Commentary on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Over the next three weeks, we move from a “yes-but” narrative (2 Samuel 6) to a “YES!” narrative (2 Samuel 7) to a “NO!” narrative (2 Samuel 11).
In 2 Samuel 6, David moves the neglected ark to his new capital in order to place God back into the center of communal life. However, the same move is a shrewd consolidation of his political power. David has conquered a city that was not part of any tribe; Jerusalem can literally be termed the “city of David.”
The selected verses in the lectionary only tell half of the story and thus distort the overall story. 2 Samuel 6 is a fundamentally different story if the death of Uzzah (6:6-12a) and the rejection of Michal (6:20-23) are left out.
The ark had struck terror among the Philistines after they captured it from Israel (1 Samuel 5-6). Later some in the vicinity of Bethshemesh found it equally lethal (1 Samuel 6:19-21). It eventually was housed in Kiriath-jearim for at least twenty years under the care of Eleazar, son of Abinadab (1 Samuel 7:1). When David begins to move it, the sons of Abinadab, Uzzah and Ahio, guide the ox-drawn cart; Eleazar is not mentioned.
As 2 Samuel narrates the event, David started out with no acknowledgement of this fear-filled history. Why does he want to move it? His initial motive is not given, but, positioned after the events narrated in chapter five, one can wonder whether David is adding to the luster of his city.
After all, David changed the name of the Jebusite city to the “city of David” (5:9). He adds wives and concubines and fathered eleven more sons (5:13-16). A foreign king acknowledges him (5:11), and he once again defeats the Philistines, this time rather extensively (5:1-25). He becomes “greater and greater.”
Granted, the narrator repeatedly notes these accomplishments are part of the Lord’s presence with David (5:10, 12, 19, 24). Yet, when the Lord struck Uzzah down, David’s deepest anxiety is over his inability to take the ark into his care (6:9).
Interpreters have long sought to rationalize the death of Uzzah with speculation about what he did wrong. Granted, the ark was sacred and not to be treated with indifference or handled presumptuously. But did Uzzah’s individual culpability reach the level of Ananias and Sapphira (cf. Acts 5:1-11)?
Perhaps it is time to drag David into culpability as well. In this time of financial crisis, do we not know that the consequences of the failures of leaders are often visited upon those with less power? How is God’s judgment rendered in such a world?
There is a communal dimension to judgment that grates on our culture’s individualistic notions of guilt and judgment. David learns that as the Lord can burst out against the Philistines (5:20), so the Lord can burst out within Israel (6:8). In the short term, Uzzah pays most for the lesson.
2 Samuel 6 opens with an impressive number of people (thirty thousand). This is a hint that there will be extravagance in this chapter. Chapter 6 also finalizes the move from kinship to kingship. The episodic leadership of the judges gives way to permanent dynasty (cf. 2 Samuel 7). The joining together of north and south is underscored by the magnitude of the gathering. The allegiance to Saul is now over, and all factions are united around David.
1 & 2 Samuel have earlier made it clear that the Lord has chosen David and rejected Saul. But God’s choice is accompanied by human intrigue and conniving. David’s exuberance can be read as pure gratitude for what Lord has granted him, but it can also be interpreted as politically astute manipulation.
In other words, David’s motives are not pure and yet God is involved. Sin is real and faith is real; at times they are concurrent in one event and one character. The narrative leaves room for both readings. Perhaps it even insists on both readings, and thus depicts a world that has resonance with our own.
A refrain running through the narrative of 1-2 Samuel is that the Lord blessed David, but the narrative leaves many signs that David was also self-serving and contriving. The alert reader is not entirely surprised that, when the house of David starts to unravel in 2 Samuel 11, it starts with David himself. He is not all bad, nor is he all good.
The end of our passage states that all the people went home. But one person, Michal, had never left home. To end with verse 19 leaves unresolved the narrator’s statement that, as she observed David’s exuberant celebration, Michal despised David in her heart (6:16).
When David sharply rebukes her, stating that the Lord had chosen him over her father, the narrator added that Michal “had no child to the day of her death” (6:23). Many interpreters understand this data as a judgment on Michal and give reasons to justify it, assuming that the Lord had made her barren. But again, there is room for another reading.
David may never have treated her as a wife the rest of her life. Her barrenness is a death sentence and echoes the fate of Uzzah. Were she to have children, the specter of Saul’s line would remain. Her barrenness completes the choice of David and rejection of Saul. What other future might she have had? Would a different reaction to David have actually changed her future?
Before we judge Michal too harshly, we should remember that she earlier had loved David (1 Samuel 18:20, 28). Michal had even saved David’s life by informing him of Saul’s intent to kill him and letting David down through a window (1 Samuel 19:11-17).
David becomes a fugitive and never seems to plot to return to Michal until negotiating with Saul’s surviving general, Abner, and son, Ishbaal (2 Samuel 3:6-14). In the intervening years, David has wooed and married other women. 2 Samuel 3:2-5 reports six sons from six different wives. Then, 2 Samuel 5:13-16 mentions eleven more sons from additional unnamed wives and concubines. Bathsheba is yet to come.
We should be restrained in judging Michal and in celebrating David without ambiguity.