Having escaped, David makes a stop in Nob to visit Ahimelech. Notice how both here and in 1 Sam. 19, he chooses to flee to a figure of religious authority (in that case, he had gone to Samuel). Ahimelech is terrified to see David alone, but no explanation is given for why this would be the case. Perhaps he knows of the animosity between David and Saul and suspects that David is on the run? That’s my best guess, because David reassures him by lying, saying that Saul has sent him – and a group of men waiting for him at “such and such a place” (1 Sam. 21:2) – on a super secret mission (presumably, David’s companions are fictional, meant to convince Ahimelech that David truly is out on official business). He asks Abimelech if he can spare some food.

Ahimelech gives David the sword of Goliath, by Aert de Gelder, c.1680-1690

Ahimelech gives David the sword of Goliath, by Aert de Gelder, c.1680-1690

Unfortunately, Ahimelech only has holy bread. According to a few sources, this would be bread that could only be consumed by members of the priesthood, yet Ahimelech offers it to David. His only condition is that neither David nor his companions have slept with women recently. David explains that he and his men keep their vessels holy on missions, even on common journeys, so that’s not a concern. The argument will later be made (Mk 2:23-28) that this passage allows for flexibility in the cultic rules when they interfere with the wellbeing of people. Even though David isn’t a priest and therefore has no business eating the holy bread, he is allowed to take it because he has need.

David next asks if Ahimelech has any weapons he could have, “for I have brought neither my sword nor my weapons with me, because the king’s business required haste” (1 Sam. 21:8).

This is difficult to reconcile with the story in 1 Sam. 20, where David suspects that Saul might have it in for him and then plans his absence from the court. Rather, it seems better to follow after his flight in 19:11-17, where his wife shoves him out of a window in the middle of the night. This would better explain why David has so little with him.

The only weapon Ahimelech has to give is Goliath’s sword, which he keeps behind the ephod. As in 1 Sam. 14:3, the ephod is here implied to be a box containing sacred objects, not an item of clothing.

In the middle of David’s exchange with Ahimelech, we learn that an Edomite named Doeg, a servant of Saul’s, happens to be in Nod at that time. He was “detained before the Lord” (1 Sam. 21:7), likely meaning that he is ritually impure for some reason and is waiting for his term to end. The detail seems out of place here, but I peeked ahead and it seems that the author/editor was establishing a fact for a later occurrence.

David at King Achish’s court

His old enemy’s sword in hand, David then moves on to the Philistine city of Gath. There seems no reason for this episode, and it certainly turns out to have been a mistake. Highlighting that Saul has very good reason to feel threatened by David, the Philistines recognize David and mistakenly believe that he is Israel’s king, citing the same song that we heard in 1 Sam. 18:7:

Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his ten thousands. (1 Sam. 21:11)

Probably quite wisely, David realizes that this is potentially a very bad situation. If King Achish of Gad believes him to be the king of Israel (or, at least, politically important), might he not read the situation as a very good opportunity to easily get rid of an enemy.

So he decides to play the fool. Literally. He makes marks on the doors of the city gate, and lets spittle run down into his beard. I’m not sure how making marks on city gates is supposed to be an indication of madness, unless it means that he is smearing feces or something.

Anyways, King Achish is fooled, and he asks his servants why they bothered bringing a madman to him. “Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?” (1 Sam. 21:15). This provides David with a means of escape, of course, but also reads like a joke at Philistia’s expense. Is King Achish’s court so glutted with madmen?