Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: A Dangerous Spirit

March 31, 2016 at 10:28 pm | Posted in Samuel 2, Shemini | 1 Comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) and the haftarah is 2 Samuel 6:1-7:17.

Being touched by God is a dangerous thing.

Uzza, in this week’s haftarah, walks next to the cart carrying the ark of the covenant during King David’s first attempt to move it to Jerusalem.

"The Chastisement of Uzzah" by James Tissot

“The Chastisement of Uzzah” by James Tissot

When the oxen pulling the cart stumble, Uzza instinctively reaches out and grabs at the ark—and God strikes Uzza dead.  (See my post Shemini & 2 Samuel: Separating Holiness.)

And David was angry that God had broken through, [making] a breach in Uzza. (2 Samuel 6:8)

The bible does not say whether David is angry at Uzza or at God, but he is certainly upset that he has to abort his carefully-planned procession to bring the ark to his new capital, Jerusalem. For one thing, David is still consolidating his position as Israel’s second king.

He began his career as King Saul’s loyal lieutenant, a charismatic hero in Saul’s war against the Philistines. After Saul turned against David and repeatedly tried to kill him, David fled and found refuge in Philistine territory. After Saul died, David returned and was acclaimed king of Judah, the southern part of Saul’s former kingdom, but one of Saul’s sons became king of the northern territory. Gradually David conquered that land as well, then captured the foreign stronghold of Jerusalem and made it his new capital. But not all the people of Israel supported King David. Some still viewed him as the charismatic war hero who used to lead Saul’s troops; others resented him for opposing King Saul’s son.

So King David decides to bring the ark of the covenant, the people’s most important religious object, into Jerusalem. That way his new administrative center will also be his subjects’ primary center of worship. But after God breaks through and kills Uzza, David asks: How can it come to me, the ark of God? (2 Samuel 6:9)

David's first attempt with ark, illuminated manuscript

David’s first attempt with ark, illuminated manuscript

David is also angry and afraid because he deliberately set up the transportation of the ark as an occasion of religious rejoicing.

And David and the whole house of Israel were laughing and playing before God, with every woodwind of cypress, and with lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. (2 Samuel 6:5)

At that time, there were companies of “prophets” among the Israelites who entered altered states in order to experience God. Their usual method, according to the two books of Samuel, included playing music and encouraging ecstatic dancing and speaking in tongues.

For example, after the prophet Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, he tells him:

"Saul Prophesies with the Prophets", by James Tissot

“Saul Prophesies with the Prophets”, by James Tissot

… as you are coming into the town you shall encounter a company of neviyim coming down from the high shrine, preceded by lute and tambourine and flute and lyre, and they shall be mitnabim. (1 Samuel 10:5)

neviyim (נְבִיאִִים) = prophets. (From the root verb niba (נבּא) = raved; conveyed the word of God. The Hebrew Bible uses the word neviyim (singular navi (נָבִיא) for both those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God and serve as God’s interpreters. (See my post Haftarah for Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets.)

mitnabim (מִתְנַבְּאִים) = speaking in an altered state (including glossolalia), often with ecstatic movement. (Also from the root niba.)

Samuel continued:

Then the ruach of God will overpower you, vehitnabita with them, and you shall be transformed into another man. (1 Samuel 10:6)

ruach (רוּחַ) = wind, spirit, overpowering mood.

vehitnabita (וְהִתְנַבִּיתָ) = and you shall babble in an altered state, move in ecstasy.

A ruach of God does overpower Saul, but it does not transform him into a better man. It merely makes a breach without killing him, so a ruach can overpower him again and again. Most often Saul is seized with angry jealousy and tries to kill David.

Maybe Saul’s original personality simply could not be transformed so that his altered states were joyful, like those of the neviyim.

David, however, enters the narrative as a charismatic, brave, and clever young man who sizes things up and plans ahead. When things go wrong, he optimistically bounces back with a new scheme.

Although David is a musician, he does not act like the neviyim until it fits his plan to bring the ark to his new capital. And after his first attempt fails because of the death of Uzza, David waits three months and then tries again.

Then David went and he brought up the ark of God from the house of Oveid-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. …And David was whirling with all his might before God; and David had belted on a linen tunic. (2 Samuel 6:12, 6:14) 

King David’s tunic is an eifod (אֵפוֹד), two rectangles of material fastened together at the shoulders and belted at the waist. Elsewhere in the Bible an eifod is a ritual garment worn by the high priest over his robe and underpants. David is planning to take the role of high priest as well as king. But on this occasion, he does not wear anything under his tunic.

The ark arrives in Jerusalem (David not shown)

The ark arrives in Jerusalem (David, scantily dressed, is not shown)

David and all the household of Israel were bringing up the ark of God with shouts and with the sound of the ram’s horn. And the ark of God entered the City of David. And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, looked down from the window, and she saw the king, David, leaping and whirling before God, and she scorned him in her heart. (2 Samuel 6:16)

Mikhal is not only Saul’s daughter, but also one of David’s wives—arguably his most important wife at the time, since David’s marriage to her helps to legitimize his claim to Saul’s kingdom. She notices that while David is ecstatic leaping and whirling, the front piece of his tunic flaps around below the belt—revealing his lack of underpants.

Once the ark is ensconced in a tent in Jerusalem, King David makes animal offerings and blesses the people in the name of God, like a high priest. Then he hands out bread and cakes to everyone before going to his palace to bless his own household. Mikhal intercepts him at the door.

And Mikhal, daughter of Saul, went out to meet David and she said: How he was honored today, the king of Israel—who exposed himself today to the eyes of the slave-women of his servants as one of the worthless exposes himself! (2 Samuel 6:20)

And David said to Mikhal: Before God—who chose me instead of your father and instead of any of his household, to appoint me sovereign over the people of God, over Israel—before God I will laugh and play; and I will be dishonored even more than this, and I will be debased in my own eyes! But with the slave-women of whom you speak, with them I will be honored. (2 Samuel 6:21)

King David is claiming that he knows proper behavior according to members of the ruling class—and that nevertheless, he will behave in the way that wins the love of the common people. There are times when a king is better off dancing with a flapping tunic—as long as the dancing proves the king has been touched by God.

Religious ecstasy did not help Israel’s first king. King Saul lived in the moment, and if the spirit of God touched him, he acted, for good or for bad.

King David, on the other hand, always planned ahead. He whirled ecstatically in front of the ark because a joyful and over-the-top religious procession was part of his plan for uniting his people.

Sometimes it is good to get emotional over God. I have led Shabbat services with a sequence of songs designed to inspire and elevate people into joy, and even dancing.

But there must be a safe container for ecstasy. Samuel did not realize that Saul was not a safe container for the spirit of God.  And Mikhal did not realize that David had created a procession that would be a safe container for religious ecstasy.

May we all be blessed with intuitive knowledge of when it is good to let go, and when it is better to restrain oneself.

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  1. […] on Uzza with when he touches the ark to prevent it from tipping over (2 Samuel 6:6-7—see my post Haftarat Shemini—2 Samuel: A Dangerous Spirit) and on King Achazeyahu after he consults with a foreign god (2 Kings […]


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