Studying 2 Samuel 6 (not just 1-5, 14-19)

We are meant to be focusing on David’s second, more successful effort to transport the ark to Jerusalem; we are meant to be thinking about it as an example of praise and worship. We are studying the selected verses 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 14-19 for Sunday, September 12. If we read all of 2 Samuel 6, however, we’ll notice that selecting those verses transforms the story of moving the ark dramatically and substantially. Which might make us ask ourselves – why would we want to do that? Here are my few, belated and incomplete, notes [and here are some questions] on 2 Samuel 6:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The first chapters of 2 Samuel are about the middle of the long text of 1-2 Samuel. That text itself is more or less the middle portion of the Deuteronomistic history – that is, the long theological account of the history of the people of Israel in the land of Israel, from the time of Israel’s conquest of the land through to the end of the monarchy and the exile to Babylonia.

By the time we reach this part of the story, there have been some successes, as well as plenty of defeat and disaster. In particular, after the early conquest of the land of Israel – in which the Ark of the Covenant plays a prominent role, especially in the story of the battle of Jericho in Joshua 6 – there are the recurrent lapses of the time of the judges, the declining situation under the priest Eli, and the loss of the Ark itself, to the Philistines (1 Samuel 4).

The Philistines’ subsequent difficulties in dealing with the Ark take up the next two chapters of 1 Samuel. The Ark brings disease and disaster to the Philistines, who concoct a way to send the Ark back to Israel. The Ark brings disaster to the first Israelites it encounters, too! It finally comes to rest in Kiriath-Jearim [here’s a map, with a proposed location], where it remains in the house of Abinadab for the next 20+ years – through the time of Samuel, of Saul, of the civil war between “the house of Saul” and “the house of David,” and David’s final victories, over the house of Saul, the Philistines, and the Jebusites. At the opening of 2 Samuel 6, David is king, in Jerusalem, at long last; it’s time to bring the Ark to the new capital city.

The Ark itself is a sacred object with a long history by this time in the narrative. The Ark’s design is given to Moses by God at Sinai (Exodus 25:10-22), and subsequently constructed and consecrated. The Levites are assigned the responsibility of carrying the Ark in Numbers 3, although in Joshua 4 and Joshua 6, “priests” carry the Ark into the Jordan River, and around the city of Jericho. Nevertheless, although the Ark is well-established as an important sacred object by the time of this narrative, 1-2 Samuel refers to the Ark more often than any other book of the Bible; 1-2 Chronicles comes in a close second. In other words: the story of the Ark seems to be of special importance to the author of this part of the Biblical text.

David’s first effort to bring the Ark to Jerusalem fails disastrously. The mission is aborted, and the Ark is parked at the house of Obed-edom for three months (2 Samuel 6:1-11).

This is one of those things you’d never know about the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12(b)-19 is in the lectionary for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, year B. That is, the lectionary omits the story of the first mission. It’s also one of those things you’d never know about the Bible if all you know is the selected text in the Sunday school book! Although to be fair, 2 Samuel 6:6-11 IS the daily reading given by the Committee on the Uniform Series for Wednesday this past week. Still, I mention this significant omission because it gripes me that BOTH the lectionary AND our text for Sunday elide the story of that first effort, and of the death of Uzzah, and of the danger associated with the holiness of the Ark.

I suspect that a big reason for that omission is that we don’t know what to do with stories where God strikes people dead for what we are likely to feel are trivial misdeeds.

But: pretending this text and others like it simply aren’t there amounts to letting ourselves pretend that the Bible is other than it is. Pretense invariably causes problems. We should aim to be honest with ourselves about what this text says. If what the Bible says raises problems for us, then we should admit that, and deal with it. Better to deal with the problems created by honesty than the ones created by dishonesty.

After hearing that the house of Obed-edom is being blessed because of the Ark, David tries again. This time, people carry the Ark. [1 Chronicles 15 tells us that the people are Levites. Maybe David did some research in those three months.] David himself performs sacrifices along the way, and engages in ecstatic dancing “before YHWH.” This precipitates a bitter exchange with his wife Michal.

Michal and David have a history that goes back to 1 Samuel 18, when she “loves” David, and Saul takes advantage of that to try to get David killed in the act of earning her bride-price. She goes to great lengths to save David’s life when Saul plans to assassinate him (1 Samuel 19). Later, during the long conflict between Saul and David, Saul marries her off to someone else – Paltiel (1 Samuel 25:44). This is information the text gives us, in part, to explain why David needs to marry other women, like Abigail and Ahinoam. Then, as part of the intrigue that brings Abner over to David’s side in the civil war, Abner goes and fetches Michal away from Paltiel and brings her back to David (2 Samuel 3). It doesn’t get Abner very far, as he’s killed by Joab right away; and it sets Michal up to be looking out the window at the end of 2 Samuel 6 and despising David in her heart.

One popular tack for commentators to take is to criticize Michal here. That’s if we want to assume David’s behavior is exemplary; in that case, Michal becomes the foil, the negative contrast to the positive David. But this part of the story does not seem to be that clear-cut. Whether we ought to take David as a purely positive role model here is not completely obvious. It seems to be a good thing for the Ark to settle in Jerusalem – “it was meant to be,” we think. But how we understand David’s actions in this whole story depends a lot on what we believe to be going on in his mind. The text doesn’t give us much to go on in this regard. What we think, then, tells us more about ourselves than it actually tells us about David. Or about what God “approves” or “loves” or “desires.”

I confess that I am not inclined to think the best of people. Least of all David.

On the other hand, if we could imagine ourselves to be standing in the crowd, watching the Ark brought into the city, seeing the new king dancing and whirling before the Ark in an extravagant display of devotion, hearing the shofars resound, we could feel caught up in the tremendous celebration. YHWH is our God; and YHWH is here! The presence of the Ark makes this concrete, almost tangible. A sense reinforced by the generosity of the king’s gift to each man and woman – the bread and the cake of raisins and whatever else was included in that gift [depending on translation].

We would witness and experience this uplifting spectacle, this once-in-a-lifetime event, without the complicating ambiguity of all that behind-the-scenes messiness, all that backstory. We’d simply be able to feel great about our national identity, and to credit King David with bringing that greatness about.

“Blessed are the people whose God is YHWH!” We wouldn’t be wrong about that. And we would actually see it better from farther away, where we can only see David the King, than we would if we were close enough to see David the person.

We have to pick our perspective; our choice will matter.

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Image: Shofar window of Synagogue Enschede, by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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