July 11, 2021

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Outside of the Box

The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

Feature picture: David and the Ark of the Covenant

7 Pentecost (Proper 10) Year B   

2 Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b-19                

Mark 6: 14-29

“David danced before the Lord with all his might.”

In our two lessons today we have two kings, two challenging marital relationships, and two dances. One king is haunted by his past actions as he strives for legitimacy and approval.

The other one is Herod.

Indeed, Herod is the low-hanging fruit in this pair of stories; we are familiar with his rash promise to his daughter and the gruesome death of John the Baptizer. But once again our Lectionary has given us only a one-sided view of the other story: King David’s journey up to Jerusalem with the Ark. There is much more here than what meets the eye, and the drama is as riveting as Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils. 

David, having followed an arguably checkered path to power that I spoke of last week, is now king of all Israel, and now it is time for David to get down to business; time for Israel to take her place among the other powers in the neighborhood. Walter Brueggemann writes that Israel is about to move “from kinship to bureaucracy, from battles of survival to state conquests, from old symbols to new theological claims. These moves were essential as a base for royal power.” 

Specifically, David’s royal power.

How to do this? How to unite everyone, especially the conservative old guard, behind the changes necessary to bring Israel up in the world? 

The Ark of the Covenant.  What better way to legitimate political power than to bring back the very symbol of God’s power, presence, and favor upon Israel? Perfect.

A little background: In Exodus 37 God gave Moses painstakingly detailed instructions for the building a gold-covered ark, or chest, which would hold the stone tablets of the Covenant, a container of manna, and the rod of Aaron. Directions for handling the Ark were also very specific, and penalties for not following instructions were severe and divinely meted out. The Ark was both a symbol of holy war, leading Israel in battle, and a symbol of the Presence of God among the people.

Move forward to the Book of Samuel, and Israel’s war with the Philistines. The Philistines defeat Israel in a great battle, killing four thousand soldiers. Dismayed, the elders of Israel said: “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” So they did…and this time the Philistines  killed thirty thousand soldiers and captured the Ark. God apparently did not appreciate being conscripted as a weapon.

But when the Philistines’ statue of their god Dogon was destroyed and the people were ravaged by plague, they quickly sent the Ark back to Israel, where the people of Beth-shemesh received it with great joy, until a few curious folks decided to peek under the lid, whereupon seventy people died. 

Do not mess with the Ark. 

The Ark was immediately (and no doubt very carefully) dispatched to the house of Abinadab at Kiriath-jearim, and forgotten for twenty year, until David becomes king, and needs a symbol to draw the focus and favor of his people. So with great fanfare, he goes and gets it.

Now here is where the Lectionary has left a gap in this morning’s story, and it is a crucial one.  In verse 5 we have David and the people dancing with all their might, with cymbals and tambourines, then there’s a gap of six verses, and then the passage takes up again in verse 12 as David brings the Ark from the house of Obed-edom, dancing with all his might. As I noted last week, the role of the storyteller is to give us the full picture, so here is what the Lectionary has left out:

As the procession sets out, a man named Uzzah reflexively touches the Ark when the oxen pulling the cart stumbles, and God immediately kills him. David is furious at God, saying, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” So David stops the procession right there and instead takes the Ark to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite, where it stays for—wait for it—three months. Only after that, when David is told that Obed-edom and his family have been blessed by the Ark, does David go and get the Ark and resume the procession. 

So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing…”

Three months between the beginning of this story and its end, because David saw what happened to Uzzah and freaked out.  You can imagine him thinking, “What have I gotten into?” 

He is the dog that caught the bus. 

It’s important for us to know that the episode we hear this morning isn’t just a happy-clappy story about a parade up the hill to Jerusalem. It isn’t just a story of a king so overjoyed in the presence of the Ark that he throws his clothes off with abandon; it’s a story of a man who realizes that he is naked in the presence of a powerful God who knows everything about him, good and bad. It’s the story of a man who realizes that he can’t put God on a leash. He is dancing with all his might because he is terrified.

This is the full picture. The storyteller needs us to see it, because given the choice between David and God, the storyteller ultimately sides with God—because David may be God’s chosen to lead Israel, but David’s own choices as he takes, consolidates, and holds power will have costs to himself, his family, and all of Israel. As he dances with abandon and fear he now realizes the naked truth; that ultimately it is God who is in charge, not David.

I don’t know about you, but there remains a burning question at the end of all of this. 

What about all the smiting? The Ark seems to be an extraordinarily dangerous thing, even without the help of Indiana Jones. Where the Ark goes, smiting is sure to follow. How does all this smiting relate to the God of love, compassion and reconciliation that we know? It’s not that there is a difference between a judgmental Old Testament God and a loving New Testament God, because there is smiting and threats of smiting to be found in the New Testament, and in the Hebrew Bible there is the God who created the world and called it Very Good; who heard the cries of God’s people and liberated them from slavery; the God who commanded us to love our neighbor and do our part to heal the world. So the Old Testament/New Testament theological dichotomy doesn’t work.

Perhaps there is this: The tellers of the story of the Ark, in their smite-obsessed way, articulate a God who is powerful, mysterious, unknowable, and unpredictable. We may not today experience or understand God’s mystery and power (dare I say danger?) in terms of smiting—although when disaster strikes that may be exactly what some think—but on a general theological level we do think in terms of the costs and consequences of our actions. After all, as an extension of being a God of love and compassion, God must also be a God of Justice. A God, whose dream is countercultural; an inverter of the systems of principalities and powers as the world knows them. A God who, in spite of the best efforts of some, will not be easily tamed, manipulated, or weaponized. 

Perhaps this is the storyteller’s best irony: The God whose presence is so elegantly and eloquently symbolized by a golden box–simply refuses to be put in one.