Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

God on an Oxcart

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  II Samuel 6:1-19


When I planned this sermon series, I did not anticipate that we would read this story on the Sunday after the first Republican presidential debate.  In recent decades we have seen an increased alignment of religion and politics, which is pleasing to some folks and alarming to others.  I still occasionally hear people say that there are no politics in the Bible.   To those folks I want to say ďhave you read the gospels?Ē  But if we want to explore politics in the Bible, this text will do nicely.


Letís start with what seems almost a throw-away line.  Verse 16 says, ďAs the Ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Saulís daughter Michal looked down from a window and saw King David leaping and whirling before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart.Ē   I have heard a few preachers use this text to argue that worship should be celebratory and that God is not pleased with Michalís rejection of the kingís dancing before the Lord.  While I agree that worship can and should include dance and celebration, I take issue with that portrayal of Michal. Letís remember that Michal was Saulís daughter.  In those days, women were always defined by the men in their lives.  Michal was Saulís daughter, who made the mistake of falling in love with David.  The Bible tells us twice that she loved David, which is unusual because the biblical writers donít usually care about the feelings of women.  Never are we told that David loves Michal.   By the time Michal fell in love with David, King Saul already perceived him as a threat.  So Saul offered his daughter Michal as a bride to David, with one condition.  That David brings back the foreskins of 100 Philistines.  Saul was hoping that David would get killed while attempting it.  However, David, the golden boy, killed 200 Philistines, brought back their foreskins and married Michal.


Then things heated up between Saul and David, with David living as an outlaw and Saulís armies chasing him for several years.  At some point during that time, Saul gave Michal as wife to a man named Paltiel.   Michal is not mentioned again, until after Saul is dead and David is king of Judah.  By the time she is mentioned again, David has 11 sons and an unknown numbers of wives. David demands her return to him as part of a peace negotiation with the son of Saul who is ruling the rest of Israel.  It says that her husband Paltiel followed her weeping until he was ordered to turn around.   


And now, Michal watches her husband dance in the streets of his city and she despises him.  She was used as a pawn, a political tool, by her father and then by her husband.  She was taken from Paltiel, who may actually have loved her and given back to David, who had more wives than he knew what to do with.  She is consistently identified as Saulís daughter.  Saulís dynasty and Davidís are in competition.  If Michal has a son; he could claim the throne in the name of his grandfather, setting up another civil war with Davidís older sons.  The chapter ends by saying that she never had any children, which, in that culture, is a way of saying that God is displeased with her, presumably because she disapproved of Davidís dancing.  But I find it much more likely that she is childless, because David never enables her to have children, never treats her like a wife. That has everything to do with human politics and nothing to do with whether or not worship should be celebratory.  


* * *


The major focus of this text is not Michal, but the Ark of the Covenant.  It was a wooden box, covered with gold.  On top were two figures whose wings formed a throne for God. It contained the stone tablets of the 10 commandments.  It had travelled with the people of Israel from Mt. Sinai into the Promised Land.  It was a very powerful symbol of the invisible God who travelled with them.  The presence of God was intimately associated with it. Scholars believe that it probably took about 200 years for the Hebrew people to conquer and settle the land of Israel.[1]  So this artifact is very old by the time of our story.


By now, David is king over all Israel.  He has made the former Jebusite city of Jerusalem into his capital, calling it the ďCity of David  He continues to consolidate his power.  What better way than to bring God into his city, making it not just the political, but the spiritual center of Israel?  What better way to do that that with the Ark of the Covenant?


For the previous 20 years, the Ark has not been part of Israelís life.  Back before Saul was king, there was a battle with the Philistines.  Eli was the priest whose sons were corrupt.  They presumed to take the Ark into battle against the Philistines, assuming that God was on their side and that they would win.  They lost that battle, and in the process, the Philistines captured the Ark.  The Philistines thought it was a great prize.  Except that in the first Philistine city to which it was taken, there was a plague of rats and tumors.   The Ark moved from one city to another for 7 months and in every place, it caused destruction and death.  So the Philistines sent it back to Israel. 


It has mostly been ignored for the last 20 years, but now David wants it in Jerusalem.  The text does not tell us anything about what God wants, or whether David even thinks about asking what God wants before setting out to get it.


He takes a huge number of men with him.  They load the Ark on an ox cart and start to haul it to Jerusalem with lots of fanfare.  But one of the ox stumbles and maybe it looks like the Ark is going to fall off the cart, so a man named Uzzah reaches out to steady it.  And God strikes him dead on the spot.  So David abandons the plan and leaves the Ark of the Lord at the nearest place, the home of a man named Obed-edom. 

This is a very strange story.  It might be helpful to know that there were strict rules about carrying the Ark.  It was supposed to be carried by priests using long poles placed through the rings on its sides.  It was not ever supposed to be on an oxcart.  Touching the Ark was forbidden on pain of death.  As Uzzah quickly learned. 


But even if we know those things, the story doesnít work for us.  We believe in a God of forgiveness and second chances. 


So why does Uzzah die?  Does God actually strike him dead for touching the Ark? Modern people have a hard time with this portrayal of God.  There is even a theory that the Ark, which was made of wood, coated on both sides with gold, could have somehow built up enough static electricity to kill Uzzah. If we buy that theory, then we can blame the Ark itself, and not God for Uzzahís death.  I think sometimes we preachers feel like we have to defend God; we have to apologize for some of the ways that God is portrayed in the Scriptures.  But I donít think I can defend God and I donít think God needs my defense.  There are definitely aspects of God which are beyond human understanding.  We call that mystery.


Even though I donít think we can explain this, Iím still intrigued by what one preacher said.  The Rev. Craig Barnes is a Presbyterian minister, now president of Princeton Seminary.  In a sermon about this text, he suggested that Uzzah was just being careful with the ark while David was dancing around with castanets at the head of the parade.  David was the one who made the impulsive move to retrieve the ark, without taking care to bring along the priests with poles for carrying it.  Rev. Barnes says, ďWhy did the Lordís anger burn against Uzzah?  Why didnít God strike down David?  I think it is because God has never been as offended by our impulsiveness as by our carefulness.Ē[2]


He goes on to say that God will not boxed in, hauled around by our careful plans.  He is probably right in saying that many of us live too cautiously, and that some impulsivity would indicate a more lively faith.  About that being Godís rationale for Uzzahís death, Iím not yet convinced. 


What is clear to me is that at the time of this event, the people were sure of the absolute reality of Godís presence, a presence so powerful that lives were at stake.  And I wonder if I can get a hold of that kind of faith.


I notice three ways that David responds to this reality.  First, when Uzzah dies, he is angry and afraid.  He says, ďHow can the Ark come into my care?Ē  So he leaves the Ark at the home of Obed-edom for three months.  This first response is one of avoidance.  He just ignores the Ark, thereby avoiding all thoughts of God.


But then word comes to David that Obed-edom is being blessed by the very presence of the Ark.  And David, of course, wants his share of that blessing.  So he goes back to retrieve the Ark.  Only this time he treats it with the proper respect.  It is carried the right way and accompanied with sacrifices.  David even wears a linen ephod, which is the garment of a priest, to demonstrate his respect.  It appears that he has learned that God will not be captured or contained.  God will be not be hauled around or used to meet anyoneís purposes.


And then Davidís ultimate response is celebration, dancing and shouting as they bring the Ark into Jerusalem. 


The pattern I see is anger and fear leading to avoidance of God, respect for God as evidenced by religious ritual and then full-on joyful celebration of Godís presence in community.  I wonder if pieces of that pattern are also true at different times in our lives and if being able to name our own situation might sometimes help us move into the joy and celebration we long to experience.


What I am coming to see in these ancient stories is a very human man, a person who is sinful and faithful at the same time, one who is politically savvy and manipulative and still being used by God to lead Godís people.   I see a God who is involved, who is blessing David, but also a Power to be reckoned with, a Being who will not hauled around to be used for personal or political purposes by anyone, whether they are Godís identified enemies or Godís identified friends. 


The reality of Godís presence is so powerful that lives are at stake. It is always a bad plan to try to haul God on an oxcart.     In an election year, in any year, perhaps that is a timely message.  Thanks be to God. 


[1] One such scholar is Anna Grant-Henderson http://otl.unitingchurch.org.au/index.php?page=2-samuel-6-1-19

[2] Rev. Craig Barnes, Time to Get Over It, October 17, 2010 http://www.shadysidepres.org/sites/default/files/2010_10_17.pdf