From King David Playing the Harp by Gerard Honthorst, 1622. Wikimedia.
This week’s haftarah (reading from the prophets), taken from the second book of Samuel (6:1-7:17), is set toward the beginning of King David’s reign. By now David has won the civil war against loyalists of his predecessor, King Saul, conquered the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, set about making the city his capital, and achieved a decisive victory over the Philistines. In the aftermath of that last battle, he assembles a triumphant procession to lead the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem from its temporary location in Gibeah:
And they attached the ark of God to a new wagon
And bore it from the house of Avinadav which is in Gibeah. . . .
And Uzzah and his brothers, sons of Avinadav, drove the new wagon . . .
And David and all the house of Israel were playing before the Lord
With all their might, with lyres and harps and drums and percussion and cymbals.
And they got to Goren alright, but Uzzah reached to the Lord’s ark and held it
Because the cattle had thrown it.
But the Lord raged at Uzzah and God struck him there
Over the reaching
And he died there with the Lord’s ark.
The text doesn’t really say “reaching”; it says “for the shal,” which is obscure. The medieval commentator Rashi speculates that a final letter ḥet was omitted by scribal error, and that what Uzzah was punished for was the shalaḥ, the reaching-out or overreaching. Since that appears to be the nub of this haftarah, I gratefully adopt Rashi’s solution—because the issue at hand is what David can and cannot do, what are his limitations of personal status and personal capabilities. In the narrative we see him constantly blurring boundaries of royal and priestly authority in his drive to serve the Lord, perhaps, but also certainly to expand his office. That’s where his recourse to the Lord’s ark comes in.
As Rabbi Moshe Zvi (Hirsch) Segal (1876-1968) points out, the ark had been neglected for generations since the battle of Aphek when it was captured by the Philistines; even after the Israelites reclaimed it, both the priests and the prophets had gone about their business without reference to it. Then, in the last verses of the chapter preceding this one, David defeats the ark’s former captors and breaks their military might, at least for the foreseeable future. Segal writes that David’s intent in moving the ark was, in part, “to restore its dignity . . . as a symbol of the Divine Presence,” but that he also had political motives:
By installing the ark in Jerusalem, David was also seeking to solve significant problems facing him in his new capital. In one fell stroke the ark transformed the Jebusite town of Jerusalem into a Temple city and national religious center of Israel—and thereby also into a political center to unite the scattered and separated tribes into a . . . cohesive people.
All of which is well and good, but the ark is still the personal artefact of an entirely unpredictable Lord, and Uzzah’s reaching out to touch it demonstrates swiftly what happens to anyone who overreaches when it comes to the Lord.
And it troubled David that the Lord had burst forth an outburst against Uzzah
And David feared the Lord that day.
This is a truly startling remark. What about all the other days? Clearly David is on good terms with the Almighty and accustomed to things going his way. But it is often forgotten that David is not just a harp-playing, psalm-writing, Philistine-slaying super-warrior but also a politician. Thus when the Almighty suddenly turns unpredictable, David responds intelligently, listens to what the Almighty is telling him, and promptly stops dead in his tracks. As we would say these days, he asks members of his administration to look into the matter further. In the meantime, having lost his “urge” to bring the ark to Jerusalem, he lets it remain for three months in the nearby home of Oved Edom of Gath:
And the Lord blessed Oved Edom and all his household.
And King David was informed in these words: the Lord blessed the home of Oved Edom
And all he has, due to the Lord’s ark.
So David went and brought the ark of God from the home of Oved Edom to the City of David [in Jerusalem] with glee.
And this is how it was: the Lord’s ark bearers took six steps
And he sacrificed a bull and a fatted calf.
And David capered with all his might before the Lord
And David was arrayed as a man of the cloth.
And David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord
With cheers and the sound of the horn.
David’s initial response to the crisis of Uzzah’s death has been to wait until, so to speak, the news cycle has moved on. Then he tries again, but this time taking no chances. No cattle and no wagon, new or otherwise, but a troop of trained men carrying the ark as it should be carried, very carefully, and when they survive the first six steps he sacrifices a whole bull and a specially fattened calf just for good measure.
Also significant is David’s assumption of priestly garb. The phrase I’ve translated loosely here as “arrayed as a man of the cloth” literally means “girded in a linen ephod,” which brings to mind the apron-like garment worn by the high priest. Like a priest, too, David is bringing sacrifices.
In short, David has learned his lesson. He had tried treating the ark as a political tool and the results were disastrous. Now, having realized how radioactive this symbol still is, he starts over, assumes the role of first religious officer rather than commander-in-chief, and soon lets himself give way to profound and, it seems, sincere religious emotion:
And it was as the Lord’s ark entered the City of David
And Michal, the daughter of Saul, was looking down through the window
And she saw King David jittering and capering
And she disdained him in her heart.
Then they brought the Lord’s ark and presented it in its place
In the tent David had pitched for it
And David offered offerings before the Lord . . .
And he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts. . . .
And David sat down to bless his own house
And Michal, the daughter of Saul, came out toward David and spoke.
Before we get to the ensuing dialogue, let’s review David’s personal status. He’s now the king of Israel, as this passage establishes, and he’s entering his own capital city in triumph. But he is literally and figuratively looked down upon by his own wife, whose hand he was granted by his predecessor, King Saul, at the extortionate and potentially lethal bride-price of several hundred Philistine foreskins. He won her and married her but, as the text keeps hammering home, she’s still Saul’s daughter. She’s a princess; he’s the son of a back-country shepherd. When she sees him through the window, and when he sits down to bless his own house, he is greeted not by a wife but by a royal daughter who still considers him nobody in particular:
“How dignified the King of Israel is today
Who exposed himself today to his slaves’ scullery maids
As one of the no-accounts exposes himself.”
But David said to Michal: “Before the Lord,
Who chose me over your father, and over all his house
To appoint me governor over the people of the Lord, over Israel—
I played before the Lord.
And I’ll make myself more debased than that and despised in my own eyes
But in the eyes of the scullery maids you spoke of, in them I’ll grow dignified.”
And Michal, the daughter of Saul, never had a child till the day she died.
This brief exchange presents both a microcosm of the emerging Israelite social order and a miniaturist’s portrait of the fully formed king. David knows damn well that he is not of the royal house and never will be—and also that he’s better than all of them put together. And it is just in this ability of his to enthuse the common people that his ultimate power lies. David is not only a general but a savvy and charismatic politician, and with her words Michal has sealed her own fate: to remain the daughter of a dead king and die as a representative of the old order, rather than bearing the child who will succeed the king of the new order. This passage also makes clear that when, in the passage to come, the Lord makes promises regarding David’s progeny, He’s already ruled out the possibility of their coming from the defeated house of Saul.
In the next scene, David—sitting in his new palace in his new capital, victorious over enemies foreign and domestic—remarks to the prophet Nathan, “here I sit in a house of cedar and the Lord’s ark is sitting under canvas.” Nathan first tells David to do with the ark as he sees fit, but then the Lord appears to Nathan in a dream and gives him a message to deliver to the king:
“So says the Lord: . . .
I will let you rest from all your enemies, and the Lord has told you
That the Lord will make you a house.
For your days will be full and you’ll lie down with your fathers
And I’ll establish your heir after you who comes of your loins
But I will establish his kingdom.
He will build a house in my name
And I will found the throne of his eternal kingdom.
As we know from reading the remainder of the book of Samuel and the book of Kings, it won’t quite work out that way: neither the part about letting David have peace from his enemies nor the part about his heir’s eternal kingdom. David will face multiple rebellions in his lifetime, and the kingdom will split in two after his son Solomon’s death. But it is interesting to speculate why the Lord promises what he does to David but won’t let him build the promised house.
The book of Chronicles, filling in the blanks, tells us that the Lord forbade him because he was “a man of war” and “had shed blood.” Or, as my father of blessed memory—who was not a Bible scholar but a student of Realpolitik—once explained it to me, the wounds were too fresh. And yet, despite Solomon’s having inherited the crown rather than usurping it, there were still more rebellions to quell before he could secure his kingdom, and that kingdom, though large and prosperous, would eventually come to be marred by idol-worship. So why does the Lord grant Solomon the great accomplishment he denies David?
We need to look a few chapters ahead for a clue:
And it was toward evening and David rose from his bed
And he strolled about on the roof of the king’s house
And he spied a woman washing from the roof
And the woman was very good looking. And David sent to inquire about the woman
And they said, “Isn’t that Bathsheba, daughter of Eilam, wife of Uriah the Hittite?” (2 Samuel 11:2-3)
This week’s haftarah ends with David thanking the Lord for his promise, and it’s followed by a few pages of further military victories, and then the lines I’ve just quoted. David remains a revolutionary hero, a guerrilla leader and desert tribal bandit. Even when his reign is entirely undisputed and the text refers to him simply as “the king,” he still remains somewhat outside the social order. And when he sends his generals out to do all the fighting he prowls the roof and, in a reversal of the previous scene with Michal, now it is he who is looking down from the palace on a nobody, who just happens to be somebody else’s wife.
But he’s a guerrilla chieftain and can do what he likes—and Bathsheba won’t be the first wife he’s picked up in his travels. This woman will be the mother of the future monarch whose kingdom the Lord has promised to maintain for all time, but that kingdom, too, will be compromised and its throne will have been established by a progenitor too ravenous to be contained by Jerusalem.
The Lord doesn’t allow David to build the Temple because David is no administrator; he’s a legend. His defect is not that he fought necessary wars against Israel’s enemies. Nor is it—as Michal would have it—that he encouraged lèse majesté by engaging in a naked display of religious enthusiasm. It’s that he’s still something of a lawless renegade at heart.
But, paradoxically, this is precisely why we remember him as the ideal king: because he has only to kill and rescue, not pick up and jigsaw together all the pieces of a Temple that will still be a place after his own heart, a house for everyone, from priests to the commonest of the people. And because—very much unlike his predecessor Saul—he is able to learn from his mistakes, as he did after the incident with Uzzah, and as he will try to do after his sin with Bathsheba when he must endure the punishments meted out by a Lord who forgives His favorite king just about anything, but does not forget.