[Sorry, this is in outline form only. Between an NSF proposal to finish this week, and a conference paper to write, and a new administrative position to master, I haven't had time to put it in narrative form. I hope there's enough here to follow the argument.]
I. Bread of Presence (or “face”).
This is bread that is offered and eaten in God’s presence. Ex 25.30 (cf., Ex 33.14-15), Lev 24.5-9.
So, why did David and his men eat the bread (1 Sam 21.1-7)?
II. Jesus talks about the event in Mt 12.1-8.
vv. 1-2. Jesus is criticized for his disciples eating grain on the Sabbath (cf., Dt 23.24-25).
vv. 3-4. Jesus invokes David & the Bread of Presence
v. 5 Jesus talks about priests “profaning” the Sabbath
v. 6 Jesus’ disciples’ actions are allowable because something greater than the temple is here with them.
So how do vv. 3-6 answer the Pharisees? Note the parallels. The Pharisees assert that what the disciples do is “unlawful.” Jesus argues that, yes, it is lawful, because otherwise what David did is “unlawful” and what priests do on the Sabbath in fact profanes the Sabbath. Jesus’ argument is that what David did is not unlawful, and that the priests do not profane the Sabbath. Therefore, Jesus’ disciples eating the grain on the Sabbath is not unlawful.
A. Both of Jesus’ examples – David eating the Bread of Presence and the priests ostensibly profaning the Sabbath – relate to the Bread of Presence.
That David’s action relates to the Bread of Presence is obvious. But the Bread of Presence seems to be reserved for priests (Lev 24.9).
But what’s the connection of the Bread of Presence with the priests ostensibly profaning the Sabbath?
Recall that kindling a fire on the Sabbath is expressly forbidden by Mosaic law. Ex 35.2-3. But the law regarding the Bread of Presence required that the new loaves be “baked” and set out on the Sabbath (Lev 24.5, 8). Note that the new Bread of Presence placed before the Lord in 1 Sam 21 was “hot bread” (v. 6). I.e., it was fresh out of the oven, which meant that the priests must have kindled a fire on the Sabbath, which would technically violate Ex 35.2-3.
B. What is Jesus teaching us?
We’ll need to dip into the Old Testament, then come back to the NT with the answer.
Now it’s obvious that the priests are ordered to bake the bread, so it’s obvious that they’re not really profaning the Sabbath. But what about David and his mean eating the Bread of Presence? Isn’t that obviously a violation of the law?
First, that Jesus simply winks at the OT law is not an option. Mt 5.17-19 (Mt 15.3-9), Jn 5.45-47.
The “Bread of Presence” is bread that is shown and eaten before God’s presence in the tabernacle.
There is a clue regarding David and his men being qualified to eat the Bread of Presence in the curious exchange between David and the priest about whether his mean have had sex with women anytime recently.
Consider when Israel approached God’s presence in Ex 19.4-25, and ate in God’s presence, Ex 24.1-2, 9-10. (Consider esp., Ex 19.6, 15.) So Israel becomes consecrated (including the avoidance of sex), and then approaches God’s presence, and eats in God’s presence.
Consider also a military campaign – God is present with Israel. Dt 23.9-14. (Think also of the campaigns in 1 Samuel with Saul, the anointed one, and with the major judges in the book of Judges.) The camp is in God’s immediate presence – much like the priests are in the tabernacle.
C. Putting the OT lessons together for 1 Sam 21, and then for Mt 12.
David’s men eat at the invitation of the priest – i.e., the priest shares his bread with David’s men. That would be unlawful if David’s men were mere laymen at that time. But they aren’t. They were consecrated as in Ex 19.17, which suggests they were, at least temporarily, like priests (Ex 19.6). Further, they were a military-like camp, moving under the command of God’s anointed one. So they lived in his presence (Dt 23.10-14) and therefore were qualified to eat the Bread of Presence, and could eat it in a holy place without polluting the holy place (Lev 24.9).
In Matthew 12, Jesus says one greater than the temple is there – Jesus himself who is Yahweh incarnated. As the priests work and eat in God’s presence in the temple, so Jesus’ disciples may work and eat in God’s presence (i.e., in Jesus’ presence). So, too, Jesus’ disciples are a consecrated band of men, moving with God’s anointed, and among whom God moves among, as in Dt 23 and 1 Sam 21. Moving and dwelling in God’s presence, then, they may eat, as it were, the Bread of Presence in the form of the grain.
But Jesus’ explanation for why it was legitimate for them to do so wasn’t based on winking at the law of Moses, it was based on fulfilling it directly, based on Jesus being the incarnation of Yahweh, Israel’s Lord.
I suspect that it is Jesus’ implicit claim to be Israel’s Lord that provokes the Pharisees to respond by plotting his death (Mt 12.14), rather than the mere fact of his disciples disobeying the Sabbath law.