I recently preached a sermon series through 1 and 2 Samuel. We know the big stories. Saul and David and Goliath and Jonathan and Bathsheba. They are stories we tell over and over. Some stories, however, we tend to avoid and ignore.
Like the story in 2 Samuel 6. Things are going quite well for David. The elders of the land have recognized him as king. David has taken Jerusalem and made it his city. He has subdued his enemies. It is clear to the reader and to David that the Lord has been with him. All that remains is for him to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem.
You know, the ark of the covenant. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones, flesh melting, avert your eyes power. Stephen Spielberg knew the stories of 2 Samuel well as he made his movie. The Philistines, for instance, had stolen the ark twice only to give it back because horrible things happened to them while it was in their possession. Yahweh’s a little particular about who handles the ark–a fact underscored by the story of poor Uzzah.
Seems that the ark was tottering a little on the cart as they transported the ark to Jerusalem, and so Uzzah reached out to steady the ark. “The 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.” Not a story we tell often in church. And for good reason. This story is one of those that makes the Old Testament a particularly challenging read for me. I’m not down with the picture of God presented here.
Fortunately, David’s not down with it either. The very next verse says, “David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah (burst out on Uzzah) to this day.” I’m glad to know David was angry with the Lord. The text says he was afraid of the Lord. If this is how the power of the Lord is to be experienced, David thinks, then I’m better off not bringing the ark into my city. If this is how God’s power is expressed in the world, then maybe I’m better off without this kind of power just lying around. So, David leaves the ark in the home of Obed-edom the Gittite, a Philistine. David knows how to make a point. Only when he sees that Obed-edom is blessed by having the ark does David bring the ark to Jerusalem. Now, the text doesn’t come right out and say it, but I think the text means to indicate that Yahweh came around to David’s way of thinking. Use your power responsibly or we’ll put the ark in a timeout.
I’ve been thinking about this story a lot, especially as it relates to power and the nature of God. I like Annie Dillard’s lines about worship in Teaching a Stone to Talk.
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.
I like this quote because it says that God is a power outside of our control. And I think it is important for us to have a view of God’s power that cannot be domesticated or made to serve our purposes. Here again, Spielberg gets it right in Raiders. God’s power does not serve the interest of the Nazi’s or anyone else. And unless God has power beyond our control, then the status quo is the final word. The world can be no better than the way we’ve arranged it. And in that world, power and wealth and security tend to clump around the people who already have it.
But I’m with David. I also want to know that God’s power can be lived with. I can’t sojourn with a God who strikes a dude down who reaches out to steady the ark.
The language of “bursting out” is interesting here. It’s used earlier to describe David’s war efforts against the Philistines. (David himself is subject to the critique of blood-thirst in the Samuel stories). “The Lord has burst forth against my enemies before me, like a bursting flood” (2 Sam 5:20). That’s an interesting phrase, and it made me think about power in images related to water. Obviously, the power of a flood is destructive. It’s water everywhere. It takes life. It doesn’t give life.
Which is why I like the image in Psalm 46. “There is a stream which makes glad the city of God.” Without going into a long explanation of the Psalm, I think there are two images of God in the Psalm. The Lord of Hosts, the God of preeminent power in the world who melts the earth with his coming. But also, the God of Jacob. The God who makes himself vulnerable in covenant. The God who limits his power through promises. Here God is experienced not so much as flood bursting out on poor Uzzah or upon us or even upon our enemies. But God is a stream, power within its banks, bringing life to the world. God makes himself vulnerable to us in covenant, his power, though outside our control, brings life and makes glad. David insists, and so should we, that the bursting out give way to blessing. That God have power like a river.