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Why Did David Dance?

2 Samuel 6

When the Deuteronomic writer(s) composed the Book of Deuteronomy and the series of books known as the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings), they were writing in a period (7th–6th centuries BC) when many, of not most, regarded the monarchy as a prime cause of Israel’s downfall — first the loss of the Northern Kingdom, and then the loss of Jerusalem, the Temple and the remainder of the land.

After the ‘evil’ king, Manasseh, had allowed the worship of other gods in Jerusalem, the Deuteronomic group set out to show where Israel had gone wrong. They wrote a history demonstrating that Israel had continually disobeyed Yahweh and worshiped other gods, and that it had, against Yahweh’s will, asked to have a king, like the other nations. They told how Israel had been warned through the prophet Samuel that having such a king would return Israel to slavery, and that only Yahweh should be their king (cf. 1 Samuel 8). They went on to show how Israel’s kings had consistently ignored the Law and the prophets, and had allowed the worship of other gods.

However, the Deuteronomists had to somehow explain why the Davidic dynasty had survived so long (over 400 years) — surely Yahweh had approved of it. With great artistry, these writers carefully present a consistently negative view of Saul, the first king, then David, and the kings that followed them (with occasional exceptions).

At times, they seem to give positive views of David. Yet, when we look closely at their text, we discover that even the supposedly positive portrayals can be quite ambiguous; for example, did Yahweh promise an everlasting kingship in the line of David as a blessing for Israel or as a punishment (cf. 2 Samuel 7:13; note that David asks for Yahweh’s blessing in 2 Samuel 7:29, and Yahweh does not respond)? It may well be that the Deuteronomists had to deal with opponents who still saw the Davidic dynasty as God’s will. After all, there would have been many in Israel who looked back to the ‘good old days’ of David when Israel’s territory was so large and there was security from their enemies. In such circumstances, the Deuteronomists had to tread a fine line. Their text, accordingly can be quite subtle, but read carefully in its entirety, it can be seen that it consistently and ruthlessly assassinates the character of David.

2 Samuel 6 is typical of the Deuteronomist’s portrayal of David. Throughout his rise, David had been shown to be very similar to Saul. We suspect, despite many assertions by David, that he was after the crown all along, and he doesn’t hesitate to take the fallen Saul’s crown from the Amalekite in 2 Samuel 1.

David’s next act after taking the crown is to take Jerusalem from the Jebusites to be his capital (2 Sam 5); it is a smart strategic and political move, being neutral territory between North and South. 2 Samuel 6 then depicts David taking the ark to his new capital. The ark contained the Law.

Previously, the sons of the priest Eli had carried the ark into battle before Israel’s army when things were going badly in the war against the Philistines (1 Sam 4), as if the carrying of the ark would ensure victory. The ark had been used almost as a magical charm to force Yahweh to fight for them. It had been a military disaster: 30,000 Israelites were killed (1 Sam 4:10), and the ark was lost to the Philistines. Yahweh could not be forced to act on their behalf. Now, in 2 Sam 6, David brings the ark to Israel with 30,000 men (the only other reference to 30,000 men) as he attempts to bring the ark (the Law) under his power in his new capital.

2 Samuel 6 depicts David attempting to assume all power over Israel. He has taken the crown, and he now acts like a prophet, dancing in a frenzy with music as did the prophetic groups in Saul’s time (cf. 1 Sam 10:5; 2 Kings 3:15; 1 Chron 25:3). He is also like a priest in 2 Sam 6:17–18, offering sacrifices and blessing the people. (Incidentally, David is not naked or near-naked — he is wearing the ephod, the cloak of a priest, which was used in obtaining an oracle of the Lord; it was a garment that signified the priestly power). He has assumed all power — priest, prophet and king — and he will appoint his sons as priests (2 Sam 8:15). His sons will rule Israel in the nation’s first dynasty. This text is all about power, and claiming Yahweh’s support for this new dynasty.

The theme of power becomes apparent when poor Uzzah touches the ark and dies. It worries David, and so it should, as he is trying to take hold of the ark himself, that is, to take possession of it and to use it for his own ends. David diverts the ark away from Jerusalem to the house of Obed-Edom; “Better him than me,” David reasons. But the House of Obed-Edom is blessed; indeed it is the only house to be blessed in the whole Deuteronomistic History!

After three months, David sees the house of Obed-Edom has only been blessed. “Better me than him!” he thinks, and fetches the ark. In v.8, David is described as resenting Yahweh “bursting forth” and thus defeating his nicely-laid plans. Now he is cautious — perhaps Yahweh cannot be controlled (like the Ba’als) — he offers sacrifice (expensive ones — an ox and a fatling) every six paces as he again sets out to take the ark to Jerusalem!

This is not a good day for David. He continues his prophetic dance, but his day is further soured by Michal’s jealousy. Her accusation is effectively the accusation of the Deuteronomic writer — “How the King of Israel honoured himself today, making an exhibition of himself before the slave-girls of his servants” (2 Samuel 6:20). Michal’s failure to bear children becomes a sign of the fruitlessness of the new king and his dynasty.

But Yahweh had shown that he cannot be used. Yahweh is ultimately the only king, and David cannot take hold of him. Nor can he take hold of the Law and use it for his own purposes with Yahweh’s blessing.

In the end, David’s dancing becomes an example of how not to relate to God. He is not someone we can manipulate or control, as Hosea had pointed out. Nor will God support our plans if they are not in accordance with his will. Rather, than assuming all power for the sake of control and glory in the earthly sense, the leader is called by God to be a servant to others.

Although said to be a ‘son of David,’ only Jesus showed what true kingship is like. Jesus was the true servant-king who was enthroned on a cross. He gave himself completely for others, out of love.