Hubris

God in A Box, Pulled by An Ox: 2 Samuel 6: 1-19

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“If we read a few verses beyond our text for today, we find in Michal the voice of rage. She mocks David for his behavior. She is apoplectic because David uncovers himself, exposing much too much royalty to the lower-class women, not to mention his overall inappropriate behavior as a king. For Michal, God has become a social amenity, a political backer. For whatever reason, she cannot understand the passion that motivates David’s praise. Alexander Whyte, minister in the Free Church of Scotland and, later, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, says this of the Biblical Michal: ‘Those who are deaf always despise those who dance.’”—Robin White

Wing + Prayer

By The Reverend Robin White

Zorba and Basil dance. (Photo: “Zorba the Greek,” Directed by Michael Cacoyiannis.)
Basil and Zorba dance. (Photo: “Zorba the Greek,” Directed by Michael Cacoyiannis.)

Robin White Weekly Hubris

CINCINNATI Ohio—(Hubris)—1 August 2023—If you have seen the movie, Zorba the Greek, or read the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, you know the larger-than-life, sometimes crude, always free-spirited character, Alexis Zorba. His childlike passion for earthly pleasures, his zest for life, and love of music and dance make him the consummate counterpart to our biblical David. As Zorba tells the Englishman he calls “Boss”: “Is it possible to talk by dancing? And yet I dare swear that’s how the gods and devils must talk to one another.” And, like Zorba, David communicates with God through the dance.

The stories of David comprise the most extensively narrated single-character story in scripture. We learn more about David (and see more of David) than any other person in the Bible. There isn’t a single miracle recounted in the David Story. Not one. And yet, David’s story, though supremely human, is never one that could be deemed ordinary, or everyday. 

Even the tale of the defeat of Goliath concerns a very human, but not super-human, hero, David, and the man’s humanity is the stuff in which the David Chronicles are rooted. His humanness provides material that works on us (and works through us) from the inside out—quietly, insistently, subliminally. The David story involves a plunge down into the depths, the basement—the earthiness of our shared humanity.

The passage from 2 Samuel makes us both wonder and shudder. King David has rallied his troops—not to fight again, but, this time, to follow the victorious God to a new home in Jerusalem. The Ark of the Covenant, for the Israelites, is a chief symbol of the great “I AM’s” presence in the midst of the people. For the previous 20 years, the Ark had been neglected. The sacred box had remained at the house of Abinadab, who lived in the village of Kiriath-jearim, near Jerusalem. The Hebrew Scripture offers the account of how David brings the Ark to Jerusalem, thus making the city not only the Jewish capital, but also the center of worship.

It is important to note that in the books of Deuteronomy, Numbers, and Joshua, we find protocol on how the Ark should be carried—in the hands of the priestly Levites. They were to hold the Ark aloft by poles through rings attached to the side of the box. On this particular occasion, however, Uzzah, the son of Abinadab, ignores the laws and substitutes the latest Philistine technological innovation—an ox-drawn cart.

The people of Israel acknowledge the sacredness of the event as they dance with David before God: the procession is festive but holy. It is indeed a parade colored by all the flair and pomp of a grand and glorious marching band.

What happens next is, more often than not, omitted from the story. The festivities; the majestic and celebratory procession is interrupted. As the ox-drawn box bounces around on the cart, its chaperone, Uzzah—not a Levite—reaches out a hand to steady it; touching, tampering, meddling with the Ark. Our narrator tells us that the anger of the Lord is kindled against Uzzah; and God strikes him down there and then because he has reached out his hand to the Ark of God. Yikes, talk about raining on a parade! Is it any wonder this part of the story is suppressed?

According to 2 Chronicles, Chapter 15, Uzzah dies because the Levites have not participated in the holy procession. Josephus, the ancient historian of priestly descent, attributes Uzzah’s death to the act of touching the Ark without his being a priest.

One theory that has consistently been put forward regarding Uzzah’s death is that it is fatal to try to “take charge of” God. In the greater context of Hebrew and Christian thought, then, we understand that it isn’t just his momentary lapse but, rather, Uzzah’s lifelong obsession with “managing” the Ark, with trying “to manage God” that dooms him. Reflecting his larger, lifelong motivations, in this seemingly spontaneous effort, Uzzah tries—and fails—to “prop up” God.

God does not need our “props.” God does not need our bolstering or steadying, and perhaps Uzzah’s fate is a warning. If we think and act as he does, believing we can somehow trammel, tether, or moor God, we too will perish or become stifled in our spirits. If we attempt to curb or control the Divine, we risk becoming dead to the aliveness of God. Uzzah’s death isn’t sudden; it is years in the making. Obsessed with constraining the life-giving Spirit of Yaweh, he suffocates his own soul, rebuffing the zeal of praise, faith, and worship. 

At least, this is how I interpret the story.

David, on the other hand, is very much alive, dancing before the Ark in restless, daring, careless, praise. What happens next is living proof of David’s passion. Verse 8 tells us that David becomes furious following God’s outburst towards Uzzah. He not only feels the very human emotion of anger, but also fear as he remembers what happened to the Philistines when they kept the Ark for booty and were ravaged by plague. In response, David avoids Jerusalem altogether and takes the Ark to the home of Obededon.

Three months later, the parade picks up again, this time marked by even greater extravagance: it is liturgical—as endless burnt and peace offerings are made; social—as communal feasts are celebrated; and royal—as the king dances once more, without restraint, before the Ark and its people.

Clad in skimpy linen undergarments, the priestly linen loin cloth, David dances, uninhibited in his unbounded praise. 

As Alexis Zorba, David’s brother in spontaneous awe, says, “In religions which have lost their creative spark, the gods eventually become no more than poetic motifs or ornaments for decorating human solitude and walls.” 

The festivities come to a close as the Ark is set in its place inside the tent. Offerings are tendered; food is distributed to the people, and they are sent back to their own homes. The Holy of Holies has finally come to its resting place.

In the midst of this celebration, the narrator includes an aside, the description of a non-participant who looks on as a critical outsider from a nearby window: Michal, who is always introduced in this chapter as “the daughter of Saul,” and someone who despises David.

David dancing before The Ark. (Photo: “King David,” Directed by Bruce Beresford.)
David dancing before The Ark. (Photo: “King David,” Directed by Bruce Beresford.)

If we read a few verses beyond our text for today, we find in Michal the voice of rage. She mocks David for his behavior. She is apoplectic because David uncovers himself, exposing much too much royalty to the lower-class women, not to mention his overall inappropriate behavior as a king. For Michal, God has become a social amenity, a political backer. For whatever reason, she cannot understand the passion that motivates David’s praise.

Alexander Whyte, minister in the Free Church of Scotland and, later, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland, says this of the Biblical Michal: “Those who are deaf always despise those who dance.”

Once again, we come face to face with an ancient dialectic: death and life; despising and dancing. Michal would be content to walk with the “dead man walking,” Uzzah, beside the ark. It is utterly obvious that her preference would be to conservatively, properly, prudently, and cautiously accompany and regulate the Divine. Unable to condone the king’s unsuitable behavior, she mocks David for dancing, living, daring, heedlessly praising.

David, like Zorba, dances!  He lives his entire life dangerously—with lions, bears, a giant, a murderous king, the Philistines, and with lust for the beautiful Bathsheba. He spends his days in human fallibility—living every single moment with God: running, hiding, praying, grieving, repenting, loving. In all his living, David is never in a position to take care of God. So, he dances, and Uzzah dies. David becomes enraged, utterly furious with God, something Uzzah would never have done, since you don’t get mad at a box. David is irate with God for turning his parade into a funeral and he leaves the Ark, returning home to sulk. Apparently, it’s okay to be angry with God. David isn’t smitten by God. God does not burst forth against him as he does with Uzzah. God identifies with passion; with a passionate approach to life. 

As Zorba phrases it: “The highest point a man can obtain is not Knowledge, or Virtue, or Goodness, or Victory, but something even greater, more heroic and more despairing: Sacred Awe!”

Unlike Uzzah’s “boxed up” God, David’s “I Am Who I Am” God is very much alive and unrestrainable. The lighthearted, pirouetting king feels real emotions about a real God. Such passion leads him to dance.

There is this wonderful passage from Zorba the Greek: “There’s a devil in me who shouts, and I do what he says. Whenever I feel I’m choking with some emotion, he says: ‘Dance!’  And I dance. And I feel better!  Once, when my little Dimitraki died, I got up as I did a moment ago and I danced. The relations and friends who saw me dancing in front of the body rushed up to stop me. ‘Zorba has gone mad!’  they cried. ‘Zorba has gone mad!’ But if at that moment I had not danced, I should really have gone mad—from grief.”

I do not believe it is the devil who shouts “dance” but, rather, the Divine—the life-giving, fully alive God who stirs our souls and gives us a choice between dancing and despising . . . between life and death.

Baby Suggs, of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. (Photo: Department of Afro American Research Arts & Culture.)
Baby Suggs, of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. (Photo: Department of Afro American Research Arts & Culture.)

In the spirit of this choosing, I want to offer to you, in memory of our beloved Toni Morrison, one of the most meaningful literary truths, one of the most beautiful and authentic images of honest and meaningful worship I have encountered, in art or life.

In Morrison’s novel Beloved, set in rural Ohio, years after the Civil War, an unaffiliated pastor, “Baby Suggs,” loved and respected by her community, calls her flock to congregational worship.

“When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great big heart to the Clearing—a wide-open place cut deep in the woods—nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees.

“After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, ‘Let the children come!’ and they ran from the trees toward her.

“‘Let your mothers hear you laugh,’ she told them and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling. Then ‘Let the grown men come,’ she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.

“‘Let your wives and your children see you dance,’ she told them, and ground life shuddered under their feet.

“Finally, she called the women to her. ‘Cry,’ she told them. ‘For the living and the dead. Just cry.’ And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

“It stayed that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

“She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or glorybound pure.

“She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if

they could not see it, they would not have it.”

The Rev. Robin Kaye White at Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Rev. Robin Kaye White at Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Zorba’s dance, from “Zorba the Greek,” (Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates). Music by Mikis Theodorakis.

The Rev. Robin Kaye White grew up in a farming community in Central New York State: she is descended, on both sides of her family, from dairy farmers, and is most alive, still, in rural North American landscapes. A voice major, she studied Music at Ithaca College; then earned her MDiv at Lancaster Theological Seminary and did graduate work at Princeton Seminary and The Theological Institute of Advanced Theological Research in Jerusalem, Israel. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA), White was recently a Co-Moderator of the National Board of More Light Presbyterians. In the summer of 2023, she is serving as Bridge Pastor at Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati Ohio. White is passionate about liturgy—“the work of the people”—and preaching. In her sermons, she strives to illuminate the original context of scripture and tease out its messages for the fraught present. She has had the privilege of “holding space” for the dying and their loved ones and experiences this ministry of presence as a gift: she is most willing to go with people as they journey to desert places. She states: “I have lived my life by adhering to Paul’s words in his letter to the church at Rome, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’” She is just as likely, though, to quote Rachel Held Evans as St. Paul: “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” A Lesbian-Pescaterian-Presbyterian, Reverend White is most alive out of doors, whether hiking, biking, kayaking, golfing . . . or just sitting on a rock. (Banner and Author photos by E.B.-Herring, taken at Pendleton SC's Liberty Hall Bed & Breakfast. (Author Head Shot Augment: René Laanen.)

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