YEAR B: PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 10 and July 16)
2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
The struggle for power between David and Saul has ended, and David has been recognized as king by all the tribes of Israel, but the conflict between Israel and the Philistines remains through the early chapters of 2 Samuel. In Israelís struggle to survive, we return to the central image of Israelís faith, the ark of the Covenant. Although Jerusalem has been established as a political and military centre by David it lacks the one legitimating symbol Ė the ark representing the divine presence and blessing.
The ark of the Covenant is first described in Exod 25:10-22. The description given there envisages a box of acacia wood, overlaid with gold and with four rings at the corners so that it can be carried using poles. On top of the ark is to sit the mercy seat, also overlaid with gold, at either end of which is a cherub, a winged creature usually a composite of other creatures such as a lion and eagle (cf. Ps 18:10: ĎAnd he rode upon a cherub and did fly: and he was seen upon the wings of the windí). What is described here is really a throne (cf. 1 Sam 4:4) with the ark as the footstool (cf. 1 Chron 28:2). It is significant that figures of cherubim were used widely in the ancient Near East for the arms of thrones; they reminded everyone that the one who sits upon the throne rules the cosmos. In Israelís case a copy of the covenant between Yahweh and Israel was to be placed inside the ark. Deut 10:2 has a slightly different view of the ark and specifies that the tablets of the law given to Moses were to be found in the ark.
During the early years of settlement, the tabernacle and ark were located at Shiloh (30 km north of Jerusalem) where the judge and prophet, Samuel, lived. Israel had been severely beaten by the Philistines and decided to bring the ark of the covenant down from the hills at Shiloh and into battle so that they might be saved from their enemies (1 Samuel 4). The Philistines knew that the ark represented the power of Israelís God. They were terrified but galvanized to fight even harder. Thus, they captured the ark and took it to the temple of Dagon in Ashdod, one of their major cities (1 Sam 5:1). As the story is told in 1 Samuel 5 things did not go well for the Philistines and after seven months the five kings of the Philistines escorted it with offerings back into Israelite territory. After some further movement it remained at Kiriath-jearim, just 10 km west of Jerusalem, for about twenty years (1 Sam 7:1-2).
With Davidís capture of Jerusalem (see last Sundayís reading), he gained the support of king Hiram of Tyre in Phoenicia and began to build a capital and a kingdom. Defeat of the Philistines did not come easily (2 Sam 5:17-25), but when it did David brought the ark to Jerusalem. However, the ark was not a benign object. It represented the presence of God among the people and as such shared in the holiness, the otherness, of God. The story omitted from todayís reading, which sounds strange and unjust in our ears, makes that point (2 Sam 6:6-11). When it is finally brought to Jerusalem it is done with appropriate liturgical activity and a great deal of celebration. Worship and celebration frequently went together in Israel. But more was at stake than just Davidís own intentions in this act. The event was the culmination of a journey of Exodus out of the Egypt and through the wilderness, a journey throughout which the people had relied on the presence of God for protection and for sustenance.
David himself danced exuberantly before the ark as it came to its resting place, the tent David had prepared for it (vv. 16-17). It is clear from v. 16 that Davidís wife Michal, the daughter of Saul, was not at all pleased with this. The story of Michal is taken up following todayís reading (vv. 20-23). It is unclear why Michal despised David. She couches her critique of David in terms of Ďuncoveringí himself before his servantsí maids, like a commoner might do (v. 20). There were other issues about which Michal might have had complaint. As a daughter of Saul and as now virtually a prisoner of David she may have harboured feelings for her fatherís house. She may have been jealous of the other wives the king undoubtedly had. She may have also been angry at being taken from her husband Paltiel (2 Sam 3:15-16).
While the focus of the todayís reading is on the ark and David is the main character, the subject of basic interest is the God of Israel, here described twice as ĎLord of Hostsí referring to the Lordís heavenly armies (vv. 2 and 18). This suggests a warrior conception of God in keeping with the dominance of military struggle throughout the books of Samuel. Nevertheless, the focus is on the presence of this God with his people. The presence of the ark in Jerusalem no doubt undergirded Davidís rise to power but we should not lose sight of at least one thing about the ark in this story. The ark remains, above all, a portable object lodged in a dwelling that was meant to be portable, a tent. It would not be until Solomonís time that a permanent structure would be built to house it and take over the arkís role as the symbol of divine presence. In these early years of the monarchy, the portability of the ark and tent would always stand as an affront to any, including the king, who would try to usurp the perceived power of the ark for their own ends. In other words, it challenged all who in various ways would seek to secure divine presence and blessing to further personal goals. Neither Israel nor its leaders were to ever have God in their pocket. Preachers might like to focus on ways in which, even without realizing it, we can seek to exploit the presence of God in our midst.
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