Wednesday, February 24, 2010

“The Box Is Falling”

When I was a teenager at Living Hope Christian Academy, the school's pastor once opened the Scriptures for us to reveal what I'm about to share with my readers today. Perhaps ironically, his insight is particularly potent for me now that I'm a Catholic with a staunch faith in the Eucharist.
The golden Ark of the Covenant was the dwelling place for the presence of the Lord in ancient Israel. It and its tent were the first things the Israelites were commanded to build after successfully escaping Egypt and receiving the Law. Its chief feature was the Mercy Seat, situated on top of the Ark, smack dab in between two cherubim figures.
Our tale starts with the book of Exodus. Ex. 25:10-22 gives a very detailed set of specifications on the construction of the Ark. Included in those instructions is this:

You shall cast four rings of gold for it, and put them in its four corners; two rings shall be on one side, and two rings on the other side. And you shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, that the ark may be carried by them.

And true to the command, Ex. 37:1-9 indicates:
Then Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood… and he cast for it four rings of gold to be set in its four corners: two rings on one side, and two rings on the other side of it. He made poles of acacia wood, and overlaid them with gold. And he put the poles into the rings at the sides of the ark, to bear the ark.

Good man – he obeyed the command to the letter. God really digs it when we do that.

The Israelites carried the Ark with them on the rest of their desert journey, and when the priests carrying it entered the Jordan River to cross into Canaan, the waters parted. When Joshua led his people to conquer the city of Jericho, the Ark preceded the army as a beacon of the Lord's approval of the conquest and of his protection of his people. Similarly, it was taken into battle against the Amalekites and the Benjaminites.
It's mentioned again in I Samuel. 4:3-11, after the Israelites had suffered a humiliating defeat on the battlefield. Chronologically, this is placed right after Samuel's prophetic calling. Eli, the priest who had encouraged Samuel to respond with obedience to God's call, had two sons – "worthless men who had no regard for the Lord". Their names were Hophni and Phinehas, and they basically stole the offerings the people would bring to God. Scripture says that "the sin of Eli's sons was very great in the sight of the Lord because they defiled the offering the Lord" and that "the Lord had already decided that they should die."
If you're even slightly familiar with the ebb and flow of Old Testament history, it basically goes like this: Israel obeys God, and they prosper against all odds. The next generation disobeys God, and they are beat up by their enemies until they repent and obey God once again. Shampoo. Rinse. Repeat.
So it should be no surprise that in this environment of disobedience by its leaders, Israel lost the little skirmish they fought. Moreover, when the leftover troops came home…
…the elders of Israel said, "Why has the LORD defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the LORD from Shiloh to us, that when it comes among us it may save us from the hand of our enemies." So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

Do you see it coming?
And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth shook. Now when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, "What does the sound of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews mean?" Then they understood that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp. So the Philistines were afraid, for they said, "God has come into the camp!" And they said, "Woe to us! For such a thing has never happened before. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness. Be strong and conduct yourselves like men, you Philistines, that you do not become servants of the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Conduct yourselves like men, and fight!"
So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. Also the ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

Well, it's not like we weren't warned. Wait… what was that other part…?
Also the ark of God was captured…

Oh boy. That's not good. But we are then treated to what seems like a rather comical account. I Sam. 5:1 – 7:1 has the details; I'll summarize it for you.
The Philistines took the Ark back to Ashdod, about 40 miles away, and placed it in their temple to Dagon, next to Dagon's statue. The next morning though, Dagon's statue was found face-down in front of the Ark. The Philistines picked it up again, which I'm sure Dagon appreciated very much. But the next morning the statue had fallen down again, and this time its head and arms were broken off, which really freaked the Philistines out. The good people of Ashdod said to each other, "Let's get rid of this thing."
But after they moved it to Gath, there was a great panic. The Lord was hard on that city also.

On top of that, the Lord cursed the Philistines with hemorrhoids. Yep. It's in the Bible. At least, in my version. Other versions, including the one to which I'm linking, just say tumors. But using 'hemorrhoids' makes for more interesting blog search hits.

Likewise, the people of Gath also freaked out and tried to move it to Ekron, another of the Philistine cities. But Ekron said, "Nuh-uh, I don't think so." Thus the ark was left in the Philistine hill country, away from the population centres, for seven months.

Eventually, the Philistines asked their priests what to do to abate the anger of the Lord. Being very silly priests, they replied, "Well, it seems to be his thing, so maybe make some golden statues of hemorrhoids." Yep.

More sensibly, they tacked on, "But do not harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did. After Yahweh had afflicted them, did they not have to let the people go?"
But nobody wanted to go near the Ark, much less carry it any distance. So the Philistine priests advised the people to put it on an ox-drawn cart, along with the golden hemorrhoids. The oxen would decide where to take it.
The oxen took it back to Israel, to the city of Beth-shemesh. The people there saw it approaching while they were harvesting their wheat, and "they rejoiced greatly." They opened the Ark, which other Scripture tells us contained a jar of manna, Aaron's staff which had sprouted new life, and the tablets of the ten commandments, and placed it along with the golden hemorrhoids on a large stone and made an offering to the Lord. But the Lord struck thousands of them dead because they had opened the Ark.
In mourning, the survivors sent word to the people of Kiriath Jearim that the Ark had been returned.

Then the men of Kirjath Jearim came and took the ark of the LORD, and brought it into the house of Abinadab on the hill, and consecrated Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD.

Now we have to fast-forward a bit again. We go through the kingship of Saul, his downfall, and the rise of David to the throne. David, with his zeal for the Lord, desired to bring the Ark back to Jerusalem, the capital, where he wanted to build a temple to house it. II Sam. 6:3-11 has the tale:

So they set the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drove the new cart. And they brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill, accompanying the ark of God; and Ahio went before the ark. Then David and all the house of Israel played music before the LORD on all kinds of instruments of fir wood, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on sistrums, and on cymbals.

And when they came to Nachon's threshing floor, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the LORD was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the ark of God. And David became angry because of the LORD's outbreak against Uzzah; and he called the name of the place Perez Uzzah to this day.

David was afraid of the LORD that day; and he said, "How can the ark of the LORD come to me?" So David would not move the ark of the LORD with him into the City of David; but David took it aside into the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite three months. And the LORD blessed Obed-Edom and all his household.

There are a number of interesting points here. First, David has gone to the house of Abinadab to retrieve the Ark. Note that "they brought it out of the house." There is nothing that indicates it had any special placement or treatment during the 10-15 years it would have been there. Uzzah and Ahio would have grown up with the Ark right there, all the time.

Second, the way they transported it was on a cart. Remember this command though?

You shall put the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark, that the ark may be carried by them.

The Philistines didn't know any better when it came to how to carry the Ark. But the Israelites darn well did, or they should have.
Third, the mighty King David, like pretty much everybody before him in this tale of the Ark's wanderings, was struck with fear and didn't want the Ark anywhere near him once the anger of God was revealed. There's a lesson in the equality of all men here – anyone from the most celebrated king of Israel to the lowliest Philistine peasant cowers before the terrible glory of God.
Fourth, Obed-Edom was not struck with fear when the Ark came into his house. And instead of being cursed with hemorrhoids, his household was blessed by the presence of the Lord. Extra-biblical rabbinical literature has more to say about this:

During the time that the Ark was with him Obed-edom used to light a candle before it twice daily, early in the morning and again at evening.

The blessing with which God blessed Obed-edom consisted in children. His wife and eight daughters-in-law bore children twice every month during the three months that the Ark remained with him. According to another version, each of them bore six children at once.

So the ways that the families of Abinadab and Obed-edom regarded the Ark were likely somewhat different. For Obed-edom it was the visible sign of the presence of the Lord, and he took advantage of the opportunity to commune with God in his home. For Abinadab, it was just furniture.

Fifth and lastly, Uzzah was struck dead while he was trying to help. Why would God do that? My old pastor theorized that Uzzah's reaction when the oxen stumbled wasn't one of concern for the dwelling place of the Lord Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth. Rather, he was acting like a simple cargo courier, who saw the cart tip and thought, "The box is falling!" Steadying it was not an act of faithful love to his Lord, and that disregard for the Lord's presence is what angered God.

I mentioned earlier that as a Catholic now, this insight is profoundly more potent for me. For more than a year, I've been spending time each week in the very presence of the Lord, exposed as the Eucharist in the perpetual adoration chapel at Holy Cross Parish. My time there is generally spent with no other adorers present, and I use the time there to select the music I'll be playing at the next Sunday Mass, as well as do some prayer journaling and Scripture reading.

But at times it gets dry, and it's hard to pray. Sometimes I fall asleep. My mind wanders onto things that distract me from Christ. The sin in my life becomes an obstacle to divine intimacy. Sometimes the glorious golden Ark of a monstrance becomes little more than a piece of furniture to me, despite the very presence of God enthroned in its centre. Have I become like Uzzah?

I know that the presence of God dwells in me as richly as it does in the Eucharist. I know that where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name, he is there with them. But there is something so peaceful, so special about our little chapel here that I desperately want to avoid treating it like just another room in just another building. I want to develop the devotional fire of Obed-edom and have the Lord bless my family (although I'm not sure how I feel about Dawn having six children at once).

Lord God, help me to seek your presence more and more deeply with each visit to the chapel, and help me to recognize my opportunities to encounter you in the world around me each day.

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