21:7 a).

a And his name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of the herdsmen who belonged to Saul (1 Samuel 21:7).

Note that in ‘a’ the lone David, the apparent servant of Saul comes to Ahimelech, and in the parallel the lone Doeg, who is a servant of Saul, is present. In ‘b’ David says that he acts on the king’s business, and in the parallel Doeg is one who belongs to the king and acts on his business. In ‘c’ David asks for bread, and in the parallel is given the showbread. In ‘d’ the condition is that the young men must be holy, and in the parallel David confirms their holiness. Centrally in ‘e’ is the fact that they have kept themselves from women for three days. We know that the reason for this is because David has been in hiding.

1 Samuel 21:1

Then David came to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest, and Ahimelech came to meet David trembling (deferentially), and said to him, “Why are you alone, and no man with you?” ’

Now that he was a man on the run, without provisions or weapons, and dared not go back to his hometown Bethlehem, David came to Nob, a town just north of Jerusalem (and within sight of it) where the Tabernacle had been set up and where Ahimelech was High Priest. David’s hope was that news had not yet reached there of Saul’s antagonism towards him. When Ahimelech saw Saul’s great general he met him with great deference, expressing surprise that he was alone. It was not usual for such an important man to be on his own. The question was due rather to puzzlement, than suspicion.

Ahimelech was of the house of Ithamar (and Eli) of which God had forecast that it would be decimated and cease to be holders of the High Priesthood (1 Samuel 2:27-36). But that was yet to happen.

1 Samuel 21:2

And David said to Ahimelech the priest, “The king has commanded me an affair of state (a business), and has said to me, ‘Let no man know anything of the business about which I send you, and what I have commanded you,’ and I have appointed the young men to such and such a place.”

David’s reply was that he was on a secret mission about which he had been commanded not to talk, and that his young men were waiting for him elsewhere. There was no reason why Ahimelech should have doubted the truth of his words. In fact it is doubtful if there were any young men waiting, (none are mentioned elsewhere), and what is certain is that he was not on a mission for Saul. So the whole thing was probably a fabrication.

1 Samuel 21:3

Now therefore what is under your hand? Give me five loaves of bread in my hand, or whatever there is present.”

David then asked him for bread for ‘his men’, and himself. If possible, he explained, he wanted at least five loaves, but if not, as many as could be provided. The fact that it was a secret mission would prevent Ahimelech from looking more widely, even if such bread would have been available on the Sabbath day (the showbread had just been changed). He would have considered that the whole request was subject to the utmost secrecy. But from where was he to obtain sufficient bread without disclosing David’s presence or objective?

The fact that David was looking for bread so urgently is significant. It suggests that he had not in fact been in Bethlehem, where he could have found some and provisioned himself before he left, but had been in hiding in the countryside unable to let anyone know that he was there. That being so he would be hungry and would know that he had to find some provisions from somewhere. And Saul he knew that Saul would be merciless with anyone who tried to help him, except surely to YHWH’s High Priest. That he was desperate comes out in the fact that he had been prepared to take this risk of ‘exposing’ himself so close to Gibeah in order to try to find bread.

1 Samuel 21:4

And the priest answered David, and said, “There is no common bread under my hand, but there is holy bread, if only the young men have kept themselves from women.” ’

The answer was probably hesitant. He had no ordinary (unholy) bread available. But what he did have was the showbread which had just been taken from the golden table in the Holy Place and had been replaced by new hot showbread (see Exodus 25:23-30; Leviticus 4:5-9). This was, however, holy and strictly only for priests. However that had been before there was a king, which might have been seen as altering the situation, (he also was YHWH’s anointed), and anyway you did not argue with Saul’s representatives. It would thus appear that by this time the levitical restrictions had been relaxed somewhat, so that it was now seen as possible for it to be eaten by anyone who was in a ‘holy’ state in the service of YHWH and His anointed, that is, in the service of the king.

Thus he argued that as long as the young men were in a ‘clean’ state and had not recently had sexual intercourse, they could be permitted to eat the bread. Sexual relations were seen as making a man mildly ‘unclean’, a condition which would continue ‘until the evening’. Compare Exodus 19:15; Leviticus 15:16-18.

The fact that the Table for the showbread was there confirms the fact that the Tabernacle was there, for the two went together. It would appear that all normal ‘services’ had been resumed under Saul now that there was an Aaronic High Priest who qualified for the position (compare 1 Samuel 14:3).

1 Samuel 21:5

And David answered the priest, and said to him, “Of a truth women have been kept from us about these three days. When I came out, the vessels of the young men were holy, though it was but a common journey, how much more then today will their vessels be holy?” ’

David’s reply was that his men had abstained from sex for the past three days. This would not seem strange as it was in fact quite normal for military personnel in Israel to avoid sex while on a mission. Compare how Uriah the Hittite refused to go home to his wife because he saw himself as on active service (2 Samuel 11:11). Furthermore he stated that their ‘vessels’ (pouches) had been ritually clean when they had set out, having touched nothing ‘unclean’. How much more then must that be so after three days on their mission when they were being careful to avoid all that was ‘unclean’. Thus the holy bread could be put into them without qualms.

“Though it was but a common journey.” The idea was that when they had first set out they had not known that they would shortly be allocated to a secret mission, and would see it as a ‘common’ journey. Once they were aware of their secret mission it would make their journey ‘holy’.

Whether there were such men waiting to receive the bread must be seen as possible, but doubtful. There is no mention of them elsewhere, and five loaves were not many for such a company, whilst they would be very necessary for a David who would not know where he could next obtain bread.

1 Samuel 21:6

So the priest gave him holy bread, for there was no bread there but the showbread, that was taken from before YHWH, to put hot bread in the day when it was taken away.’

So the priest gave him some of the holy bread (you did not say ‘no’ to the general of the ‘anointed of YHWH’ unless you had to), because that was all the bread that was available. It had been taken off the Table that day and replaced by hot bread.

This example is taken by Jesus in order to illustrate the fact that a greater than David had come, and that as such He had the right to be Lord of the Sabbath. For both were seen as being able to override the Law (Mark 2:25-28). (It should be noted that the statement there that it was ‘in the section called Abiathar the High Priest’ was not an error, but an indication of where the lectionary reading was to be found).

1 Samuel 21:7

Now a certain man of the servants of Saul was there that day, detained before YHWH, and his name was Doeg the Edomite, the chief of the herdsmen who belonged to Saul.’

But unfortunately for all concerned there was another servant of Saul present at the Tabernacle that day, ‘detained before YHWH’. That would either be because he was in process of becoming a proselyte, or because he was undergoing a vow, or because he was being purified. His name was Doeg, and he was an Edomite. He was the chief of Saul’s herdsmen. Not as important as a general, but important in his own way. And he observed the welcome that Ahimelech gave to David, although he would not realise its significance until later.


Verses 8-15

David The Champion Slayer Is Humiliated Before The King Of Gath (1 Samuel 21:8-15).

It can surely not be a coincidence that in this passage David’s miserable time in Gath is preceded by a reminder of another encounter with Gath that had brought David great glory. Could anyone have foreseen that the open, honest, God-fearing youth of 1 Samuel 17, who was afraid of no one and was concerned only for the honour of YHWH, would turn so quickly into the conniving deceitful David of 1 Samuel 21, who was afraid of everyone and sought only his own safety?

The chiasmus begins with a reminder of David’s moment of greatest glory (up to this point), the conquest of Goliath, even though it is sadly accompanied by an indication of his cowardly deceit. But it ends with a pathetic dribbling figure who just as easily deceived the king of Gath. David would certainly grow to be a great king, but this was undoubtedly not his proudest moment, for the hero of Elah was being revealed as nothing better than the liar of Nob, and the goon of Gath. It was not a very nice picture at all. To such a low level does sin bring even the greatest.

Of course, David outgrew this failure, and it is an important reminder to us that he was but a man after all. But just for a short while his mask has slipped, and part of what he really was underneath, is laid open before us. We have here a glimpse of the later murderer of Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11). How different a figure he was at this moment from his great Successor, the One of Whom it was said, “He did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth” (1 Peter 2:22). He went to a cross rather than behave in this way.

Thus what follows in Gath is probably intended to be seen as the consequence of David’s lies before Ahimelech. One thing leads to another. And whilst the description of his feigned madness was no doubt later seen as a good joke, it would have been nothing short of total humiliation for David. He would have been made to recognise that while through his deceit he had escaped death at the hands of Saul, it was simply in order to become a pathetic figure of fun to the Philistines. And that is probably how the writer also saw it, for he draws out in a deliberate contrast the thought of the majestic hero who slew Goliath, but at the same time deceived the Priest, causing his death, and the pathetic dribbling figure who similarly deceived the king of Gath. His purpose was seemingly in order to bring out that by his lies and deception even the great David was brought down to the depths of humiliation. It is likely, indeed, that he considered that David had brought all his troubles on himself by his previous behaviour. In other words he is saying that this, along with the slaughter of the priests, was the consequence of David’s dishonesty. It was a heavy price to pay for his deceit.

Analysis.

a And David said to Ahimelech, “And is there not here under your hand spear or sword? For I have neither brought my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste” (1 Samuel 21:8).

b And the priest said, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you slew in the vale of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it, for there is no other except that here.” And David said, “There is none like that. Give it me” (1 Samuel 21:9).

c And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath (1 Samuel 21:10).

d And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?” (1 Samuel 21:11).

c And David laid up these words in his heart, and was greatly afraid of Achish the king of Gath (1 Samuel 21:12).

b And he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down on his beard (1 Samuel 21:13).

a Then Achish said to his servants, “Lo, you see the man is mad. Why then have you brought him to me?” Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?” (1 Samuel 21:14-15).

Note that in ‘a’, having come into the ‘house’ of YHWH, David successfully deceives Ahimelech, while in the parallel he so successfully deceives Achish that he is not wanted in his house. In ‘b’ he is seen as the darling hero of the vale of Elah, and in the parallel he is seen as the dribbling goon of Gath. In ‘c’ he goes to the king of Gath for fear of Saul, and in the parallel he fears the king of Gath because of what is said about him. Centrally in ‘d’ the servants of Achish describe David’s glory, only for the picture quickly to die away into that of a dribbling lunatic.

1 Samuel 21:8

And David said to Ahimelech, “And is there not here under your hand spear or sword? For I have neither brought my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste.” ’

We cannot avoid the implication here of David’s deceitfulness, and even of his unscrupulousness, in deceiving Ahimelech. The hero turns out for a short while to have feet of clay. Not only does he enter the house of YHWH and obtain holy bread from him by deceit, but he also accepts the sword of Goliath, undoubtedly under false pretences. Both were, of course, actions that were outwardly understandable at a human level. He was hungry and he had no weapons, and he knew that a vengeful king was on his tail, but in the event his deceit would result in a heavy price being paid by the priests, and we cannot honestly excuse it. All we can do is learn the lesson lest we do the same. We can hear a voice behind us that says, ‘Go, and do not do likewise’.

1 Samuel 21:9

And the priest said, “The sword of Goliath the Philistine, whom you slew in the vale of Elah, behold, it is here wrapped in a cloth behind the ephod. If you will take that, take it, for there is no other except that here.” And David said, “There is none like that. Give it me.” ’

The honest and rather naive Ahimelech did not want to let down Saul’s most popular commander, and he explained to him that they did indeed have a sword on the premises. It was the sword of Goliath of Gath, ‘the Philistine’, whom David had slain. Here was a reminder that this same David was the hero of Elah. But alas! He was also the liar of Nob. The contrast between the liar of Nob and the hero of Elah is impossible to avoid, especially in view of what follows, where he sinks to an even lower level.

The situation was made even worse by where the sword was to be found. It was hung up, wrapped in a cloth, behind the ephod, the priestly garment by means of which truth could be obtained from YHWH. If only Ahimelech had consulted the ephod what misery his house would have been spared. But he thrust it aside in order to reach the sword for David. And so he shared in his sin.

We have not previously been told how the sword of Goliath came to be here, but it would have been a natural thing for Israel to do to store it up before YHWH as a trophy.

1 Samuel 21:10

And David arose, and fled that day for fear of Saul, and went to Achish the king of Gath.’

Having received the holy bread and the sword of Goliath by false pretences David fled from Israel because of his fear of Saul, and went to Achish, king of Gath, no doubt wearing the sword of Goliath. His aim was probably to offer himself as a Hebrew mercenary leader to Achish. Thus he was prepared to become ‘almost a Philistine’. But that would have meant fighting against his own people. Deceit was sadly leading to treachery, even if to him he appeared to have little alternative.

1 Samuel 21:11

And the servants of Achish said to him, “Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?” ’

However, even in his sin YHWH was watching over him, with the result that the servants of Achish said to Achish, “Is this not David, the king of the land?” Note that it does not say ‘the king of Israel.’ And indeed what they did mean is brought out in the quotation that follows. Saul might be the titular king of Israel, but the one to whom the people of the land looked was David. He was king of their hearts. For compared with Saul’s thousands, he was seen as having slain ten thousands. And many of them Philistines at that! We do not know whether this was said in admiration or criticism. But either way it produced the right effect in David’s heart. He suddenly realised what he was doing.

Note that in the heading to Psalms 34 Achish is given his titular name of Abimelech. for which compare Genesis 20:2; Genesis 21:32.

1 Samuel 21:12

And David laid up these words in his heart, and was greatly afraid of Achish the king of Gath.’

When David realised what the Philistines were saying, (he probably did not speak their language very well), cold fear gripped his heart. He recognised that what they were saying put him in great danger. And he became fearful of what the king of Gath might do. The mighty conqueror of Goliath was thus reduced to abject terror. And all because he was there by deceit, wearing a sword that marked him out as an enemy.

1 Samuel 21:13

And he changed his behaviour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down on his beard.’

The contrast between the conqueror of Goliath and the goon of Gath that we now see here is hard to bear. For here this mighty hero changed his behaviour and instead of standing proud began to feign madness. This was what his deceit had brought him to. The fact that he was ‘in their hands’ probably suggests that he had been arrested. Thus in order to persuade them to let him go he scrabbled on the doors of the palace, and let spittle run down his beard, behaving like a madman. Madmen were treated with awe by the ancients for they saw them as possessed by the gods. They would therefore be only too glad to let him go. If only Goliath could have seen him now.

Later in 1 Samuel 27 he would return in a very different guise as leader of a mercenary army. But at present he was simply an object of ridicule. There is no reason to doubt that this actually happened. No one would later have made up a story like this about David.

1 Samuel 21:14-15

Then Achish said to his servants, “Lo, you see the man is mad. Why then have you brought him to me? Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? Shall this fellow come into my house?” ’

When Achish saw the behaviour of this sad spectacle whom his men had brought in he berated them. Could they not see that the man was mad? Why then had they brought the man to him, when he already had madmen enough in his court! (Achish clearly had a strong sense of humour). Did they really think that he was going to take a man like this into his house as a servant of his household? Where were their brains? But although he did not realise it he was carrying out YHWH’s will. Gath did not fit into YHWH’s plans for David. He wanted him in Israel.

The Psalm that David wrote after this episode, no doubt in the cave of Adullam, does in fact bring out David’s recognition of how YHWH had delivered him. Even when burdened down with the consequences of deceit he recognised that YHWH had not forsaken him (see Psalms 34).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 21:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/1-samuel-21.html. 2013.

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