Christian communities, with a few exceptions, consider the canon of Scripture closed. There’s no process for adding or removing books from our Bibles. Even so, we end up creating our own canons, whether intentionally or unintentionally. There are certain texts that come up frequently in worship or in the youth room or in the children's Sunday school wing. And there are certain texts that we never read in worship or Sunday school. Perplexing Scriptures examines some of these passages. This study may raise more questions than it answers; but as you work through each session, you will begin to see how God’s love and grace are at work, even in the most troubling texts.
Converge Bible Studies is a series of topical Bible studies based on the Common English Bible. Each title in the series consists of four studies on a common topic or theme. Converge can be used by small groups, classes, or individuals. Primary Scripture passages are included for ease of study, as are questions designed to encourage both personal reflection and group conversation. The topics and Scriptures in Converge come together to transform readers’ relationships with others, themselves, and God.
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Converge Bible Studies
By Josh Tinley, Shane Raynor
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
GOD AND THE EIGHTH COMMANDMENT
2 SAMUEL 6:1-11
1 Once again David assembled the select warriors of Israel, thirty thousand strong. 2 David and all the troops who were with him set out for Baalah, which is Kiriath-jearim of Judah, to bring God's chest up from there—the chest that is called by the name of the Lord of heavenly forces, who sits enthroned on the winged creatures. 3 They loaded God's chest on a new cart and carried it from Abinadab's house, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, Abinadab's sons, were driving the new cart. 4 Uzzah was beside God's chest while Ahio was walking in front of it. 5 Meanwhile, David and the entire house of Israel celebrated in the Lord's presence with all their strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.
6 When they approached Nacon's threshing floor, Uzzah reached out to God's chest and grabbed it because the oxen had stumbled. 7 The Lord became angry at Uzzah, and God struck him there because of his mistake, and he died there next to God's chest. 8 Then David got angry because the Lord's anger lashed out against Uzzah, and so that place is called Perez-uzzah today.
9 David was frightened by the Lord that day. "How will I ever bring the Lord's chest to me?" he asked. 10 So David didn't take the chest away with him to David's City. Instead, he had it put in the house of Obed-edom, who was from Gath. 11 The Lord's chest stayed with Obed-edom's household in Gath for three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom's household and all that he had.
INSIGHT AND IDEAS
I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark in the theater in the summer of 1981. I was four, almost five. While I consider Raiders one of the greatest pieces of art ever projected on a giant screen, and while it runs 115 minutes (five minutes short of two hours, and 37 minutes shorter than The Dark Knight), I had a hard time making it through the entire movie. I snoozed through significant chunks of it. A couple years later, my family got cable television; and we caught Raiders on one of the movie channels. Again, I had trouble staying awake for the entire 115 minutes.
So I didn't really appreciate the cinematic masterpiece that is Raiders of the Lost Ark until I was older. But two scenes stuck with me from those early viewings:
The opening scene in which swashbuckling archaeologist Indiana Jones retrieves a golden idol from a Peruvian temple, only to trigger a booby trap and narrowly avoid being crushed by a giant boulder. (Everyone remembers that scene.)
The scene toward the end when the Nazis who have confiscated the ark of the covenant from Dr. Jones take the ark to an island in the Aegean Sea and decide to open it, wanting to test their prize before taking it back to Hitler in Germany. (Raiders is set in the 1930s, so the Nazis are the principle antagonists.) Opening the ark proves to be a mistake.
If you've seen the movie, you know what happens when the Nazis (led by French archaeologist-for-hire René Belloq) remove the lid from the ark. They find that the shattered remains of the tablets that once bore the Law given to Moses have been reduced to sand. Then they find something else: death. Light fixtures surrounding the ark explode; the Nazi soldiers' guns go off; and a storm (with lightning and everything) erupts within the ark. Spirits, possibly seraphim, descend on those gathered, eliciting awe and then terror. A flame emerges from the ark and the fire of God strikes dead all of the soldiers who were foolish enough to watch as the ark was opened.
Then the major players—Belloq and the Nazi leadership, including Major Arnold Toht—get theirs. The divine fire melts them like a nine-year-old boy with a fire fetish melts his plastic action figures. Indiana Jones and his partner and love interest, Marion Ravenwood, survive by shutting their eyes and turning away from the ark.
The moral of the story: The ark of the covenant is not to be trifled with.
THE ARK: DANGEROUS NOT ONLY FOR NAZIS
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg (the producer and director, respectively, of the Indiana Jones films) didn't come up with the idea that the ark is deadly for those who don't respect it. We find it in the Old Testament, 2 Samuel 6:1-10.
The ark makes its first appearance in Exodus 25 when Moses meets with God atop Mount Sinai, or Horeb. (Mount Sinai and Mount Horeb are two names for the same mountain.)
While God dictated to Moses the Law and the terms of the covenant between God and Israel, God gave Moses instructions for building an ark—a box made of acacia wood—to hold the tablets on which the Law is written. God told Moses the dimensions of the ark, how to decorate the ark (where to place the depictions of winged heavenly creatures), and how to transport the ark. The transportation instructions were simple: "Make acacia-wood poles and cover them with gold. Then put the poles into the rings on the chest's sides and use them to carry the chest. The poles should stay in the chest's rings. They shouldn't be taken out of them" (Exodus 25:13-15).
The Israelites carried this sacred box through the wilderness of Sinai for 40 years and into their new home in Canaan. The ark went before them during their conquests under Joshua and when they settled the land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. We don't read about the ark in the Book of Judges, but we know that it spent some time in Gilgal before finding its way to the city of Shiloh during the time of the prophet Samuel. The neighboring Philistines captured the ark for a time but couldn't hold it, and it wound up in Kiriath-jearim. It stayed there until the reign of King David, who decided to bring the ark to his new capital, Jerusalem.
The story of King David's finally bringing the ark of the covenant (the one that would melt so many Nazi faces) into Jerusalem comes up frequently in youth ministry curriculum. David was so overcome with joy that he danced "with all his strength before the Lord" (2 Samuel 6:14), accompanied by "shouts and trumpet blasts" (verse 15). David's wife Michal (daughter of his predecessor and rival, King Saul) watched her husband dance "in a linen priestly vest" (verse 14) and lost "all respect for him" (verse 16). But David was not ashamed.
This story is great for youth because 1) it shows dance as a form of worship, and the idea of praising God through dance is a welcome one for young people who have trouble staying awake during more staid expressions of worship; and 2) David dances before God boldly and without embarrassment.
The events that precede the ark's triumphant arrival in Jerusalem and David's celebration don't come up nearly as often. When David assumed the throne as Israel's second king, the ark resided in Kiriathjearim. It ended up there because the people in its previous home, Beth-shemesh, couldn't handle it. God killed seventy Beth-shemites as punishment for looking into the ark (1 Samuel 6:19-20). (Unfortunately for them, they hadn't seen Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
David decided that the ark belonged in Jerusalem. Getting it there proved troublesome. David assembled a group of thirty thousand "select warriors" to accompany the sacred box on its journey. But he and his men made the unfortunate decision to transport the box on a "cart" (2 Samuel 6:3). (To be fair, the text says that it was a "new cart.") Carts are great for getting television and DVD player sets from one end of the church building to the other. Carts are less effective when it comes to moving acacia-wood boxes across rocky terrain.
The group David had assembled started from Abinadab's house, which was on a hill. Abinadab's sons Uzzah and Ahio rolled the cart down the hill. Ahio walked in front of the cart; Uzzah walked beside it. The other thirty thousand people who were there "celebrated in the Lord's presence with all their strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals" (2 Samuel 6:5).
Everything was going well until the oxen pulling the cart stumbled. Uzzah, knowing that he would have a disaster on his hands should the ark tumble from the cart, "reached out to God's chest and grabbed it" (2 Samuel 6:6). God was angry that Uzzah had touched the ark and struck him dead. Uzzah was just trying to help out. He had good intentions, but he broke a rule and paid with his life. The ark remained in the house of Obed-edom in the city of Gath for three months before David tried again to bring it to Jerusalem.
CRUEL AND UNUSUAL
The eighth amendment of the United States Constitution, right there in the Bill of Rights, says: "Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted."
It's not terribly specific. "Excessive" and "cruel and unusual" mean different things to different legislators and judges. But the point of this amendment is simple: The punishment should be proportional to the crime. This concern for proportionality didn't originate with the founders of the United States of America. In fact, it is nearly identical to an item in the English Bill of Rights of 1689. But the principle of a punishment fitting the crime goes back much farther.
The Law in Leviticus 24:19-20 says, "If someone injures a fellow citizen, they will suffer the same injury they inflicted: broken bone for broken bone, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The same injury the person inflicted on the other will be inflicted on them." This "eye for an eye" precept is commonly known as lex talionis, a Latin phrase meaning "law of retaliation."
Lex talionis seems harsh to twenty-first-century ears. The international community tends to look down on nations that have branches of law enforcement devoted to gouging eyes, pulling teeth, and breaking bones. Such an approach to criminal justice offends our human rights sensibilities. But this ancient law was actually written with human rights in mind. If someone chops off your hand, the most you can do in retaliation is to chop off one of that person's hands. You are not allowed to respond to a maiming by killing your attacker's family and burning down his village.
So even Leviticus, a book that many Christians regard as the chief source of obscure maxims that don't apply in the twenty-first century, warns us not to go overboard with punishments.
The idea of proportional punishment is written into God's law. Yet when it comes to punishing poor Uzzah, God doesn't seem to adhere to the same standard. And unlike the antagonists in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Uzzah wasn't a Nazi. He wasn't planning on harnessing the ark's power with an eye toward world domination. He was just trying to keep the ark from falling off the cart.
In his book God Behaving Badly, Old Testament scholar David T. Lamb argues that God's punishment of Uzzah was warranted. He points out that God had given the Israelites clear instructions on how to carry the ark, and the Israelites neglected to follow those instructions.
Of course, most of us have failed to follow instructions, even divine instructions, and have not been stricken dead as a result. But, Lamb adds, the ark was so sacred and so powerful that adhering to instructions for its care and handling was absolutely necessary. "Handling the ark was inherently dangerous," he writes, "like handling radioactive materials. If people do not use proper precaution when transporting plutonium, people die." Indeed, the stakes for transporting the ark were even higher. (It's worth noting that, in 1 Samuel 6, when the Philistines agree to return the ark to Israel, the Israelite priests instruct the Philistines to send the ark on a cart drawn by two calves. It is unclear whether these instructions come from God or are invented by the priests themselves.)
Lamb also says that he believes that the audience was a factor in God's punishment of Uzzah. The crowd of thirty thousand chosen to travel with the ark was both large and influential. For this reason, according to Lamb, God had to be clear about expectations and the consequences of not following procedures and could not allow the mishandling of the ark to go unpunished. "With an audience of the entire nation," Lamb writes, "[God] did not want to send the message that obedience is optional." He notes that the Israelites' disobedience had to be punished in a way that would get their attention.
Perhaps Uzzah's infraction wasn't as minor as we might think. But there are plenty of other instances in Scripture where God inflicts a seemingly excessive punishment. Prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, in Genesis 19, God's messengers told Lot and his family to flee the city, saying, "Don't look back." But Lot's wife couldn't resist. On her way out of town, she looked back and "turned into a pillar of salt" (Genesis 19:26).
'ACCEPT COMMUNISM OR DIE'
Lest we dismiss such as excessive punishment as the work of a preJesus, Old Testament God, we should consider the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11.
Acts tells us that the first Christians held everything in common. Those who joined the young Christian movement turned over all of their income and assets to the apostles, who would redistribute it as needed. Barnabas, for example, "owned a field, sold it, brought the money, and placed it in the care and under the authority of the apostles" (Acts 4:37). Barnabas did what was expected.
A couple named Ananias and Sapphira did not. Ananias, with his wife Sapphira's knowledge, sold a piece of property and kept "some of the proceeds" for himself. He gave the rest to the apostles. Peter, a leader among the apostles, knew immediately what Ananias had done and launched into a litany of questions: "Ananias, how is it that Satan has influenced you to lie to the Holy Spirit by withholding some of the proceeds from the sale of your land? Wasn't that property yours to keep? After you sold it, wasn't the money yours to do with whatever you wanted? What made you think of such a thing? You haven't lied to other people but to God!" (Acts 5:3-4). Ananias didn't even get a chance to make his defense. He dropped dead on the spot.
A few hours later, Sapphira, not knowing what had happened to her husband, met with Peter. He asked her about the sale of the property, and she confirmed the false amount that Ananias had reported as the selling price. Peter responds, "How could you scheme with each other to challenge the Lord's Spirit? Look! The feet of those who buried your husband are at the door. They will carry you out too" (5:9). And with that, Sapphira dropped dead too.
The Brick Testament website—which recreates biblical events and illustrates biblical teachings using Lego bricks and offers a superliteral and often irreverent take on Scripture—entitled its treatment of the Ananias and Sapphira story "Accept Communism or Die." I appreciate the humor. But the text suggests that Ananias and Sapphira were punished not because they refused to play along with the apostles' system of income redistribution but because they were dishonest about their commitment to the church. Peter told Ananias that he had lied about how he would use the money and accused Sapphira of scheming to cheat the Holy Spirit.
Lying before God is a grave offense. But should it be a capital offense? How many of us have been guilty of not fulfilling our pledge to the church? I will confess that I have been. And God never smote me for it. Still, when I read the account of Ananias and Sapphira's death in Acts 5:1-11, it reinforces for me the importance of being faithful to commitments—both commitments to God and commitments to the community of faith.
Perhaps the lesson we take from these perplexing Scriptures is not that God is ready to strike us down for seemingly minor infractions but that these infractions are not as minor as they seem. Even if we think that God went overboard in punishing poor Uzzah, Uzzah's story teaches us that God's instructions should not be taken lightly and that there are consequences for failing to follow these instructions, even if those consequences don't involve being zapped or turned into sodium chloride.
Reading about God, whom many of us know as a God of grace and mercy, punishing Uzzah and Lot's wife and Ananias and Sapphira so severely should make us uncomfortable. And it should make us think critically about the relationship between justice and mercy. But even if we struggle to come to terms with God's actions in these Scriptures, these stories can teach us important truths about God's hopes and expectations for us.
1. In your opinion, did Uzzah (the steward of the ark of the covenant who touched the ark to keep it from tumbling from the cart on which it was being carried) deserve to lose his life as a consequence of touching the ark?
2. Imagine that someone with no previous knowledge of Scripture read about God's punishment of Uzzah in 1 Samuel 6 or of Lot's wife in Genesis 19. What impression of God might that person take from these Scriptures? How might you help that person better know and understand God?
Excerpted from Converge Bible Studies by Josh Tinley, Shane Raynor. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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