This week’s Old Testament reading is one of those passages that brings with it all sorts of temptations for a reader: one could easily dismiss the death of Uzzah as “primitive religion,” the sort of thing that the ethics of the Torah and the oracles of the prophets would supplant and lead Israel to a more palatable sort of faith. One could stamp one’s foot and deny that there’s any scandal here at all: to be scandalized, one could say, only reveals that one is looking at the story through “human eyes” instead of whatever alternative is available to mortals (but only the ones who agree with my theology, of course). One could regard the story as royal propaganda without remainder, a shocking display of the raw power that comes with David to the throne of Jerusalem. One could read this story in all sorts of ways, and none of them satisfies.
Perhaps that’s the point.
When I do preach this 2 Samuel text next Sunday (I’m preaching 6:1-15, not skipping as much as the lectionary would have one skip), I’m sure I’ll fall to my own sorts of temptations. My own tendency when confronted with this sort of frightening moment is first to remember others in the Bible who faced the sort of arbitrariness that strikes Uzzah. The prime candidate, of course, is Saul. With enemy armies bearing down on him and the prophet Samuel nowhere to be found, Saul takes upon himself the duty to preserve his army and performs the rituals that the prophet has reserved for himself before battles. After all, sometimes YHWH does not mind such breaches in ritual etiquette. (Don’t believe me? Ask yourself what right David, while on the run from Saul, has to the consecrated bread at Nob. Then ask yourself if the allegorizing your just performed–and I know you did– would have convinced Samuel, had you done the same for him.) But when Saul puts the welfare of Israel over the scruples of the tarrying prophet, his fate is the same as Uzzah’s when he puts the integrity of the Ark, threatened by the stumbling ox, above the unstated command (think on that for a moment, and remember Saul) not to touch it.
I’m usually averse to psychologizing individual characters in Biblical narratives, but I will hold that, on an atmospheric, big-picture level, that anxiety that begins with Saul comes to govern this story, and when David refuses to let the Ark into Jerusalem, he reveals an attitude towards YHWH that plays itself out through the Psalms and Job and eventually into the grand tradition of apocalyptic, namely the practice of calling YHWH to task rather than asserting that anything that happens must inherently stand as just. In an essay that I read recently, Walter Brueggemann holds that Israel took a clear stance, in the way that the faithful pray, on the Euthyphro dilemma. (Of course, they did this well before Plato wrote the Euthyphro.) Although there are passages in which prophets call the ways of God alien to the ways of mortals, the actual prayers and Psalms of lament point to a faith that regards justice as intelligible and, more often than not, unrealized in the world that God governs. From the cries in the Psalms to preserve the righteous against the wicked to the cries of “How long?” in the Apocalypse, the faithful in the Bible call on God to bring into reality a justice that resides already in their imaginations. Certainly there are dangers to such a stance, namely the possibility that one’s current picture of justice might turn into an idol, closed to the sometimes-shattering revelations that YHWH brings to the faithful. But even in the face of that danger, the faithful call to Heaven for justice. And that’s Bible.
The point of that long digression is that, in David’s refusal, the paradigm of the Psalms and of Job and of the Apocalypse plays itself out in that troubling narrative of the house of David. Even if he sings no Psalm of lament in this chapter of Samuel, nonetheless he refuses to admit a God who destroys men, Saul even before Uzzah, with such arbitrariness. Only when God’s blessings begin to surround the Ark does David make plans once more to bring it into the city. And when he does, he dances with all of his might, forsaking the dignity even of a Palestinian warlord (which seems to be what offends Michal later) in his abandon. That movement, the crazed sway between tough-minded calls for justice and unreserved worship, is what still compels the imagination when we read the Old Testament carefully.
In short, that’s my temptation when I read this passage.
May God ever draw us into the dance of worship.