Celebrating the Return of the Ark of the Covenant—Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8B (2 Samuel 6)


2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God, and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

12So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing, 13 and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatted calf. 14 David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet.

16 As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.

17 They brought in the ark of the Lord and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. 18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts 19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.


               Anyone who has seen the first Indiana Jones movie—Raiders of the Lost Ark—knows that you have to be careful with the Ark of the Covenant. I don’t need to rehearse what happens at the end as thy bad guy opens the Ark. As is often the case with the Revised Common Lectionary, the scary parts of the story have been removed. I suppose the report that Uzzah was struck down when he reached out to steady the Ark as David was bringing the centerpiece of Jewish spiritual life to Jerusalem. The moral of the story is, of course, don’t touch the Ark. Not even if it might tip over.  When that unfortunate event took place, David decided to park the Ark outside the city at the home of Obed-Edom. David had hoped control of the Ark would cement his hold on the emergent nation. But he would have to wait until a more appropriate moment. He would eventually bring it into the city and put it in the Tabernacle—the precursor to the Temple. There it would sit, in a tent, until Solomon got around to building the Temple.

                Our story begins at the home of a man named Abinadab located at Baale-Judah, where David gathered with 30,000 men of Israel (most assuredly an exaggeration). The Ark was parked there after it had been lost in battle with the Philistines, for the Ark was at times taken into battle so that God might lead the charge. Now it sat in this place until a proper home could be found for it. Having gathered this great throng of people, David is ready to lead the parade into Jerusalem. To do this, David placed the Ark on a new cart and headed for Jerusalem. Uzzah and his brother Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drove the cart while the house of Israel danced before the Lord, offering songs, accompanied by lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals. It was quite a parade. The people were excited because this symbol of God’s presence would be returned to the people.

                This is where the story takes a darker turn. Verses 6-12a are omitted from our reading, but they are important, nonetheless. According to the narrator when the parade reached the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached up to steady the Ark. God, in anger at this sacrilege, struck him down. This picture of God is not flattering, which is likely why the lectionary omits it. Not only was God angry, but so was David. David is angry with God, perhaps in part because of the death of Uzzah, but likely also because he had hoped to control and utilize the power inherent in this sacred object. He quickly realizes his mistake, which leads not only to anger with God but fear of God. So, once again the Ark is parked at a private home—this time at the home of Obed Edom. It stayed there for three months. While the Ark was there with Obed-Edom, he and his household experienced great blessings. I’m sure he was thankful to David for that!

                 Eventually, David decides to go back and retrieve the Ark after hearing that Obed-Edom had been experiencing great blessings. He left it there out of fear, but why let others receive blessings, if you could receive them? As king, he wanted to accrue as many blessings as possible. Of course, the lectionary creators don’t include that part of the story either (vs. 12a). So, David goes and gets the Ark from Obed-Edom and brings it back to the City of David. Once again there is rejoicing. David also takes precautions this time. Instead of putting it on a cart as before, he had the Ark carried into the city. Every six paces he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. He was taking no chances of angering God. Not only did David offer sacrifices (or more likely he had the priests/Levites offer sacrifices, but he also danced before the ark girded in a linen ephod. That could be the apron worn by priests, but more likely this is a reference to a thin linen robe. In other words, he wasn’t wearing much clothing (no outer robes). The good news is that the Ark arrived safely. No one died (except the animals sacrificed) and the blessings could now accrue to David who placed the Ark in the Tabernacle (tent) that David had erected in the city. That meant that Yahweh finally dwelt in Jerusalem, making it a holy city.

                Everyone in Jerusalem was excited at seeing the recovery of this symbol of God’s presence. That is, everyone but David’s wife, Michal, the daughter of Saul. When the procession entered the city, Michal looked out her window and she saw David dancing. She was scandalized by what she believed was an indecent display in front of women, including in the royal household. Therefore, she despised him from that moment on. Our reading ends in verse 19, but if we drop down to verse 20, we read of David’s homecoming. Michal was not at all happy, and she told David that he had dishonored himself by uncovering himself before the servants (2 Sam. 6:20-23).  Of course, there were other reasons behind the breakup of the two, as David was responsible for the deaths of members of her family and his rise to power came at the expense of her father and brother. While she had once loved David (1 Sam. 18:20), did David love her? Did he treat her appropriately?

                While Michal was unhappy (and apparently the rest of her life was unhappy), the rest of the city was excited to see the Ark placed in the Tabernacle. David took on a priestly role offering burnt offerings before Yahweh. He also distributed food to the people (perhaps all the oxen he had slaughtered on the way into the city). So, everyone in the city received a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a raisin cake. After that, everyone went home. That included David, and we know how that turned out.

                We read this passage because it celebrates the presence of God with God’s people. Where the Ark goes, blessings follow, unless you’re Philistines or touch the Ark when you’re not supposed to touch it. As for David, by placing the Ark in the center of his capital city, he was able to cement his claims to authority over the nation. It had religious significance, but also political significance.  This serves as a reminder that church and state have often been intertwined. What better way of cementing one’s power than by claiming God’s blessing? Until recently monarchs claimed to rule by divine right. Oaths were sacred and unbreakable until they weren’t.

A passage like this gives us an opportunity to reflect on how these two entities co-exist. As citizens of the United States, like me, we have a secular government. The Constitution makes no provision for religious tests. The First Amendment guarantees religious freedom, such that the government is not supposed to establish any religion. Now the public square has often hosted expressions of religion. We have chaplains in the military and Congress. Public events are often opened with invocations (I know, I have offered them on many occasions). Christian Nationalism is on the rise, with the lines between religion and politics increasingly blurred. It hasn’t been good for either church or state.  The question that our passage raises here concerns the degree to which David’s search for power influenced his relationship with God. It’s a question we should all consider, especially in these rather perilous times for the nation and for the church. To whom do we ultimately owe our allegiance? Is it to the flag or the cross? Is the flag a sacred icon that can be turned into an idol? Could the same be said of the Bible? As we ponder these questions, we might want to ponder the presence of the American flag in most of our churches, even very progressive ones (on this question see the book Baptizing America: How Mainline Protestants Helped Build Christian America, by Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood, pp. 136-148, 189—190). Could we, like David, be seeking to utilize God for our own political purposes?


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