That Slippery Old Ark - Reflections on 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, July 8, 2024

That Slippery Old Ark

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher

          After the wild success of the first Indiana Jones movie, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” (1981), interest in the Hebrew Bible’s ark of the covenant was running high. Just last Sunday in my church here in Los Angeles, a young boy accosted me to ask breathlessly about the fate of that object. “Where did it go,” he asked, and “Where is it now?” I assured him it was not hidden in some US government warehouse, nor was any reputable archaeologist digging for it in some barren place. The fact is we have no earthly idea where it may have gone, nor when it may have disappeared, nor if it even existed in the first place. 

          Hebrew ‘aron means “chest” or “box,” and if you want to construct one, you need to read the fairly detailed instructions found in the latter part of the book of Exodus (Ex.37:1-9). There is of course little question that the description offered there is a much later attempt to give a picture of what the box may have looked like, if and when it was first constructed as a moveable tabernacle, said to contain the tablets of the Torah, given to Moses by YHWH on Mt. Sinai. With all of this material, we are clearly in the realm of myth and legend, but it does seem likely that such a box did in fact exist at one time, given its portrayal in numerous texts from Israel’s very early days. 

          It was seen both as some kind of war palladium and as a cultic object, used in worship, that is a holy object that accompanied the armies of YHWH into battle, providing aid to victory against the enemies of the God of Israel and a ritual chest for specific occasions of worship. From the very beginning, the ark was a cultic and political symbol. Prior to the kingship of Saul, the ark rested in Shiloh, and was under the supervision of the priest Eli and his apprentice at the shrine, Samuel. During the days of Samuel’s leadership of Israel, the ark was brought out of Shiloh to prevent a defeat at the hands of the Philistines, but it did not work! The Philistines captured the ark and put it in the temple of their God, Dagon. But its 7-month stay there was a disaster for the Philistines as the power of the ark completely overwhelmed Dagon, so that his head and heads were cut off by the ark’s power. In desperation, the Philistines sent the box back to Israel, where its strange and uncontrollable power was demonstrated again as YHWH, the text says, “killed seventy men” who either merely “greeted” the ark’s return or “looked into it” (1 Sam.6:19), the text being unfortunately less than clear. In either case, the ark is hardly something to be trifled with! 

          That sets the stage for David’s desire to bring the ark to his new capital city of Jerusalem. And he does so with the greatest of pomp and fanfare. But before he can secure the peculiar thing, its magic recurs, as an innocent guard of the object, Uzzah by name, attempts to steady it lest it slips to the ground with the awful result that “ the anger of YHWH 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” (2 Sam.6:7). In response, David is first angry at YHWH and then is afraid of YHWH, and questions, “How can the ark of YHWH come to me?” (2 Sam.6:10). It is obvious that David wants the ark as a sign of religious sanction for his new regime; he has his city and now desires an ancient religious symbol as a sign that YHWH has blessed his kingship. 

          Because of the tragedy of the terrible and inexplicable death of Uzzah, David seems to be helpless in the face of the ark itself, the chest of the mysterious God. Just to be sure, he sends the ark to reside in the house of Obed-edom, an apparent ally of the king, to see how his farm fares in the presence of the object. Finally, he continues the parade to bring the ark to his city, but this time he moves much more slowly and carefully, sacrificing and vowing all along the route up to Jerusalem. David himself, dressed in a linen ephod, a skimpy sort of loincloth, leads the procession, dancing wildly before the ark, demonstrating to the citizens of Jerusalem his connection to the ark, and his conviction that the ark represents the very presence of YHWH. Once the ark finds its way into the city, David ensconces it in the tent of meeting. And when Solomon builds the temple, after the death of David, he takes the ark and places it in the temple itself. After that, the Bible is essentially silent on the ark’s fate. In fact, in Jeremiah 3:16 it is made quite clear that the days of the ark are over: after the exile to Babylon and after the return of some of the people of Israel to their land, “they shall no longer say, ‘the ark of the covenant of YHWH.’ It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; nor shall another one be made.” 

          And thus, the Ark of the Covenant fades from history, only to be resurrected for the purposes of Hollywood blockbusters. I suggest that this tale in 2 Sam.6 indicates that any sacred object, connected to God, is not some plaything for any king to employ as he desires or thinks he needs. Such objects are not to be used in any way that a human, no matter how powerful, imagines she may. There remains something mysterious and uncontrollable about our God, and we, who tend too often to want to bring God into our way of thinking or doing, to sanctify in the name of God, what we already wish to do, need never to forget that strangeness in our God. 

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