28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Image Death of Uzza

God ultimately demands appropriate treatment of the containers and carriers of the divine presence.

Giulio Quaglio the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At first, after reading 1 Chronicles 13, and looking into the commentary on this text, it seemed that this story couldn’t have much application to our lives today.

It’s a story about the transport of the Ark of the Covenant from its home of several decades, Kiriath-jearim, to Jerusalem, a journey which is interrupted when Uzzah – whoever he was, one of the Ark-movers – puts out his hand to steady the Ark “for the oxen shook it.” Uzzah dies right there and then, at the threshing floor of Chidon, the setting for this event. Whether there was some deeper significance to the location of this threshing floor, or whether it was only significant because people remembered that this was the place that God “broke out” against the hapless Uzzah, we don’t know. David, who is trying to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, is by turns angry with God, and afraid. Perhaps he realizes that he is dealing with a force he really doesn’t understand, a force that’s potentially fatal. The effort to transport the Ark is put on pause, the Ark is stored away at the “house of Obed-edom” – who, if we track back through the genealogies in 1 Chronicles, earlier and later, seems to have been a Levite who was later associated with the duties of gatekeeper (1 Chronicles 6:22, 26:4, 15), which may explain why the Ark ends up at his house, though perhaps not why his house is in the vicinity in the first place.

So it seems to be one of those stories that people think of when they say things like “the wrathful, punitive God of the Old Testament who will smite a person at the drop of a hat.” But beyond that, what does it really have to say to us? Fortunately or unfortunately, we don’t have to worry about the custody of that Ark, which was carted off to Babylonia a couple of millennia ago. (And come to think of it, God doesn’t seem to have smitten any of the Babylonians for doing that, either. At least not right away.)

But maybe we fail to see the relevance of this story because we think of it primarily as a “plain text” story, a story about actual events. We are so used to doing that with the Bible these days that we have lost touch with other ways of reading Scripture, ways that take the main sense of it to be something different from, something other and deeper than, those actual events. That’s not to say the actual events didn’t actually take place, although sometimes one has to wonder, as reportedly even ancient readers did. Douglas S. Earl, in Reading Joshua as Christian Scripture, quotes the Church Father Origen, who concluded that sometimes God throws something actually impossible or at least wildly implausible into Scripture to wake us up and make us go back to think about the spiritual meaning of the text. It seems that Origen didn’t feel he had to assume that all the events reported in Scripture actually took place as reported, or he wasn’t being a good reader of Scripture. In fact, it seems that he sometimes thought the best reading had to assume that the events hadn’t actually taken place as reported, or at least that they weren’t the main point.

So suppose we look at this story on 1 Chronicles 13 more … thematically. Suppose we don’t ask ourselves “how did they get that Ark onto that cart in the first place without getting smitten?” (One of my first questions, I have to admit.) Suppose we ask ourselves … what is this story really about? What’s a story about that Ark about? What is that Ark about?

If we begin to ask that question, we might begin to consider the nature and purpose of the Ark. It’s something created by people, granted, but it’s something designed by God. (The design is described in Exodus 25:10-22, assuming the unity of the ark with the “mercy seat.”) It’s an object designed for containing and carrying “the covenant” between Israel and God, something given to Israel by God, and for being a place for the presence of God – a place where God “will meet with you” and “deliver to you all my commands for the Israelites,” for God’s people. This physical object which is consecrated and set aside for the purpose of containing and carrying God’s word and God’s presence is more than a little reminiscent, then, of the “temple of the Holy Spirit” Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 6:19, which are for that matter temples of the Holy Spirit by extension, because the original temple of the Holy Spirit, and being that makes human being capable of containing and carrying this Holy Spirit, is Christ, the new Adam, the original container and carrier and originally designed/designated physical/spiritual being.

So if we look at it that way, a story about an Ark might be a story about Christ, or even a story about humanity, human beings, as physical/spiritual beings.

And this story reminds us that this Ark has been more or less warehoused for a long time, and more or less subjected to forgetfulness and indignity. So much so that we can’t tell whether it’s even still intact: according to the account in Exodus, it’s supposed to have carrying poles, and these are supposed to be integral to its design, they’re not supposed to be removed, but there’s no mention of these in the story in Chronicles. The Ark has been through a number of vicissitudes: it’s been dragged around to battles for its magical properties, it’s been captured and returned (the last time on a cart, pulled by milk cows, recall); it’s been, frankly, marginalized. Does anyone alive remember the last time anyone who knew anything treated the Ark with the dignity and respect it deserves as a physical/spiritual entity? Does anyone alive still grasp the meaning of the Ark as an entity that contains and carries within it a moral law, and as a place where a meeting with the commanding presence of God might take place? It’s clear people still think of the Ark as having some significance; maybe a political one, maybe the power to consolidate David’s grip on royal power; or maybe a symbolic one, maybe it will impart an aura of holiness and legitimacy to David’s royal city. But why it would do that – because it’s a physical/spiritual entity sanctified by the Word and Spirit of God – may not be all that clear.

Because if that were clear to the actors involved, it might not be in a cart in the first place, being treated like so much hay or whatever else one puts into a cart. It might have been handled with more care in the first place. We might have heard more about it in the first place, it might have been more central to the narrative so far in the first place, there might have been a whole lot less forgetting about it because it wouldn’t have been so out of sight out of mind in the first place. This story would have been really different, from the beginning. So it seems not to be that clear to the actors in the story that this Ark is as holy a thing as it is. And it seems not to be that clear what it means to interact with something holy – at a minimum, that you find out, that you inquire, what needs to happen, how ought we to approach this physical/spiritual entity, how ought we to treat it?

One commentary I read suggested that Uzzah’s fatal mistake was to be something like the straw that broke the camel’s back, the final indignity in a long string of indiginities that so far have been patiently borne. Uzzah acts like what needs to happen is to keep the Ark in the cart. And what’s that cart about, after all? It may represent a lot of things: ignorant treatment (it’s what the Philistines do with the Ark, after all); the mistaken assumption that this Ark is subject to human control; a reduction of the Ark to a piece of property, albeit an especially valuable one. Uzzah acts like he’s more “clean” than the earth that the Ark would presumably land on if it did shake off the cart. But the earth has never done anything to offend or harm, person or God. Uzzah probably can’t say the same. So Uzzah’s reflex – to treat the Ark like an object rather than like something that contains and carries a life force, to think of himself as a custodian or guardian  rather than as an approacher of something holy – becomes the last straw that draws forth this flash of fatal fury.

And thinking about this story this way made me think … about last straws, and flashes of fury, in the contemporary world, that seem to come from places where physical/spiritual beings have been more or less marginalized, ignored, forgotten and underestimated.

That made me think of what the Black Lives Matter might possibly have in common with the people who never left their hometowns in “fly-over territory,” who reportedly are polling for Trump by a 26 percentage point margin (that story is in the October issue of the Atlantic.) http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/10/trump-supporters-hometowns/503033/

That made me think that this story is eerily relevant. And that, like David in 1 Chronicles, the fear of God might not be such a bad thing, if it prompts us to go back to our sources and remind ourselves … how to approach with the proper respect and care those physical/spiritual entities that are designed and designated to contain and carry the image of God. Otherwise known as … “them.”

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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