Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

God’s presence is never granted automatically

Detail from painting depicting Herod's banquet, by Pedro García de Benabarre, ca. 1470
Image: Pedro García de Benabarre, Herod's Banquet; licensed under CC0.

July 14, 2024

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

A joyful celebration of the transfer of the ark

Celebrations are important opportunities for communities to praise God for good things that God has bestowed on them. A mindful community celebrates their shared identity in such moments.1 The people of Judah define themselves as those gathered around “the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim” (2 Samuel 6:2). This is one of the fundamental characteristics of the community that celebrates the ark’s move to the temple mountain in the face of their God. So too, our Christian services that work consciously to bring us close to God, and to one another, in body, mind, and soul connect us to these services of our Jewish forebears.

The ark as war palladium and token of accompaniment

Still, the preacher may point out that it would be a problematic appropriation to silently imply the function of the ark as a symbol of God’s wars. The ark is the palladium holding the commands that are tokens of the covenant between Israel and their God. It is a symbol of God’s presence throughout Israel’s history.

While narratives such as 1 Samuel 4 and Numbers 10 point to the ark’s purpose of guiding the people in war, the narratives of the crossing of the Jordan and of the conquest of Jericho in Joshua 3 and 6 represent specifically a priestly understanding of the ark’s function. They evoke ritual processions of priests. The return of the ark in 2 Samuel 6 is not simply a procession. The bovine draft animals also symbolize how God guides them and the procession toward the chosen resting place for the ark.

The ark symbolizes God’s accompaniment through Israel’s success in battles and in situations of hardship. To modern readers, the war palladium of the ark as an element of a conquest narrative likely triggers ambivalent reactions. The sayings about the ark relate it to God’s presence, from which he rises up (Numbers 10:35–36) to march ahead of Israel’s troops in battle. In a narrower sense it is part of the strategic inventory of a combat mission, yet in the wider framework of God’s powerful presence, it bears the hope that God’s threat will befall the enemies and that God’s reign prevails and that God will reestablish God’s good world and creation.

A postcolonial reading must point out that this is the historiographic tradition of a small-scale state that had for most of its existence been a subordinate vassal. What’s more, while the ark in 1 Samuel 4 is an important part of the fight against the Philistines, and while it functions as a token of a warrior god rushing to help and rescue Israel, the traditions about the ark also warn that God’s presence is never granted automatically. Sending off the ark to the battlefield was an unsuccessful “Hail Mary” measure that ultimately led to defeat and the tragic loss of the ark in 1 Samuel 4.

The ark as a token of God’s presence in Israel thus invites the preacher to reflect on topics such as God’s presence among us today in battles in which we find ourselves entangled. It also invites us to think about our need for God’s blessings for any strategic venture, beyond military wars in the narrow sense. The ark also reminds us that ancient Israel was well aware of God’s free grace and forgiveness. The ark symbolizes God’s presence for Israel in a variety of ways. When David transfers the ark to Jerusalem, he affirms God’s presence in his new capital.

Transferring the ark to the temple renews and broadens the ark’s meaning for the community gathering in the temple (1 Kings 8:1–2). It is an epitome of a future resting place according to 1 Kings 8:6–7, in a context in which the cherubim on its lid become more prominent as a feature than the ark as such (Exodus 25). As a repository of the testimony, though, the Priestly writer refers to it as the “ark of the testimony,” not as the ark of the commandments (Exodus 31:18; 25:22; 26:33–34). For the Priestly writer, the ark symbolizes God’s fundamental engagement and Israel’s corresponding self-obligation (Exodus 31:18).

The preacher may point out the difference between claiming the reassuring function of symbols of God’s support in distress in one’s own faith tradition and the problematic misuse of symbols of superiority over other cultures or other faith traditions.

Challenging norms of royal behavior, negotiating concepts of masculinity and femininity

David’s joyful dance in front of the ark lends itself to non-moralistic ways of challenging royal etiquette and gender-specific behavioral norms. Dancing and leaping for joy in front of the Lord, in this procession David embodies the freedom to publicly act in ways he perceives as adequate.

Michal despises him for his behavior. In the perception of modern readers, in the larger context of patriarchy, this brief note has insulting overtones from other discourses about women in the Bible. Audiences may perceive Michal’s rejection in the wider context of a misconceptualization of women as arrogant or evil, and this may illustrate the flipside of the objectification of women. Also, they may perceive this side note on Michal as congruent with a frequent stereotype of arrogant women in royal positions. The princess’s childlessness may be seen as a form of punishment of the haughty royal spouse.

David’s freedom of dancing in front of the ark and Michal’s portrait as a compassionless, haughty royal offer an opportunity to consider the freedom of religious performance, as well as ways of questioning the norms of masculinity and behavioral stereotypes. This can invite a sideways look at “Barbie Land” and the real world of patriarchy, at “Kenergy” as the male posture of confidence and openness in support of women. Michal and David in 2 Samuel 6 present an opportunity to address patriarchy, gender-bending, and the journeys of women toward setting aside doubts and insecurities so women and men can emerge as multidimensional characters with distinct strengths and weaknesses.


  1. The author thanks the Rev. Dr. Kim Beckmann for commenting on earlier versions of this commentary.