Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
SHEWBREAD, ‘bread of the face or presence’ (lehem pânîm), was placed on a special table in the Holy Place, in the presence of God. This was a very ancient custom in Israel, and is found also among other Semitic peoples. The bread was originally designed for the god to eat, but, of course, this early notion did not persist; the bread, however, was still held to imply the presence of God, and His acceptance of the worship rendered to Him.
Shewbread is mentioned in the Gospels on only one occasion, Matthew 12:4 || Mark 2:26 and Luke 6:4. Jesus and His disciples, passing through the cultivated fields on the Sabbath, were plucking the ears of grain, rubbing out the kernels, and eating them. They were challenged by the Pharisees for doing what was unlawful on the Sabbath. The plucking of grain without instrument, while walking through another’s field, was expressly permitted by the Jewish law, but the manual labour involved was interpreted as harvesting and threshing, which were forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus replied to the Pharisees by citing two illustrations (according to Mt.), one of which was an act of David as recorded in 1 Samuel 21:1-6. In David’s flight from Saul he had come to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest. He was hungry, and asked for food for himself and his men. There was no bread at hand except the shewbread, which, after lying on the table for the week, had been replaced by fresh bread. The bread is described as ‘holy.’ There is no hint in the passage that David did an unlawful thing in eating the bread. He did not do it without due deliberation, for the question of the legality was expressly raised by the priest. Before giving the men the bread, he asked if they were ‘clean.’ This was his one concern, and, being satisfied on this point, he readily gave it to them. If it had been unlawful for any to eat except the priests, that surely would have been stated, and the ‘cleanness’ would have been of no moment. In case the parley is considered, as it may be, to have been the effort of later tradition to clear the king from the charge of irregularity in the matter, the state of the case is not altered. The passage seems to show that no law was knowingly broken in the transaction.
Jesus, however, says that it was unlawful. The statement is in accord with the Jewish law of His day, which can be traced back to a provision of the Priests’ Code from post-exilic times (Leviticus 24:9), which says that the shewbread was for the priests, and must be eaten by them in the Holy Place. Such an act as David’s was illegal in the time of Christ; it was not illegal in the time of David. The real issue between Jesus and the Pharisees in Matthew 12 was the extent to which such laws as that of the Sabbath were binding. The Jews held that the law was eternal, unchangeable, supreme. Jesus held that it was ‘for man,’ and the Son of Man was lord of it. More recently the argument of Jesus has been vastly strengthened by the recognition of the gradual development of the OT legislation. According to the Jews, their great king had violated the Law, and the only justification was the stress of his hunger; but to use this argument to justify David was in effect to acknowledge the very principle upon which Jesus acted in allowing His disciples to pluck the grain.
Literature.—Stade, Bibl. Theol. des AT [Note: T Altes Testament.] , p. 168; art. ‘Shewbread’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible and in the JE [Note: E Jewish Encyclopedia.] .
O. H. Gates.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Shewbread (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/s/shewbread-2.html. 1906-1918.