Friday, September 5, 2014

Bible Commentary - 2 Samuel 6

In this chapter, David brings the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem.

This is another very instructive chapter, so I will try to break it down piece by piece.

First of all, David begins by gathering 30,000 "chosen men", i.e. special forces.  These are the elite troops that are "chosen" whenever David wants to get the best of the best of his fighting men.  But this time he's not taking them to battle, he is taking them as an honor guard while they move the ark of the covenant from Kiriath-jearim to Jerusalem.  If my readers may recall, Israel lost the ark to the Philistines back in 1 Samuel 4, and recovered it in 1 Samuel 6.  It was placed in the house of a man called Abinadab in 1 Samuel 7:1, and it has remained there until this day.  Now David is coming to bring the ark back with him to the nation's new capital.  We are told in v. 17 that David had "pitched a tent" for the ark.  It's not entirely clear to me if this is the same tent as the "tent of meeting" that Israel hauled around during their 40 years of wandering the desert.  David is a very pious fellow, so it would certainly be up his alley, but the last we had heard definitively about the tent of meeting, it was in Shiloh*, and I don't think we have any evidence that the tent has moved since then.  So it's possible that David just built his own tent, or perhaps the tent was quietly moved from Shiloh to Jerusalem.  Nevertheless, this is a relatively minor point.

Verse 3 is more interesting.  Do you see it?  Look carefully at what the Israelites do with the ark.  It says they place it on a new cart.  This is contrary to the law.  The law of Moses specifically says that the ark is supposed to be carried by hand, by the Levites, using the two poles inserted through rings in the frame of the ark.  What makes this even more interesting is that the whole "new cart" thing is actually how the Philistines delivered the ark when they sent it back to Israel in 1 Samuel 6.

It's not like Israel has a shortage of people here.  It doesn't specify how many Levites should carry the ark, but it wouldn't take more than about 8 or 12 people to carry; David brought 30,000.  However, rather than follow the law laid down by Moses, the Israelites followed the example of the Philistines.  Isn't this a great demonstration of how the Canaanite tribes are being a "snare" to Israel, leading them into practices contrary to how God instructed them to behave?

This is why Uzzah dies.  It is "irreverence" for him to touch the ark because the Levites are only ever supposed to touch the poles that carry the ark.  The only reason Uzzah needed to touch the ark is because the oxen stumbled.  But according to God's law, there weren't supposed to be any oxen or carts.  It was supposed to be carried on human shoulders only.

When I first read this story, I definitely felt like God's response to Uzzah was disproportionate.  It seemed really unfair to kill him when he was reaching out to stabilize the ark and keep it from falling over.  To me, that seemed respectful and proper and he died for it.  Verse 3 is the key to understanding why God killed Uzzah.  It's because they weren't carrying the ark in the proper way.

In the midst of all the celebration, they weren't carrying the ark, so God "broke out" against Uzzah (v. 8).  This is actually a pun of sorts.  It says that the LORD "broke out" against Uzzah, and therefore the place was called Perez-Uzzah (perez is the work for "breakthrough" in Hebrew).  I call this a pun because in just the previous chapter, David said that "the LORD has broken through my enemies".  It's the exact same word.  So the LORD went from "breaking through" David's enemies to "breaking through" Uzzah for his irreverence.

I believe the choice of words is intentional, and it is a lesson.  The lesson that I personally learned from this chapter is that carrying around the ark of the LORD (signifying the LORD's presence) is a perilous task.  It's not something that should be done casually or carelessly, and it certainly shouldn't be done using patterns and behavior we learn from those who do not know God.  There is a fear and a respect that we need to have whenever we carry the vessel of God's presence.  Since the advent of the New Testament and the Holy Spirit dwelling within the hearts of man, that basically means every believer is carrying "the ark" within them all the time, every day.  Once again, it dictates that we should carry the LORD's presence with a deep respect and should always seek to understand the LORD's ways so that we can carry his presence in a way that pleases him and is in accordance with his laws.  I don't want to stress this too far and say that we might die if we don't honor God's presence, but I don't think any reasonable person would want to live in such a way as to risk that, because God deserves honor even if there was no risk of punishment.

David leaves the ark in the house of some dude (Obed-edom to be particular), basically as a litmus test.  I can imagine David periodically asking about Obed-edom, "say, did that guy ever die?  Has a rock fallen on him, or maybe some kind of horrible disease?"  When he finds out that Obed-edom is blessed and doing quite well, then he's all like, "the LORD must not be angry anymore!  Gimme that ark, dude, you've had blessings for long enough."  I also would imagine Obed-edom is a little upset when he found out that David was coming to take the ark from him after the "blessing" that he had been enjoying until that time.

I think this is the second lesson.  Not my ridiculous paraphrase, but that the ark of the covenant brings blessings to those who honor God.  We don't know much about Obed-edom's life or how he treated the ark when it was in his house, but we know that he must have treated it well enough that God responded by blessing him.  I said before that carrying the ark can be a perilous task, and now I say that abiding in the presence of the ark can bring profound blessings to the entire household of anyone who seeks to honor God.  It's worth the risk.  It's worth it because there is no risk if your heart is set upon honoring God, and there is a deep blessing instead, which is guaranteed and it encompasses "all that belongs to him" (v. 12).  Everything he owned, everyone he was related to, was blessed by the presence that abides "enthroned above the cherubim" (v. 2).

Now when David brought the ark of the covenant up the second time, he obviously realized what was wrong, because it says that he would make a sacrifice every time "the bearers of the ark... had gone six paces."  The important part here isn't the sacrifices, but rather that the ark is now being properly carried by human hands.  The sacrifices and celebrations are just how David's heart responds to the presence abiding above the ark, and I love David's dancing.  This chapter is one of the purest representations of who David was as a person, and what he cared about.  He danced before the LORD with all his strength.  The celebration was wild and unbridled.  Strangely, it also says that David was wearing a linen ephod, which is the traditional robe worn by the priests.  So, I'm not sure what that's about.  It's not clear to me if the ephod is something that could be worn casually or if David were actually (kinda) dressed up in an overtly religious garment.  It wouldn't be entirely out of character with his crazy dancing, but it is interesting.

Lastly, Michal.  To me, Michal's story is the most enigmatic part of this chapter.  Reviewing some of the history up until this point, we know that Michal's marriage to David was political from the beginning (as royal marriages almost always are).  However, it was reported that Michal loved David in 1 Samuel 18:20, back when David was known as the hero of Israel, the great captain over Israel's armies, the victor over Goliath.  So Michal loved David's heroic side.  But then Michal spent many years (I can't be bothered to work out the exact chronology, but it was at least 5-10 years) married to Palti, and now her views of David seem to have changed.

David demanded to have his wife Michal back (2 Samuel 3), which undoubtedly has political implications; by associating with Michal, it would position him as a legitimate successor to Saul, and it would certainly increase his legitimacy to the Benjamites who would otherwise be concerned about losing power.  What is unclear to me is whether David also had feelings towards Michal, or if his maneuver is entirely political.

In this chapter, it seems like the relationship between David and Michal is strained.  Michal, for her part, "despised" David, and David replies "the LORD chose me above your father and all your father's house", which seems like a pretty harsh response.  Not to mention, David is marrying dozens of women at this point, so in many ways Michal is losing her own prestige as she goes from being David's first and only wife, to now being one of dozens (and not the most loved, either).  So I'd be willing to bet that Michal is increasingly embittered about that.

Does Michal resent David because she believes the narrative about David being her father's enemy?  Certainly, David never attacked Saul nor did David hate Saul.  However, Saul spread around the rumor that David was trying to dethrone him and that David was an enemy of Israel.  It wasn't true, but David used that rumor as a disguise to get refuge when he was staying in Ziklag under the protection of Achish, king of Gath.

So, did Michal believe her father, or did she remain loyal to David?  We know that early in their marriage, when David first fled, that Michal protected his life, but perhaps Michal grew distant to David over the years of her marriage to Palti.

Another possibility is that David never loved Michal, and that Michal became gradually upset with him because he did not share mutual feelings towards her.  In this case, Michal initially loved David but over time, it may have become clear to Michal that David did not care about her, as he married other women and left her with Palti for all of these years.  Only now, when trying to attain the kingdom, does David ask for her back, and when Michal comes back, what she sees is David dancing with unrestrained joy at the presence of the ark.  I could imagine when she sees David show such passion and enthusiasm about something that isn't her, it is probably sparking jealousy in her heart since (by this construction) David has scorned her for so long.

The conclusion of her story is barrenness.  The same barrenness that plagued the patriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel, as well as Hannah, and now Michal is barren.  Part of me wonders if this barrenness is just part of the generational curse that seems to precede the birth of Israel's heroes, and part of me wonders if the barrenness is related to Michal's bitterness and resentment.  Or maybe it's not related to anything.  But I think Michal not having any children is at least partly related to the (obviously sour) relationship between her and David, and Michal is probably increasingly relegated to obscurity as David's reign continues and he marries more women.

David and Michal once had something special together.  Sadly, that appears to no longer be the case.

*1 Samuel 1 and 2 make clear that Eli and his sons ministered at the tent of meeting, which is in Shiloh.  1 Samuel 1:3 establishes the location as Shiloh, 1 Samuel 2:22 makes clear that Eli's sons ministered in the tent of meeting, the same tent as what Moses constructed.

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