Commentary on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Since the pulp-patron saint of archaeologists, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr., appeared on the cinematic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1984), the ark of God has played a role in popular imagination beyond the pages of Scripture and the walls of any synagogue or church.1
I, for one, remember my squeamish wonder the first time I saw the climactic scene when Indy’s archrival, Belloq, befitted with high priestly regalia (see Exodus 28), opened the lid of the ark and unleashed the glory of the LORD, which quite literally melted Belloq and his Nazi benefactors, all those who would dare look upon the LORD.2
This week’s text provides a fine opportunity to the preacher to invite her/his hearers into the story of the ark of God, as David brings it to Jerusalem. This text provides a dynamic portrait of God’s presence and power with the people of Israel and the danger and joy of being in God’s presence.
While King David plays a prominent role in today’s text, at the very center is the ark of God, “which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim” (2 Samuel 6:2b). The movement within this text is around the ark of God, which is nothing less than God’s throne — God’s presence.
A brief sketch of the ark’s history is in order before getting into the text at hand.
Per the LORD’s instructions to Moses (Exodus 25:10-22), the Israelite artisan Bezalel crafted the ark (Exodus 37:1-9); and per the LORD’s instructions (Exodus 40:1-3), Moses placed the testimony3 in the ark and ark in the tabernacle (Exodus 40:16-21). The ark traveled with the people of Israel from Sinai into the Promised Land. Led by the ark of the LORD, the exiles crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:7-17). The ark also functioned as a talisman of sorts in the siege of Jericho (Joshua 6:1-14).
In the narrative of Israel, the ark then goes virtually unmentioned until the time of Samuel, whose call as a child servant in the temple in Shiloh came as he slept “where the ark of God was” (1 Samuel 3:3). The ark then takes center stage in 1 Samuel 4-6, where the ark is captured by the Philistines,4 subsequently causing so much pain and suffering among the Philistines that they give it back (1 Samuel 5:1–6:12). It first ends up in Beth-shemesh, where the townsfolk greeted the ark with rejoicing (1 Samuel 6:13b), though some looked into the ark, inciting the wrath of the LORD — seventy died.5 Not surprisingly the survivors commented, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? To whom shall he go so that we may be rid of him?” (1 Samuel 6:20). From Beth-shemesh, the ark is picked-up by the people of Kiriath-jearim (a.k.a. Baale-judah), where it remains until the point of today’s text.6
The ark is the locus of the LORD’s presence with the people,7 often quite specifically identified with the place between the cherubim upon the lid of the ark, the mercy seat. The formula employed in today’s text, “the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim” (2 Samuel 6:2b), is not unfamiliar to the larger biblical narrative (see 1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Kings 19:15, Psalm 80:1, 99:1, Isaiah 37.16). The ark serves as the LORD’s throne and place of self-revelation, such that Moses would hear the voice of the LORD coming “from between the two cherubim” (Numbers 7:89; see also Exodus 25:17-22, 30:6).
The ark, the locus of God’s presence, is not power neutral. Rather, there is great power that often results in blessing and joy8 but can also result in death. On the latter, consider Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, the seventy snoops of Beth-shemesh, and most innocent of all, Uzzah from today’s text (be sure to read the pericope’s donut hole, 2 Samuel 6.6-12a, which again buttresses the text’s main character — the ark of God). The death of Uzzah is quite positively outrageous and confusing as he is simply trying to stabilize the ark, rattled by the movement of the oxen. Our outrage and confusion, however, pale to the holiness of the LORD and the LORD’s throne, the ark of God.
King David’s response is anger, unleashed in a tirade that curses even the memory of the spot where Uzzah died, calling it Perez-uzzah — “[the LORD’s] bursting out against Uzzah.” So great was David’s anger (which often times is an external symptom of greater fear!) that it was three months before he gave the ark another run into Jerusalem. And in the meantime it ought not to go unnoticed that the ark’s temporary host, the house of Obed-edom, was blessed by its presence. The LORD’s holiness, as in the ark of the LORD, is wholly other, working and affecting the world beyond the bounds of our imagination.
David danced with joy leading the ark of God into Jerusalem. It is interesting that on the first dance into town the king and “all the house of Israel” are accompanied by “lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals,” whereas during the second there is only a trumpet — perhaps a dampened mood following Uzzah’s death. Nevertheless, the dance goes on. Joy flows from and accompanies the movement of the ark, God’s presence into the city. Michal’s ire (2 Samuel 6:20) at David’s foolish behavior — dancing au natural — is of no consequence, for the presence of the LORD, when all else is stripped away, evokes joy.
1 Commentary first published on this site on July 15, 2012.
2 Within the narrative framework of Leviticus, in the wake of the death of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-2), the LORD tells Moses to tell Aaron: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, or he will die; for I appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat” (Leviticus 16:2). Similarly, Exodus 19:21-24 and 1 Samuel 6.19 [RSV]. Recall that Indy and Marion Ravenwood do not look and therefore do not melt.
3 “Testimony” is a better English translation of ‘eduth than covenant, lest there be unnecessary confusion with brith. Testimony here is shorthand for the two tablets of the Decalogue.
4 1 Samuel 4:11. The capture of the ark by the Philistines culminates with the birth of Ichabod, which literally translates “in-glorious,” but which the text flushes-out further as “the glory [of the LORD] has departed from Israel” (1 Samuel 4:21-22). Such a departure of the ark and with it the glory of the LORD gets played out dramatically in Ezekiel 10:1-22, 11:22-25, with the return recorded in Ezekiel 43:1-12.
5 1 Samuel 6:19 – The NRSV is misleading here, unnecessarily following the LXX. The RSV is preferable here: “And he slew some of the men of Bethshemesh, because they looked into the ark of the LORD; he slew seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the LORD had made a great slaughter among the people.”
6 Psalm 132, often thought to be a psalm used in ritual remembering/reenacting of the ark’s entry into Jerusalem — the story in today’s text — may well suggest that the location of the ark was forgotten in this interim period, in particular in Psalm 132:6. Cf. Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge: Harvard, 1973) 96.
7 Exceptions to this come when the Deuteronomist describes the ark without cherubim or mercy seat but as a mere receptacle for the tablets, e.g., Deuteronomy 10:1-4. Cf. Alexander Rofé, Introduction to the Composition of the Pentateuch (Sheffield: Sheffield, 1999) 50.
8 “Wherever the ark is, Jahweh is fully present … This presence was always regarded as bestowing blessing. It is characteristic that the coming of the Ark to Israel let loose great outbursts of joy, even leading to corybantic behavior before it (cf. 1 Samuel 4:4ff, 6:13, 19; 2 Samuel 6:5, 14).” Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (D.M.G. Stalker, trans.; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1962 & 1965) 1.237.