David’s political enemies have rather conveniently met their ends, and David’s power base is now fairly well established in Jerusalem. His next step is to consolidate his power even more strongly by taking control over Israel’s religion.

David brings 30,000 soldiers with him when he goes to reclaim the ark. Since there’s no mention of fighting and no apparent reason to worry about an attack, it seems probably that the soldiers are more of an honour guard for the ark, and the number is meant to show the extent of David/Israel’s devotion.

He goes with the people who were with him from Baalejudah, a place name we haven’t encountered before. My Study Bible suggests that the name is “either an error or another name for Kiriathjearim” (p.382).

If you’ll remember from 1 Samuel 7 that the ark is being kept by Abinadab and his son Eleazar, who are apparently acting as impromptu priests. It’s still there when David comes for it, and Abinadab’s sons – Uzzah and Ahio (perhaps Eleazar was sick that day) – are in charge of driving the cart bearing the ark. Like the Philistines in 1 Samuel 6, the Israelites use a new/virgin cart for the job. Perhaps the Philistines had attempted to mimic an Israelite practice, perhaps the Israelites adopted it from the Philistines, perhaps both were using a tradition that was floating around in the area, perhaps the later authors/editors projected the practice back onto both… I think it’s clear that there are many possibilities, even without the mention here of dairy cows. The idea that a new cart should be used is fairly basic symbolic stuff, so it’s entirely plausible that the same tradition would arise independently in more than one culture or cult. God stuff is too special to just re-use that old cart with the chip in the wheel that you have lying around.

The ark’s procession was apparently a pretty significant event. Not only did it have a 30,000 strong honour guard, it also had the entire “house of Israel […] making merry” (2 Sam. 6:5) with music and shouting.

The accident

Unfortunately, the ark cart (arkart?) starts to tip when the oxen stumble at Nacon. Presumably hoping to prevent disaster, Uzzah puts out his hand to steady the ark and is stricken dead. When this happens, the area is renamed Perezuzzah, or “breaking forth upon Uzzah.”

The obvious objection to this story goes something like this: “Would God have rathered Uzzah simply let the ark fall to the ground?”

Of course, we all know the answer to that. We’ve seen enough to know that good things don’t come to the people who let the ark fall off a cart. So why was Uzzah punished for surely preventing some massive plague?

I’ve used the analogy of radioactive material before. In the context of many of these stories, God is power; pure, raw, wild power. When someone is tasked with transporting radioactive materials, they need to have the proper training, the proper equipment, and the proper containment procedures. Similarly, God needs his trained handlers all wearing regulation safety clothes, his lead-lined box, his property procedures.

It’s like the ending of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the end (spoilers don’t count on 30 year old movies that you should have seen a hundred times already anyway), when the ark is opened, Indy knows that the power contained in the ark doesn’t discriminate between goodies and Nazis. A breach of protocol – in that case, seeing the power – means melty-face, no matter who you are.

That’s the ark.

David, understandably, is pretty freaked out by the incident and decides that maybe having the ark under his control isn’t worth all the risk. Instead of bringing the ark all the way to Jerusalem, he dumps it on Obededom the Gittite. He’s a “no nukes is good nukes” kind of guy.

At least until he finds out that Obededom’s household has been blessed and is prospering in the three months the ark has been kicking around. Suddenly, David is interested again.

No information is given about this Obededom other than his identity as a Gittite, and that his name apparently means “worshipper of Edom” (New Bible Commentary, p.305), presumably the name of a deity. Gittites are from Gath, though, which suggests that he might have been a Philistine (Gath is one of the five cities of the Philistine pentapolis). So why was the ark of the covenant left in the hands of someone who was a Philistine and possibly not a YHWHist?

It could be that David was so freaked out by the ark that he decided to dump it back into Philistine hands, hoping to give them another good dose of tumours or haemorrhoids or whatever happened in 1 Samuel 5. It could be that this is an alternative “how we got the ark from the Philistines” origin story. It could be that Obededom was a friend of David’s from his Philistia days. My Study Bible brings up another possibility: “Gath means ‘wine press,’ and there were several towns by that name in Israelite territory” (p.382).

The second leg

After three months and no disaster, David returns to Obededom to collect the ark. It’s unclear how Obededom felt about having the instrument of his prosperity taken away from him so soon, though I’d like to think that he was well compensated for the danger of housing the ark.

David Dancing Before the Ark, by C Malcolm Powers

David Dancing Before the Ark, by C Malcolm Powers

Once again, the ark sets out accompanied by much fanfare. This time, it makes it only six paces before David starts making sacrifices. Instead of the whole band, this time they have only horns and loads of shouting. The centrepiece of the parade, though, is David himself, who dances ahead of the ark wearing a “linen ephod” (2 Sam. 6:14). “Ephod” clearly has multiple meanings, since it’s hard to imagine David dancing around while wearing the box that houses the divination stones. Rather, it’s likely something akin to the apron-like garment described in Exodus 28:6-14.

Which segues nicely into a tangent. The ephod tends to be something worn by priests, and David is making sacrifices (something that landed Saul in a great deal of hot water in 1 Sam. 13:10-13). By participating in this way, David seems to acting in the role of priest. The evidence of changing rules regarding the priesthood is something I’d like to come back to in a later post.

There’s a tradition that has David doing his ark dance wearing his ephod and only his ephod. This is because when the ark approaches Jerusalem, David’s wife Michal looks out the window and “saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart” (2 Sam. 6:16).

The ark is housed in a tent – a nomadic symbol appropriated by city dwellers. David make some more offerings, then distributes all the food. Finally, he goes home to bless his household, but Michal intercepts him.

She reprimands him for “uncovering himself” (2 Sam. 6:20), suggesting that he really was wearing nothing more than an apron. She seems particularly piqued that he did this before the eyes of servant girls, acting like a vulgar fellow rather than a king. David retort that he was not uncovered before servant girls, but rather before God, “who chose me above your father” (2 Sam. 6:21). In the marital biz, we call that the “point of no return.”

So was David naked?

I think that there’s some wordplay here. It’s hard, of course, to read the text in this way because of the language barrier, but I think it’s possible that we aren’t meant to read “uncovering” literally. Rather, it could mean that David is appearing stripped of his regal accoutrements, like “one of the vulgar fellows” (2 Sam. 6:20). He’s also stripped off his regal dignity, perhaps taking up a position in the crowd, among the servant girls.

This interpretation makes sense given David’s reply, that he was not uncovered before the servant girls, but rather before God. In other words, it isn’t debasing himself before the people, but rather taking up his appropriate status before God.

I suspect that there’s also meant to be something of a joke here about jealous wives, given that only the servant girls are mentioned.

With a final comment about how the servant girls appreciate his actions even if his wife doesn’t, the fight appears to be over and we’re told that “Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death” (2 Sam. 6:23). Though, again, pieces are missing from the story. Did God support David’s actions and rebuke Michal for complaints by cursing her with bareness? Or are we to understand that this fight severed their relations permanently? In other words, is Michal’s apparent barrenness God’s doing, or David’s?

Why was Michal angry?

We might ask ourselves why Michal was angry at David. A literal reading of the passage has Michal seeing her husband prancing about near-naked, upset that he’s revealing himself to other women. In this reading, Michal is the jealous wife.

If David’s “uncovering” has to do with a failure to act/dress in a manner befitting a king, Michal’s concern becomes far more understandable. After all, the monarchy is still young, and the first two kings – Michal’s father and brother – didn’t fare too well. Given that her fortunes are tied to David’s, it makes sense for her to get antsy at any display of weakness or un-kingly behaviour.

Her complained may also be religious. Ishbosheth, her brother, is elsewhere called Ishbaal, and her nephew, Mephibosheth, is elsewhere called Mephibbaal. This suggests the possibility that Saul’s God was not YHWH, at least not exclusively. Michal’s anger therefore might be due to her husband’s blasphemy.

A final possibility is that the whole episode is propagandistic. David’s rise to power, even sanitized as it is in the text, suggests an awful lot of opportunism. His enemies just happen to be assassinated, he just happen to be forced to fight as a mercenary for the enemies of his country, etc. It might be said that he only married Michal so that he would have some claim to Israel’s crown.

This possibility gets refuted in 1 Sam. 18:20, where the author is very careful to point out that it is Michal who initiates the affair between them. David didn’t marry her for political expediency! She married him for love!

Here, the story of her complaint could have been invented (or reinterpreted) to explain her being set aside. It’s conceivable that David, now secure with his crown, had no more use for her, so he essentially abandoned her. It could even be that she (and her family) had supporters who complained about it and accused David of political manoeuvring.