The Men with David in Mark
Mark 2:25-28 And he said unto them, Have ye never read what David did, when he had need, and was an hungred, he, and they that were with him? How he went into the house of God in the days of Abiathar the high priest, and did eat the showbread, which is not lawful to eat but for the priests, and gave also to them which were with him? And he said unto them, The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: Therefore the Son of man is Lord also of the sabbath.

Three issues are raised against this passage.

It is this third issue we will discuss here. Let's consider some arguments on the subject.

Positive Indications of Men With David

We can actually find quite clear indications in 1 Samuel that David was not alone.

1 Samuel 22:1 David therefore departed thence, and escaped to the cave Adullam: and when his brethren and all his father's house heard it, they went down thither to him.

If David is in the cave, how did his brethren and all his father's house hear of it and how did they know the exact location? The obvious answer: One or more of David's men did the job of letting his family know where to find him. We either have to accept that as the answer, or admit that someone else did it whom the text does not mention -- and that undercuts the argument that 1 Samuel doesn't mention men with David around the time he visited Nob.

There is also social evidence to support the idea that David was not alone, which means we can also answer the potential question: How many men were with him? Five or ten men as an accompanying force would be a maximum. More likely any group would be two or three extra men, as few as possible needed to escape notice while also provided David some security and extra pairs of eyes. To travel in the ancient Mediterranean was no simple business. The dangers of bandits and wild animals were real; to travel alone was to risk your very life. Moreover, to travel away from designated roads especially, and into the wilderness, was to symbolically step outside one's kinship network. Thus travel "was considered a deviant activity in the ancient Mediterranean, especially when done alone." A man on the run or alone was a man up to no good. That meant you got travel companions if you could; otherwise, and barring very unusual circumstances, you stayed home.

Indications that David was not alone can also be found outside 1 Samuel. Jesus' own words -- not because he is divine (though we think he is), but because he is a valid interpretative sources, like Josephus or Philo would be -- can be appealed to as evidence. A Jewish commentary text from later than the NT period also inferred that David was not alone (Yalqut Shim'oni II.130):

'I have no ordinary bread here. There is only the sacred bread. If the young men have kept themselves from women'. He said to him, 'Do you not know that a man who touches a woman is not allowed to eat holy things?' David said to him, 'For three days, we have had nothing to do with women,' as it is written, 'We have been restrained from women for the last three days and the things of the young men are holy.' Now it was the sabbath, and David saw that they were baking the Bread of the Presence on the sabbath, as Doeg had taught them. He said to them, ' What are you doing? Baking it does not override the sabbath, but only arranging it, as it is written, on the sabbath day he shall arrange it.' Since he found there only the Bread of the Presence, David said to him, 'Give it to me so that we may not die of hunger, for danger to life overrides the sabbath."

This commentary quotes from 1 Sam. 21:5 and 6, and refers to verse 6 as that which "is written." It then goes on to tell a more expanded account, with no explanation or delimitation saying that this was "inferred" or exegeted from the passage as opposed to being what was "written" in the text. Note that Jesus and this rabbinical commentator did not need to say, "this is an inference," because everyone knew the text and knew what it said; but they also knew what was in the background. Objections Asserting David Was Alone

Here are replies that might be offered on this subject.

David asks for only five loaves of bread. How long would that have lasted many men?

It would have lasted a contingent of five to ten men a full day, enough to get them to their next destination for food. David, a popular hero, would have had many allies along the way, and of course, there was always the wild as a food resource.

However, let's assume that the loaves were of an average size. Keep in mind that though David asked for five, it's not clear that he was actually given that many; but we'll work with the assumption that he wanted five loaves of an average size. How much bread would a person would eat for every meal, and how many meals would they need?

If David was alone and ate three meals a day (and we'll add, didn't supplement that bread with nuts, berries, or game that were catch as catch could), how much of that is he going to eat each meal? A whole loaf? Hardly. Maybe a third of a loaf.

Now consider the distance from Nob to Gath, and how long we'd expect the journey to take. From the looks of an atlas the distance was some 30 miles or so from Nob to Gath, as the crow flies and not accounting for rough terrain that would eat up more personal energy.

We know that disciplined Roman troops could cover 45 miles in 28 hours, with 3 hours rest and a full load of baggage (Gallic Wars, 7.40-1), while in adverse conditions 27 miles could be covered by such troops in one night (Plutach, Marc Anthony 47.2). Of course Roman troops had no need to watch out for people being after them as David did, were not as free to run, and had no need to hide if it came to that, but let's meet the matter halfway and say that David could have made it to Gath, only 30 miles or so, in only a day with time to rest or sleep.

So that means 3 meals for this trip -- and it would be our contention that David would eat no more than a third of a loaf of bread for each meal, barring again any other supplemental nourishment he would have found along the way. Bread was the ancient staple, so he would get it if he could; it was where the ancients got the majority of their calories. That would mean he asked for 5 times the amount needed to get to Gath if he were by himself. And that would mean that a contingent of only 2 or perhaps 3 men, which we settled upon as the likeliest number, if again we also assume there was no stop available between Nob and Gath for them to fuel up -- which is extremely unlikely.

Thus, if anything, the amount of bread David asked for supports the view that he was not by himself.

If the men were sent from Jonathan, they already would have had food and weapons with them and there would be no need to ask for any.

Not at all. Food was precious and carefully measured and guarded. Weapons were at a premium as well. There is no basis for thinking any contingent would have food and weapons with them already, or else only carried enough to get them to David quickly -- Saul surely wasn't opening the coffers for any large group with recognizable or possible allies of David.

The passage goes on to say that David fled for Gath, and it mentions no one else.

It hardly needs to. Remember the language of representation in Hebrew thought -- Pilate did not personally scourge Jesus (John 19:1) and mentioning only David does not mean he is alone. David was the leader of any group that would have been with him; he is the "agent" for the group who gives the direction and would represent them (as before a king).

Nor should we expect the other men to be mentioned by people like Achish, the king of Gath. In that case, indeed, David may well have been alone while the rest of his group waited outside at a specified location and until a certain time to see what happened. In any event it is unreasonable to demand that the men be mentioned.

But 1 Samuel later repeatedly mentions the 400 men with David. Why not also these men?

Why? Because the 400 men actually did something, i.e., go out beating up Philistines, and also served to emphasize that Saul's rule was disaffecting people, whereas we cannot assume that anyone with David did anything more than carry the bags and provide extra protection.

David would not have been afraid of the king of Gath with so many men with him.

Sure, if the men numbered in the thousands, but no one argues that. Five or ten would command no respect and would be the right size for an escape party that didn't want to be noticed, and will still have reason to be fearful if things went wrong.

If you're right, David didn't use common sense in going to the tabernacle in Nob to ask for Ahimelech's food. A sacred location like this would have been too visible a risk to take if David knew that he had other allies in more secluded places from whom he could have obtained food.

This assumes that Saul's forces would have considered Nob a likely choice for David to stop at; that this was the one place nearby David had allies for Saul to choose from (Saul only found out about the Nob stop via a "lucky" view from Doeg the Edomite) -- actually, Bethlehem would have been the most likely place for David to go in danger; and for good measure, note that Gibeah, Saul's old hometown, was further on in the same direction as Nob: It was full of people who would favor Saul, making even more unlikely, in the view of his enemies, that David would head in that direction.

In any event, that David may not have used common sense is not useful for showing Mark 2 to be in error. But the argument needs to explain either why the tabernacle would have been regarded as a likely place for David to go, or how it would have been more likely than other destinations (especially Bethlehem) for Saul to begin searching. From what we can see, Saul had no idea where to start looking; only the "lucky" presence of Doeg (from Saul's view, lucky) -- a herdsman who ordinarily had no more likelihood to be in Nob than David.

A depth consdiration of factors is necessary here if this argument is to be seriously pursued. We do know David had many allies. We do not know:

  1. All of their locations, in relation to Nob, Gath, or Bethlehem;
  2. The locations of any supporters of Saul;
  3. Exactly what time David set out, what route he had to take around what obstacles, what conditions he was dealing with;
  4. What condition he and any with him were personally in (hungry? thirsty? -- intense hunger could have been a factor in stopping at Nob);
  5. What disguise or cover David may have used or had;
  6. What level of expectation he had that he would find his allies, and be able to safely get to them, and at what point in his journey, as well as doing what he could to not endanger weaker or more vulnerable allies.

We would add here that actually, stopping by the priests' place was the wisest choice in terms of who would be at least risk for helping David if it was found out, for if there was any group Saul would be least likely to attack (as shown indeed by the later hesitation of his servants, other than Doeg, a foreigner), it would be the priesthood which served the public interest and served God (especially if the Israelites were terrified to cross Yahweh). Saul, however, showed the depths of his depravity/insanity later on and killed the priests even so, thinking in his paranoia that Ahimalech had knowingly helped David as a fugitive, and committed an act which assuredly undermined what little favor he had left with the people.

Finally, David has one more good reason to go to the tabernacle first. David wasn't only out for food, but something else he could only get at Nob --

1 Samuel 22:9-10 Then answered Doeg the Edomite, which was set over the servants of Saul, and said, I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech the son of Ahitub. And he inquired of the LORD for him, and gave him victuals, and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine.

David wanted not just food, but a word from the Lord. Only Nob could have provided that for him.

But Nob would have been a very busy place. David would have been very likely to have been seen. The tabernacle was there, the center of Hebrew worship, where daily sacrifices took place.

This is so, but this does not make Nob a place David should have avoided. The sacrifices did not require large amounts of spectators. Even so, people, and specific people, not events, was what David needed to avoid. And if the day David arrived was on or just before a sabbath (as Jewish exegetes agreed) then all but a few people were behind closed doors and having a rest, and it's no different than walking into the Superdome on a Wednesday morning at 3 AM.

High-level events do not automatically equate with "visibility" and especially personal visibility for any particular person, especially one not participating. Moreover, if you had a choice of places to hide, what would be wrong with heading to a small town with a population of 85 to, let's say, 130 (assuming all those tabernacle workers, etc actually lived in Nob and were there at the time)? How many people does that have to go down before it's safe? 110? 80? 50? 30? Were there WANTED posters out for David and an NCIC database? Was someone in Nob (or wherever) going to call 911 so that Saul could come and pick David up? Did Saul have roving camels and men with "GIBEAH POLICE" patches who ate donuts? Why and how does any particular activity of theirs draw attention to a person passing through?

One other point: Whose side was the priesthood on after this happened?

1 Samiuel 15:26 And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.
1 Sam. 19:24 And he stripped off his clothes also, and prophesied before Samuel in like manner, and lay down naked all that day and all that night. Wherefore they say, Is Saul also among the prophets?

Any argument about David's visibility only works if Saul thought Nob was a likely place for David to go to begin with; and it was indeed the only place nearby where David had allies, hence giving Saul an "easy" choice as to where to go looking, and if there was any chance that one of Saul's friends at Nob could have seen David without David knowing he had been seen, and gotten himself out and back to Gibeah and to Saul fast enough to catch David before he went out on the lam again. What really matters is whether Saul knew soon enough of David's "betrayal" and location to send out people to fetch him. And if that would be a problem, David is stuck no matter who he goes to see.

David of course had no reason to suspect Doeg or any supporter of Saul in particular should have been at the tabernacle. Why was Doeg there? It says he was "detained before the Lord" (21:7) -- now why should David have been able to anticipate that any particular ally of Saul would happen to be "detained before the Lord" that day? Was there a daily "detained before the Lord" service? Were there crowds of "detainees" for David to worry about?

If Doeg was there for any reason, it was because he was under observation for leprosy or some other unusual reason, and David could hardly have anticipated an appearance by any of Saul's henchmen on such grounds.

David lied to the priest about being on a secret mission from Saul, so he probably also lied about having men with him.

One falsehood proves another? Good thing our courts don't work that way. Incidentally, note that David never says King Saul -- we're betting he meant "King Yahweh" [1 Sam. 12:12, Ps. 5:2, etc].

But if this sort of "guilt by association" argument works, what about verse 8? "And David said unto Ahimelech, And is there not here under thine hand spear or sword? for I have neither brought my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king's business required haste." David lied (maybe by omission) about the king's business requiring haste, because there was no business from the king. So does that mean he lied about not bringing swords or weapons? By this reasoning, the mere proximity makes it so.

Some critics will appeal then to a supposed legal maxim, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus -- false in one thing, false in everything. David, however, was not under oath and was not on trial here. There's also a social point that lying for honorable reasons was not only permitted in the ancient world, but regarded positively. Also, a reader who is a student in law added:

[The maxim] pretty accurately states the general rule. When a witness lies, the jury may, but is not required to, disregard any or all of their testimony. The jury is to make that determination based upon the totality of the circumstances. Here are excerpts from jury instructions that we've used in the past.
"You are not required to believe the testimony of any witness simply because it was given under oath. You may believe or disbelieve all or any part of the testimony of any witness. It is your province to determine what testimony is worthy of belief and what testimony is not worthy of belief." [Ohio Jury Instructions section 5.30]
"If you conclude that a witness has willfully lied in testifying as to a material fact, you may distrust all of that witness' testimony, and you would then have the right to reject all of that witness' testimony, unless, from all of the evidence, you believe that the probability of truth favors the witness' testimony in other particulars." [I don't have a cite for this one, but we've used it in every jury trial we've had since I've been here, and we haven't gotten reversed on appeal.]
Applying the totality of the circumstances analysis, a jury could reasonably conclude that a person who lied to save his own life and to avoid retribution against a good Samaritan is still essentially a trustworthy person. Certainly no one would question the credibility of people who hid Jews from the Nazis and lied about their whereabouts.
So while the point is partially right, the fact that David lied under extraordinary conditions mitigates any damage done to his credibility.

David had no time to get men to come with him. He learned from Jonathan that Saul was planning to kill him, so he made a rapid retreat from the field he had been hiding in for three days.

Nothing in the text says that David had no time to find men or speaks of David making a "rapid" retreat. It says he "arose and departed" -- that's it. There is nothing to say he couldn't be picking up a few allies on the way, or getting it set up so he'll have some.

Ahimelech expressed concern about whether the men with David were sexually clean at the time, and David said they were. If men had already been sent to rendezvous with him, they would have been sent in haste, so how could David have guaranteed that these men were sexually pure at the time?

We have no problem in suggesting that David lied about the men being pure and maybe by implication about the king's mission, while being truthful in the basic idea of actually having men with him. But let's not even have to go that far.

Question: When do we suppose David decided that Nob would be a good first stop? We'd suggest that the three days he spent hiding was also spent planning his itinerary and deciding where to go to get supplies while getting the least attention -- even sneaking off at night to make the arrangements.

In addition, note that David says that his men are pure even for common journeys, more so for important ones like the one he was on now. How is that possible? What did David do otherwise when there were previously urgent missions? If there was a Philistine raid less than a day away, and action was needed ASAP, then did David have to wait two days and let the Philistines trample all over the place until some men were three days' pure?

If this system is something that is in effect, then David obviously had to have provision for urgent missions where holiness was needed. What that is does not matter -- whether he had men who were unmarried and/or remained celibate over shifts of days so that there would always be someone ready, he had to have some way to ensure that urgent missions were not delayed by lack of personal purity. Or else, if David was smart and saw the wrath of Saul coming (and how could he miss it?), he had more plans in his head than we would want to give credit for.

To this we may add that it is unlikely that any pious or righteous soldier would associate with women -- even their own wife -- while on active duty (viz. the example of Uriah the Hittite), so that it is likely that David had a decent range of men to choose from if he really wanted to toe the line on the purity regulations (which we don't see a need to suppose at all). Note that the abstention did not need to be permanent: Ritual impurity only lasted seven days (Lev. 15). Nowhere is it said that a military man needed to stay permanently chaste.

There are places in the Bible were people travel alone, so your point about travel above is wrong.

Actually, there are places where we assume they traveled alone because no one else is mentioned with the main characters, or fail to see a distinction from David's situation. Even so, silence in one text is not the determining factor. Social context overrules and trumps silence in text. And that context said, When you wanted to travel, you did so with others. If you wanted to get from Jerusalem to Dan, and you were a party of one, you didn't just start walking; you waited or asked around for other travelers who were going to same way; just like the modern hitchhiker, you attached yourself to any group that presented you with an opportunity.

But let's consider some supposed examples.

Who was with Jacob when he left Canaan and went to Paddanaram (Gen. 28:5)?

As the grandson of a wealthy tribal chieftain like Abraham, there would be a bevy of servants with him. This would go for anyone else in that family as well.

Who was with Moses when he fled from Egypt to Midian (Ex. 2:15)?

In that case, very likely no one -- because Moses was on the run from possible charges of murder and had no friends to speak of, unlike David, who still had allies. This only proves our point that traveling alone was a sign of deviancy, as would the case of Elijah, who was a "deviant" with reference to the establishment.

Who was with Jephthah when he fled from his brothers and dwelt in the land of Tob (Judges 11:3)?

As a social outcast -- unlike David, again, who still had allies -- maybe no one, under the same rubric as Moses; but as Jephthah was in no apparent hurry, more likely other outcasts or travellers. So the social data tells us.

Who was with the Levite who left Bethlehem-judah and traveled to the hill country of Ephraim (Judges 17:8)?

Anyone else he could find going that way, according to the context of the times; same with the Judges 19 Levite, Samuel, and the man of God in 1 Kings 13 (who, being killed by a lion, once again only proves out point about the dangers of travel in the ancient world, especially alone).

-JPH