We are studying portions of 1 Chronicles 15 (mostly leaving out the long lists of names, but there are a couple of other interesting omissions) for Sunday, December 1. This is the Chronicler’s account of David’s bringing the Ark of the Covenant of the God of Israel to Jerusalem. Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Chronicles (1 & 2) is properly a single book – something stressed by commentators, probably because everyone is also clear that “the Chronicler” has a distinct and distinctive theological and historical viewpoint, which comes through in the text. That viewpoint, as discussed by commentators and scholars, includes:
- A positive model for Israel’s past – in particular, the Davidic monarchy as seen by the Chronicler;
- Emphasis on the role of the Levites, and their participation in the formal aspects of worship, especially music (what is sometimes called the “cult” or “cultus”);
- Emphasis on the role of the Temple;
- Joy – especially, it seems, in the context of worship; especially, well-ordered Temple-oriented worship.
Chronicles is related to Ezra-Nehemiah somehow, most notably by approximate date – Chronicles is definitely a work from after the exile, as is Ezra-Nehemiah; possibly as late as the Hellenistic period, maybe around the 4th century BCE. Contemporary scholars doubt that the two books had the same author – in part, because the Chronicler has a much more inclusive perspective on the ethnic composition of “all Israel.” As Jim West points out in discussing the genealogical material the opens the book,
Given that the Chronicler is operative at the same historical period as Ezra and Nehemiah, who had called for the expulsion of foreign wives, there can be no doubt that the Chronicler (as well as Malachi, and the book of Ruth—both of which arose during the same period) were fighting back against that sort of racism. (21)
Especially since we will run across one of the Chronicler’s references to “all Israel” in our passage, being aware of the Chronicler’s understanding of what that means will help us.
Something else for us to be aware of is that the Chronicler has the advantage of working with Hebrew scripture more like what we will think of as “the Bible,” apparently including the Pentateuch, the Deuteronomistic history (including Samuel and Kings), and the Psalms. There are places – and this text is one of them – where the Chronicler makes sure to point out that worship is being conducted decently and in order according to the ancient instructions contained in those texts. To get an idea of what this means, imagine a contemporary novelist describing worship in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in which everyone is singing “Blessed Assurance” (19th century), or even a contemporary praise chorus. We might want to cut the Chronicler some slack here, though, and focus more on the Chronicler’s vision of right worship and its effects than on the specific details.
Chronicles is not a popular choice for preaching in Christian churches, even in non-lectionary churches. [And why is that, by the way?] In lectionary churches, “not popular” is an understatement, since the lectionary includes NO texts from Chronicles (1 or 2). So, the whole book is another one of the things you won’t know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary.[*] For us, though, this means that we may not have a lot of preconceptions about what Chronicles is all about.
The text selection we’re working with leaves out vv4-13, vv17-24, and the last phrase in v29. We can probably understand not wanting to reproduce the Chroniclers’ long lists of names, although vv4-10 give us a concrete sense of the enormous crowd of worship leaders David has gathered together for this ceremony, which seems to matter, and vv17-24 give us a sense for how carefully this worship seems to have been organized. The omission of vv11-13 suppresses the reference to the last time the Israelites tried to transport the Ark, and the explanation given by the Chronicler for why it turned out so disastrously. For that story, we’d need to glance back to 1 Chronicles 13.
[Or, we could look at the alternative – Deuteronomistic – version of the story in 2 Samuel 6. But if we do that, we’ll need to deal with some of the other differences in that version of the story and the Chronicler’s version – such as the way David participates in the worship described in 2 Samuel, and Michal’s reaction to it, which is also omitted from our selection for Sunday, and all of that will raise, among other things, questions about whether it’s possible to be too joyful in worship, or joyful in the wrong way, which the Chronicler and Michal might, or might not, be answering similarly.]
CLOSER READING: V2 mentions the Levites, and the divine instruction about their relationship to the Ark. Skipping ahead, v14 responds to David’s instructions and explanation for the earlier disaster in vv11-13. David and the Israelites have apparently done their homework since chapter 13.
[See Numbers 4, Deuteronomy 10:8, and Deuteronomy 31:9-13. If the Levites and the rest of the Israelites had been following those instructions in Deuteronomy 31, assuming they had had them, maybe the problem that arose in 1 Chronicles chapter 13 could have been avoided. This makes a strong argument for the congregation keeping good records, and having an updated operations manual, multiple copies, and plenty of people “in on” the institutional memory. Just sayin’.]
The word translated “install” in v16 is translated by others as “appoint,” in the sense of “provide for, furnish,” the way we sometimes say “well-appointed.” The word in other contexts can be used for the idea of establishing or standing up, so there might be a little bit of another sense of “appointment” going on here, too, the kind where people are chosen for specific jobs or positions. This might make sense to us, because the ceremony being described is extremely elaborate and involves MANY people, so organizing it, giving everyone their detailed instructions and stations in advance, would have been a good idea.
The upshot of all this is that they are all joyful (v25), and that God helps them (v26). The rabbis reportedly thought this meant that the Ark carried itself after the first few steps. Even if they didn’t get that much help from God, God is clearly a lot happier with these transportation arrangements than God was with the ones in chapter 13. Maybe because they involve music and worship, rather than just physical movement.
In v27, we are told explicitly that everyone is wearing linen robes. There are no scantily clad dancing pagan monarchs in this picture. This makes Michal’s displeasure (which we are not reading about in v29) appear more as scorn for the completely legitimate and ceremonious worship of the God of Israel than as scorn for her husband’s flaunting himself and his piety in an unseemly way, since according to the Chronicler that’s not how it happened.
[It might be worth asking ourselves: have we ever encountered different versions of “that’s how it happened” when it comes to congregational history? Exactly. So why might a couple of different versions of how this event happened be included in the Bible? We could think about that.]
The Ark is described several different ways: as the Ark of God (Elohim) (vv1 & 2, 15, 24), the Ark of YHWH (vv2 & 3), the Ark of YHWH God of Israel (vv12, 14), and the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH (vv25, 26, 28, 29). Biblical scholars would probably see this as evidence that the Chronicler pieced the Chronicle together from a variety of different sources, which use different names for God. I wouldn’t dispute that, either. But the text we have before us also seems (to this reader, at least) to make a progressive identification of God with YHWH, and of YHWH God with Israel, and then with that specific Covenant with Israel that includes all these instructions for the Levites and for worship and for the sacrifice that is performed in v26 and for everything that pertains to this well-appointed relationship between “all Israel” and Israel’s covenanting God, YHWH, that the Israelites are joyfully following here.
From that, we might get the impression that the liturgy (if we can use that word here) is not incidental; it’s part of what all Israel is doing to be faithful to – and to rejoice in – the Covenant with the overwhelming, holy, divine personality who directed Israel to make that Ark in the first place.
That Ark, we may recall, is not a representation of the deity. It’s an officially-recognized place for the [invisible, unrepresentable, and for that matter uncontainable and unrestrictable] deity’s presence, communication and activity. It’s a kind of place-holder, or place-indicator. It contains words (the tablets from Sinai), and reminders of things God has done (a jar of manna).
We might want to ask ourselves whether we recognize anything at all like the Ark, in that sense, in our own religious lives, and if so, whether we handle it with care and experience it with joy.
[*] I’ve decided to keep pointing this out. If only for the sake of explaining why I get annoyed when Presbyterian seminarians AND PROFESSORS complain about the Bible Content Exam, and all the “obscure” stuff it includes, because they seem to think that knowing the Bible from church is the same thing as knowing the Bible, and that if there is a difference between those two things it amounts to “trivia.”
Berlin, Adele and Brettler, Marc Zvi, editors. The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford University Press, 2004.
O’Day, Gail R. and Peterson, David, general editors. The Access Bible. Oxford University Press, 1999.
West, Jim. 1-2 Chronicles for the Person in the Pew. Quartz Hill, California: Quartz Hill Publishing House, 2014.