By Mother Rebecca
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand … and all the people with him set out and went … to bring up from there the ark of God. 2 Samuel 6:1
So begins this week’s Old Testament reading, a story I affectionately call “David and the Lost Ark.” Are you hearing John Williams “Raiders March”? I hope so. I’ve been humming it all week as I’ve thought about the newly-crowned King David setting out to recover the lost ark of the covenant.
This summer, we’ve been reading the account of the rise of the monarchy in ancient Israel. So far, we’ve heard God’s people ask Samuel to appoint a king over them. We’ve watched Samuel anoint David, Jesse’s youngest son. We’ve drawn near on a battlefield where David, not yet king, faces Goliath with nothing but a sling and some stones. We’ve watched as Saul, the first king of the Israelites, dies in battle. And we’ve watched David rise to power. Along the way, we’ve viewed these stories from 30,000 feet; we’ve missed much. We’ve missed power grabbing (on both sides), scheming, murder, and damage control. We’ve also missed a back story about the ark of the covenant. And so, when we arrive for worship this weekend and hear that David gathers thirty thousand men to bring the ark of God to Jerusalem, we might wonder where the ark has been and how it got lost.
Cast your mind back to the beginning of our summer journey when Eli the priest, that old and blind father of scoundrels, meets Hannah, a barren woman praying urgently for a son. She conceives, bears Samuel, and (after he’s weaned) takes him to Shiloh “to minister to the Lord, in the presence of the priest Eli” (1 Sam 2:11). Samuel serves God under Eli’s leadership until, late one night as Eli sleeps, God speaks to Samuel. It’s a great story that you can read in 1 Samuel 3. God tells Samuel that Eli and his scoundrel sons are finished leading God’s people. It is clear that God intends that Samuel will take Eli’s place. There’s just one problem: Eli and his sons are still alive and have no plans to cede power.
Cue the Philistines, long-time enemies of the Israelites. They rise up against God’s people, killing 4,000 in their initial approach. Desperate, the elders of Israel hatch a plan. “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (1 Sam 4:3). It’s not a bad idea. The ark is an ornately decorated box in which God lives. It holds the two stone tablets of the covenant, a bit of manna which fed God’s people in the wilderness, and Aaron’s staff. It holds the outward and visible signs of God’s grace – God’s presence with – the Israelites. Bringing the ark to the battle is the equivalent of bringing God to the battle. Even the Philistines know this: they’re terrified when they learn of the ark’s arrival. What no one knows is that God has plans for this battle – plans that do not involve Israel’s victory. The story continues: “There was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot-soldiers. The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli … died” (1 Sam 4:10-11). When Eli learns the ark has been captured, he falls to the ground and dies. Eli’s daughter-in-law dies the same day in childbirth. Her last words are: “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured (1 Sam 4:21). Samuel now leads in Eli’s place; but the ark is gone.
Under Samuel’s leadership and with God’s help, the Israelites push the Philistines out of their land, and God’s people enjoy a season of relative peace. The Philistines, however, do not fare so well. They take the ark into their temple and place it next to the image of their god, Dagon. The next day, they find Dagon prostrate at the foot of the ark. They prop him up, but the next day he’s prostrate again and his head and hands are separated from his body. Soon, all the people of the city are plagued with tumors. Over the next seven months, the Philistines move the ark from city to city throughout their land and the plague spreads as the ark travels. Finally, the residents of Ekron gather together to prevent the ark from entering their city and demand that it be returned to its own country.
You can read the story of the ark’s return in 1 Samuel 6. It ends up in the land of Kiriath-jearim, in the house of Abinadab. We don’t hear about it again until chapter 14, when Saul sends for the ark to take into battle against the Philistines. It’s funny (and by funny, I mean not funny) how leaders have a tendency to forget their people’s history and past mistakes, forge ahead with ill-considered and self-interested plans, and lead entire nations to repeat the sins of their past. At least this time, the Israelites don’t lose the ark. After this battle, it makes its way back to the house of Abinadab.
In our reading this weekend, David has become king over all Israel. It’s tempting to think that because he’d been chosen by God and anointed by Samuel, there would have been a peaceful transition of power from Saul to David. Not so! During his final years, Saul becomes aware that David is his rival and repeatedly attempts to kill him. David flees with his supporters and lives on the run until Saul’s death. Last week, we heard that after Saul died David reigned at Hebron over Judah for seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem over all Israel and Judah for 33 years. During those first seven years when David ruled only Judah, Saul’s son, Ishbaal, ruled over the other eleven tribes. During those seven years, the house of Saul and the house of David are entrenched ina long war. Little by little, David gains ground until Ishbaal’s second-in-command defects to David’s side and agrees to bring the remaining eleven tribes under David’s rule.
Now David steps into leadership over a deeply-divided nation. We know something about that, don’t we? David’s first task is to consolidate power – to hold the country together. This is what’s happening in this weekend’s reading. David chooses Jerusalem as the capital city, then amasses 30,000 men – a great show of power – to retrieve the ark from its remote resting place. Along the way, David sacrifices to God, reinforcing that he is God’s chosen leader. He dances in priestly vestments, further reinforcing this connection. The procession ends in Jerusalem, David’s chosen capital city, where David offers more sacrifices to God, then blesses and feeds the people.
The lost ark is home. God lives in Jerusalem where David, God’s chosen leader, rules over all Israel. Tune in next week to hear the next installment of the rise of the monarchy!