Can you remember a time when you danced with such wild abandon that most of your clothes fell off? Me either. Have you ever thought about dancing before God? Does worship ever inspire such passion and ecstasy that we can’t help but throw our bodies into a dancing prayer? The reading from Samuel describes David dancing with all his might in the presence of God;.
To understand why David was caught up in ecstatic dance, we need a bit of backstory. A bit of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Philistines had captured the Ark of the Covenant back in 1 Samuel 4-6. But it frightened the Philistines and started making everyone sick who was near it, so they decided to return it. For 20 years, it rested in the house of Abinadab a priest, and his priestly sons, Uzzah & Ahio, who had been safeguarding the ark for 20 years after the Israelites recaptured it from the Philistines. They were given the responsibility of keeping the ark out of harms way up in the hills where they lived.
The pattern of the ark was revealed to Moses in Ex. 25. It was a rectangular box to be made of wood. It had a decorative gold border around it forming a rim on the top of the ark. It had a cover made of gold called “the mercy seat”, and matched the dimensions of the ark. At either end of the cover was a gold cherub angel, with wings outstretched. The Ark contained three objects: A golden jar to hold manna, Aaron’s rod, and the tablets of the 10 Commandments & Covenant. The ark was was Holy. God gave directions about how it was to be carried in Exod 25:13; Num 3, 4 & 7, I Chron 15; Deut 10:8; 37:4. At the base of each of the four corners was a fixed ring of gold. Gold plated poles were placed through these holes. The Levites were the ones who were suppose to carry the ark, the poles were to be placed on the shoulders of these specially chosen men, and they were to balance it as they carried it from one place to another. Whenever the ark was with them, they felt they were invincible.
David remembers the Ark and the role it has played in the life of the people as they travelled in the wilderness and how it led them into battle. He remembers how the Ark was an ancient symbol of power and manifestation of the presence of God. It had traveled with the Hebrew people throughout their time in the wilderness and later in the Promised Land. One of David’s recent battles included capturing Jerusalem from the Jebusites. David designates it as his capital city and the location of his government infrastructure and wants to restore the ark to the center of the people’s shared life of worship in Jerusalem. He changed the details of how the ark was to be transported in order to be a bit more expedient. He ordered a new cart to be made for the ark pulled by oxen. The ark wasn’t meant to be put on a cart but was supposed to be carried by priests, on poles, so they could feel the weight of God’s presence with them. The only people who had put the ark on a cart were the Philistines.
There is great anticipation and preparation for this national celebration. Kind of like bringing the World Cup back to the US after 16 years. Go Women’s Soccer.
What the lectionary doesn’t give us and what I have added in for today’s reading is the death of a Levite Priest who is struck dead during this national parade as he assists in transporting the Ark from his father’s house to Jerusalem. What do we make of this story? Why does one person die; and another dance? and yet another scorn the dancing. Three main characters involved in the story with perhaps different approaches to worship.
David chooses Uzzah, and his brother Ahio to be in charge of the transfer of the Ark. This is quite an honor. Perhaps what Uzzah did not know, or David did not know or decided to ignore, is that there were clear instructions from scripture for how the Ark was to be handled. Perhaps the instructions given by God in the law were simply forgotten rather than willfully ignored or disobeyed. The ark had not been carried for many years. It had remained out of circulation, out of use, in the home of Abinidab for 20 years. It is easy to see why no one paid any particular attention to the instructions given Israel by God for its transportation in the wilderness. David employs the latest technological invention and orders a cart to be made pulled by oxen. This was a far more efficient method for moving the Ark. It is also impersonal– it represents the replacement of consecrated persons by an efficient machine.
The ark was not to be touched by human hands but carried only by a designated family of Levites on poles inserted through rings attached to the Ark .
On the way to Jerusalem the oxen who were pulling the cart stumble. The sacred Ark must have been about to fall to the ground. Uzzah puts his hand out to prevent the Ark from tumbling off of the cart. The response? “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; God struck him down and he died before the ark of God.” Presumably because he failed to observe the proper rituals necessary to touch so holy an object. Wasn’t Uzzah sincerely, piously, even instinctively trying to do the right thing? Wouldn’t we have done the same? No good deed ever goes unpunished.
Uzzah’s death brought a disastrous end to David’s dancing parade. The entire musical ensemble–harps, lyres, tambourines, cymbals turned silent, and the national holiday to unify the nation came to an abrupt stop and became a funeral procession instead.
Why did God strike Uzzah dead? Is God not the giver of life. There is no way I can reconcile with a God who strikes people dead? So what am I/we to think? One insight is to look at this story from a symbolic viewpoint rather than a literal one. One possible interpretation is this: it is fatal to attempt to take charge of God. Uzzah thought God was in a box, and thought he was in charge of God. He intended to protect God and to keep God in that box. Uzzah officiously assumes responsibility for keeping God safe from the mud and dust of the world. Uzzah could represent those who try to manage God or predict how God can or cannot work. The eventual consequence of that kind of life is death, because God cannot and will not be managed. God will not be put in a box. We do not take care of God; God takes care of us.
David lived dangerously all his life– living with a psychologically unstable, murderous king, and constantly running from or fighting Philistines, including Goliath. He was always running, hiding, praying, loving. David was never in a position to take care of God; he was always in a position of being taken care of by God. So David learned to live recklessly and exultantly before God. David lived life on the edge, and knew he needed God.
David is not very careful or proper with God. It’s surprising God didn’t strike David dead. He loses his temper with God when he sees the death of Uzzah. He is outrageously furious! When the reality is that God was angry with David, and Uzzah was collateral damage. It was an interruption of his parade and national party, which turned into a funeral procession instead. So he goes home sulking and pouting; the ark is left in the hands of Obed-edom the Gittite, and the family had good fortune and was blessed for the three months it resided there. David overcame his fear and brought the ark into Jerusalem, this time with careful instructions about transporting the ark. He did some homework, and together with the Levites discovered the proper way of handling the Ark, and he admits his mistake to God. He dug around and found an ephod, a priestly garb, perhaps something like an ancient G-string. This was a sign that he was taking moving the ark seriously. Next, he gave up the cart. Finally, after those who bore the ark had taken six steps, they stopped and David offered a sacrifice THEN he danced, ”leaping and dancing” before the Ark of YHWH, dressed scantily in an ephod, with the sound of a single trumpet. Those first six steps were no doubt the most tense steps of the entire journey. After the death of Uzzah, those nearest to the ark were surely nervous about being so close to this sacred box, indeed, to the presence of God Himself. As the journey continued, men’s courage and joy must have increased. Soon there was great celebration as they made their way to the holy city.
Jerusalem was a scene of celebration as the Ark of the Covenant was carried into the city. King David leads the way accompanied by the blowing of the trumpet. He was so excited his emotions could not be contained. He danced before the Lord with all his might. He danced with reckless abandon, no sense of propriety. David had many flaws but a lack of passion was not one of them.
David’s exuberant worship wasn’t that well received by his wife and Saul’s daughter Michal. She watches the parade from a distance, and sees David dancing half-naked. She is the critical observer in this parade? Michal was first embarrassed and then contemptuous of David’s dance. What will people think of the king, her husband, dancing half-naked in the street? She wanted a husband who acted more like the image of the king she had in her mind: respectable, proper, in control, careful. And of course I imagine they had a few relationship issues and needed a bit of marriage counseling.
The lives of Uzzah, David & Michal can teach us about our relationship with God. Reading instructions first, realizing God is bigger than a box, and allowing ourselves to be overcome by the holy spirit moving through in praising God. Otherwise, it can result in a kind of spiritual death. It’s a sad commentary if we’ve become so prim & proper and stuffy in our worship of God. Some call it the frozen chosen. I imagine more of us can relate far more to Michal & Uzzah then to David, and most of the time that is a good thing, as we will see from next week’s lectionary story about David.
Is there the possibility that most of us mimic David so seldom because we’ve lost touch with what God is really doing in our lives; the wonder of it all escapes us. Jubilation is a word we rarely use, perhaps because such a feeling has been limited to sports or political victory.
This story reminds me of Jesus’ story of the prodigal son where the older brother would not join his father’s party for the younger son. It was a time to make merry, but the brother couldn’t go there. Those moments when the unexpected holy descends upon us, is a gift we receive glimpses of every now and then. That’s the time to kick up our heels, and with body and soul make holy fools out of ourselves, dancing an to the giver of all life. Are we going to put our whole selves in, being completely vulnerable and humble before God as we express our joy or are we going to keep up our physical barriers out of fear about what will have to change if God comes into our midst? May we be as fully alive and passionate to God as David was.
Sustain us in the complexity of our humanity as you sustained David— playing the harp of youth, throwing stones at giant problems, loving our friends beyond wisdom, dancing worship, mourning children, breaking our hearts in psalms, and longing for warmth in our old bones. Lord of the Dance, call us into the mystery that we see all around us that proclaims your powerful presence. Remind us that you are life from death, that your name is resurrection. Call us and help us to live into your mystery. Amen.
8Have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. 9In accordance with all that I show you concerning the pattern of the tabernacle and of all its furniture, so you shall make it. 10They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. 11You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a molding of gold upon it all around. 12You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on the one side of it, and two rings on the other side. 13You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 14And you shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, by which to carry the ark. 15The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark; they shall not be taken from it.
I Chronicles 15:15
And the Levites carried the ark of God with the poles on their shoulders, as Moses had commanded in accordance with the word of the Lord.
2 Samuel 6:1-19
David gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. 3They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart 4with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. 5David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
6When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. 7The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. 8David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day. 9David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” 10So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. 11The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.
12It was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; 13and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 16As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. 17They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. 18When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, 19and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.