I’ve been reading the books of Judges and 1 Samuel recently. These books chronicle a time of transition and trouble in ancient Israel’s history. After Joshua’s death, Israel struggled with settling into the promised land and staying faithful to God. They compromised, their hearts strayed from true worship, and their enemies enslaved them. God raised up judges like Gideon, Deborah, and Samson to rescue His people and turn them back to Him but their recommitment never lasted long. Then, when we get to Samuel’s day, even the priesthood was so corrupt that Eli’s sons were stealing sacrifice meat and sleeping with women who served in the tabernacle (1 Sam 2:12-7, 22-25). It got so bad their father called them evil and Yahweh decided to kill them, replacing Eli’s family’s priesthood with Samuel as a prophet and judge.
The last thing Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas, did was go into battle with the Israelites against the Philistines. Israel had just lost a battle where 4,000 men died and they thought if they went back with the Ark of the Covenant they’d fare better next time. Just having the ark there doesn’t mean God is with you, though. “The Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated,” losing 30,000 men. Moreover, “God’s ark was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain” (1 Sam. 4:1-12).
You can read how the Philistines handled capturing the ark in 1 Samuel 5:1-6:16. In short, they realized beating Israel’s God was not as easy as beating His disobedient people. Their idols fell before the ark and their people were hit by plagues of tumors and mice. It wasn’t long before they sent the ark back, deciding it was far more trouble than it was worth. What happens next is the event that inspired today’s post. Israel rejoiced at getting the ark back, but they misjudged something and many of them also died for how they treated God’s ark.
The people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it. The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there, where there was a great stone. Then they split the wood of the cart and offered up the cows for a burnt offering to Yahweh. The Levites took down Yahweh’s ark and the box that was with it, in which the jewels of gold were, and put them on the great stone; and the men of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices the same day to Yahweh.1 Samuel 6:13-15,WEB
There’s so much joy here when the ark came back. It just rolls up in a wood cart pulled by two cows and all this seems like such a perfect, felicitous event. There’s a big stone here that fulfills the requirement to use uncut stones for an altar, we’ve got wood for a burnt offering, a couple cows to sacrifice, and the Philistines even sent some gold along. What could possibly go wrong now?
He struck of the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into Yahweh’s ark, he struck fifty thousand seventy of the men. Then the people mourned, because Yahweh had struck the people with a great slaughter. The men of Beth Shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before Yahweh, this holy God? To whom shall he go up from us?” They sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath Jearim, saying, “The Philistines have brought back Yahweh’s ark. Come down and bring it up to yourselves.”1 Samuel 6:19-21
This is such a huge number of people dead that the NET Bible translators only use the number 50,070 “reluctantly” because it “finds almost unanimous textual support in the … ancient versions” (footnote on 1 Sam. 6:19). Considering the high death tole for treating God’s ark with irreverence, it’s little wonder that the people of Beth Shemesh contacted the people of Kiriath Jearim begging them to take the ark away.
A Serious Irreverence
We can get additional insight into what might have happened here, and how the people responded, by looking at a very similar incident during King David’s reign. After becoming king over all Israel, moving into Jerusalem, and winning a battle against the Philistines (2 Sam. 5), David decided it was time to bring the ark of God from Kiriath Jearim to Jerusalem.
They loaded the ark of God on a new cart and carried it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart. They brought it with the ark of God from the house of Abinadab on the hill. Ahio was walking in front of the ark, while David and all Israel were energetically celebrating before the Lord, singing and playing various stringed instruments, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.
When they arrived at the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and grabbed hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord was so furious with Uzzah, he killed him on the spot for his negligence. He died right there beside the ark of God.2 Samuel 6:3-7, NET
In the Torah, God provided detailed instructions for how to move His ark. There were rings in the four feet of the ark and poles through the rings, and that’s what priests used to carry the ark (Ex. 25:10-22). Carrying the ark and other holy items was the responsibility of “the sons of Kohath.” They weren’t allowed to look at or touch the most holy things, though. They could only carry them after the sons of Aaron wrapped them in layers of fabric and sealskin (Num. 4:1-20).
Here in 2 Samuel, David and the people put the ark in a cart instead of having priests carry it. There’s also no indication that the ark was covered, as it should have been. God didn’t strike anyone down for those offenses. But He did kill Uzzah for grabbing the ark. Various translations call this an “error” (WEB), an “irreverent act” (NIV), or “offense” (CJB). It was one step way too far in mishandling a holy thing. It did not demonstrate respect for God or an understanding of who He is.
When God’s Not What you Thought
Before Uzzah died, David was “energetically celebrating before the Lord, singing and playing various stringed instruments, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.” He was happy. He thought he was doing the right thing. Then God did something he hadn’t expected and it made David both angry and afraid.
David was angry because the Lord attacked Uzzah; so he called that place Perez Uzzah, which remains its name to this very day. David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How will the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” So David was no longer willing to bring the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. David left it in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite.2 Samuel 6:8-15, NET
This reminds me of the Israelites standing at Mount Sinai. God warned them to purify themselves and stay at a respectful distance from the mountain while He was there. They were terrified, and said they wanted to go even farther than God asked them to; they wanted Moses between them and God rather than directly interacting with someone so awe-inspiring and dangerous (Ex. 19:1-20:21; Heb. 12:18-21). Similarly, David wasn’t sure he wanted the ark in Jerusalem now that God wasn’t acting the way David had expected.
When God isn’t what we expected Him to be, we’re often tempted to push Him away or back-up to put some distance between us. In some ways this is a rational reaction; people encountering God should be awed by His magnificence and power. We should tremble with reverent fear and realize that He’s far too awesome for our minds to fully comprehend. But He doesn’t want that realization to distance us. He wants us to know that we can come to Him and that He will bless us when we interact with Him appropriately.
When the writer of Hebrews talked about Israel’s inability to handle God’s command to keep back from His holy mountain, they contrast this with our state today. We aren’t coming to that mountain, but to a heavenly city populated with angels and other believers, all made possible through “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 12:18-24).
Take care not to refuse the one who is speaking! For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less shall we, if we reject the one who warns from heaven? Then his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven too.” Now this phrase “once more” indicates the removal of what is shaken, that is, of created things, so that what is unshaken may remain. So since we are receiving an unshakable kingdom, let us give thanks, and through this let us offer worship pleasing to God in devotion and awe. For our God is indeed a devouring fire.Hebrews 12:25-29, NET
Remember, this is the same author who said we can “confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and find grace whenever we need help” through our “great high priest” (Heb. 4:14-16, NET). The more accurate our conception of God is, the greater our reverence and our confidence. It might be shocking to learn God is different than you expected. But when we approach Him on His terms rather than trying to fit Him into our expectations, we can have both confidence and joy in his presence. And if we go back to 2 Samuel, we see that David found this out as well.
The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months. The Lord blessed Obed-Edom and all his family. King David was told, “The Lord has blessed the family of Obed-Edom and everything he owns because of the ark of God.” So David went and joyfully brought the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David. Those who carried the ark of the Lord took six steps and then David sacrificed an ox and a fatling calf. Now David, wearing a linen ephod, was dancing with all his strength before the Lord. David and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord, shouting and blowing trumpets.2 Samuel 6: 11-15, NET
This time, David did things right. People carried the ark rather than putting it on a cart. David offered sacrifices, likely to go above and beyond what God required and/or as a request for God to forgive any trespasses they might commit this time through ignorance. They were careful, they were respectful, and God honored their efforts.
Not A Tame Lion
I’m currently reading On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis by Louis A. Markos. One of the scenes he mentions in that book, and which I quoted in a blog post last year, comes from The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. When Susan first hears about Aslan (Lewis’s version of Jesus in the world of Narnia), she says, “Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” To this Mr. Beaver replies, “Safe? … Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” Later in the book, Mr. Beaver adds, “He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion.”
These quotes from C.S. Lewis remind us of is something we all too often forget. God isn’t someone we can tame, or fit into a box, or standardize and predict. He is both dangerous and good; both unapproachably awesome and comfortingly close.
We don’t find ourselves facing situations where we could be struck down dead on the spot for mistreating the holy things of God’s temple. But we still need to be careful with our ideas of God. We still need to treat His temple (which is now made up of all believers) with reverence and care (1 Cor. 3:16-17). And if we ever hit a point where we realize that our expectations of God or our ideas about who He is don’t line up with reality, we need to be able to accept that with humility and adjust our ideas so they line up with His truth.
Featured image by Alyssa Marie from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “Revelation Song” by Kari Jobe