Unlike what some consider to a blatant mistake, the argument from David and the Showbread works to show the identity of Jesus as the Lord of the Sabbath who is also the Son of God.
The original narrative (1 Samuel 21:1-9) includes David, the High Priest Ahimelech, 12 loaves of week old showbread, and Doeg the Edomite. David’s men are discussed but not present. Likewise, Ahimelech’s son, Abiathar, is not mentioned as present, yet he is introduced (retrospectively?) when he reports Saul’s (i.e. Doeg's) killing of the priests to David (1 Samuel 22:20-23).
The events center on the Bread of the Presence:
”You shall take fine flour and bake twelve loaves from it; two tenths of an ephah shall be in each loaf. And you shall set them in two piles, six in a pile, on the table of pure gold before the LORD. And you shall put pure frankincense on each pile, that it may go with the bread as a memorial portion as a food offering to the LORD. Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the LORD regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the LORD's food offerings, a perpetual due.” (Leviticus 24:5-9) [ESV]
David comes to Ahimelech on the Sabbath and the only bread Ahimelech has are last week’s loaves which were replaced by hot bread (1 Samuel 21:6). These loaves are supposed to be eaten by Aaron and his sons in a holy place:
Aaron replaces the bread Ahimelech replaces the bread
Aaron and sons eat old bread Ahimelech and sons eat old bread
Even though Abiathar is not specifically placed in the scene between David and Ahimelech, the instruction in Leviticus does. If taken literally, David arrives after Ahimelech has replaced the bread and he and his sons are about to eat. However, if this is too much to read into 1 Samuel, at a minimum Abiathar is represented by his portion of the loaves.1
Logically, one should question how the 12 loaves were to be divided. How many loaves of hallowed bread did David receive? Some Rabbinic traditions hold the High Priest’s share was 5 loaves. This would correspond to David’s request (21:3):2
Ahimelech – 5 loaves David – 5 loaves
Ahimelech’s sons – 7 loaves David’s men – 7 loaves
Regardless of the specific distribution among the priests, Jesus’ use of the event alludes to how the Law required the bread to be handled. On the Sabbath Day the High Priest and his sons are to eat the week old bread; on the Sabbath Day David asked for 5 loaves and Ahimelech gave the hallowed bread for David and his men. If David received all 12 loaves,3 Ahimelech gave away both his portion and his son’s. Also within the context of the actual event, David’s lie to Ahimelech is irrelevant since Ahimelech knew David had men and believed the bread (belonging to he and his sons) was going to both David and his men. How to reconcile Mark 2:25-26 with 1 Samuel 21:1-5?
In the Gospel, Mark states the disciples (not Jesus) plucked grain. The Pharisees see this and confront Jesus. Therefore Jesus’ use of the example places Him in the role of Ahimelech who gave David the showbread. This is how the example Jesus cites works:
Jesus allows disciples to pluck grain Ahimelech gives hallowed loaves
[Jesus does not pluck grain] [Ahimelech & sons do not eat bread]
Disciples pluck grain David [and his men] receive loaves
Pharisees observe Doeg the Edomite observes
There remains the question of how Jesus applied these elements:
And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God, in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him?” (Mark 2:25-26)
First, by asking if they have read, Jesus is pointing the Pharisees to what is written, not an oral tradition4 and as noted above, a careful reading of the event also suggests Jesus has cast the Pharisees in the role of Doeg the Edomite.
While the reference to Abiathar can be taken as an error, based on the written records Mark's citation has several mistakes:
Item 1 Samuel Mark
Priest: Abimelech Abiathar
Where eaten: Left with the bread In the house of God
Who ate: David David and his men
The criticism for citing Abiathar conveniently ignores all of what Mark says and what is written. In light of all the "errors" it is obvious Mark presents Jesus as using the David event as a midrash to respond to the Pharisees claim He has allowed His disciples to break the Mosaic Law.5
There are two paths the midrash Jesus used can continue. The most obvious is claiming Abiathar not his father Ahimelech gave the bread. What Jesus has done is to attribute the actions of the father (Ahimelech) to the son (Abiathar):
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. (John 5:19)
That which Mark implies, John states explicitly: it was not Jesus who allowed His disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath it was His Father. Although Mark does not make the explicit connection since his emphasis is on the Son of Man (not The Father) who is the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28).
A more subtle ending to the midrash is found in following the life of Abithar who eventually is stripped of his priestly status and exiled by David’s son:
And to Abiathar the priest the king said, “Go to Anathoth, to your estate, for you deserve death. But I will not at this time put you to death, because you carried the ark of the LORD God before David my father, and because you shared in all my father's affliction.” So Solomon expelled Abiathar from being priest to the LORD, thus fulfilling the word of the LORD that he had spoken concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh. (1 Kings 2:26-27)
Unlike Abiathar who was removed as High Priest but allowed to live in exile (because he shared in the father's affliction), Jesus will not be acknowledged as High Priest. He will be executed outside of Jerusalem by the actions of the father and son team of High Priests, Annas and Caiaphas, and the orders of the Roman “king” Pilate. Therefore, in the end just as Ahimelech the High Priest who gave David bread was killed, Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath who allowed His disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath will be killed.
1. Jesus' inclusion of Abiathar has merit and should be considered in that vein.
2. Any textual or historical criticism of the passage which fails to consider the number of loaves David received is deficient. Moreover, the existence of any tradition the High Priest's share was 5 loaves would imply Jesus understands David asked only for the High Priest's share. In this case, Jesus recognizes a subtlety critics of Mark miss: the ambiguity of Ahimelech's concerns. In other words, Ahimelech will give David his 5 loaves and now focuses on the loaves which belong to his sons which he is considering to give (or so he thinks) to David's men.
3. This means Jesus is elucidating the passage from 1 Samuel.
4. The Pharisee's claim the disciples are doing "what is not lawful" is based solely on their oral tradition. There is nothing written to support this charge.
5. This is exactly how Jesus responded to the two previous challenges (eating with the tax collectors and sinners and not fasting). It also misses the irony in what is described. After Jesus was challenged (by John's disciples) over not fasting, the disciples are hungry on the Sabbath. The implication is they have (now) been fasting.