Monday, June 20, 2011

Power from on High

I’ve always loved stories about the Ark of the Covenant. When I was a child, there were two bible stories that were really burned into my brain because I found them so interesting—Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1Kings 18) and Uzzah and the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6). I’m not sure if you can say that they were my “favorites,” but they were the ones I paid the most attention to. Both of them involve encounters with God’s power, and the story about the Ark, which includes the death of a man who touched the Ark in order to save it from falling, gives an interesting perspective on God’s justice.

In today’s reading from the Old Testament (1 Samuel 5:1-12), the Ark of the Covenant, which has been captured by the Philistines, is shuffled around from place to place by those who are enemies of God’s people. Naturally, or perhaps super-naturally, the power of God and those who seek the destruction of God’s people don’t mix well. First, the Ark is brought to Ashdod and placed in the house of Dagon, their God. That first night, God’s power is displayed as Dagon (a statue I presume) is found the next morning to have bowed down onto the ground in front of the Ark. On the second night, the same things happens—only this time the hands and head of Dagon are mysteriously cut off. Apparently, Yahweh does not play well with others (gods, at least).

Then, the tumors come. The people of Ashdod are stricken with tumors—cancerous bumps that infect all the people of that town. So, eager to get rid of the source of this plague, the people of Ashdod take the Ark to Gath and then, after identical consequences, to Ekron and finally back to Israel—the Philistines couldn’t take it anymore. The power of God, which is enthroned on/by/through the physical structure of the Ark of the Covenant, threatened their lives as they didn’t wield it appropriately.

Hollywood is known for its exaggerations, but I’m not so sure that the final dramatic scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark is really an overstatement. There’s nothing in the bible that speaks of lightning bolts emanating from the Ark and striking the Philistines (played by the Nazis), but that’s pretty close to the biblical truth. God won’t let his power be appropriated by evil. That which stands in opposition to God’s will cannot incorporate God’s equipment. A modern believer might prefer to think of the power of the Ark as being purely psychological, but the border between mind and body is pretty thin. Yes, it’s silly to think that an object like the Ark can exact physical consequences for being misused, and I’m not saying that the “magic” behind its power was actually in the primitive discovery of uranium or some other radioactive element, but there’s power here—more than just a banner to be waived.

We might not be able to bottle it in quite the same way as the ancient Israelites, but we have experiences of God’s power. The power to give life or to take it away. The power to send gentle rains or destructive storms. The power to save and redeem or to curse and damn. And, to some extent, we are mediators of that divine power. We can preserve life, or we can let it go carelessly. We can take care of creation, or we can ignore its needs. We can preach forgiveness, or we can preach hatred. Those sorts of things are powerful at the divine level, and we get to be a part of them. But we shouldn’t exercise power at that level if we aren’t focused on doing God’s will. The stakes are too great—not some magical, physical retribution but some real, measurable consequences. As human beings, we do experience and even administer moments of God’s power. As we do so, are we aligned with God’s will?

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