Death looms on one side, barrenness on the other, and between them, in that steep narrow place, David leaps, twirls, shimmies wild-limbed on the air.
He is close to 40. Maybe his wound-haunted fleshtrained for war, hardened through exile-dwelling, borderland skirmishes, and Saul-dodginghas in these later years softened. He doesn't have to get his bread by begging or brigandage anymore. He doesn't have to bully the neighbors, hide in caves, fake insanity. He's lord of the land. He's king. Years of wiliness and austerity and hardship have given way to a long season of prosperity, luxury, ease.
And maybe his body feels it. Maybe on cold mornings his limbs have a stiffness like wood splints on the joints, and his tough supple body gathers a heaviness, a fleshy sediment: the wound of idleness and indulgence.
But today he dances, near naked, with all his might, undignified.
He did this once before, months ago, and a man died. It was Uzzah, a priest. As David danced, there was an accident: an ox stumbled, a cart lurched, the ark of the covenant riding on it tottered, slid, threatened to tumble to the ground.
Uzzah's instincts were razor-sharp and lightening-quick. He was ready for just this kind of thing, vigilant, hands hovering in anticipation. When the moment of crisis came, Uzzah was there, prepared, saving the day. He touched the ark, and God smote him dead.
On this day, David's dance will end in a domestic battle, a bitter fight with his wife. Michal, Saul's daughter and David's first wife, is unimpressed with David dancing. She is, in fact, disgusted. Grown men shouldn't carry on like that. Certainly the king shouldn't. Kings should conduct themselves with proper decorum, in a manner befitting their stature. It is irreverent, grotesque even, these wild flailing calisthenics. It is what common people might do.
God struck Michal barren.
Between death and barrenness, David dances. His motions are both natural and desperate: a bird flying, a man drowning, the thing he was born for, the thing he'll never get used to. Choreographed by yearning and wonder, this is the dance of the God-struck, the God-smitten. This is the dance of the one who dances in fire, at cliff edges, on high wires, in the midst of mortal peril, between death and barrenness.
Uzzah watches with tense worry, and dies. Michal watches with brittle scorn, and dies childless.
David dances, alive, fully alive.
This is an odd story (2 Samuel 6:5-7, 16, 20-23), and startling. It is a story with a wrenching undertow of menace and violence. It is a story too seldom remembered in context. Most of us retain only a thin polished fragment of it: the image of the happy, leaping king. Lately the story has been used to justify physical expressiveness in worshipfrom hand-raising and hand-clapping to liturgical dance to mosh pits.
But it is a story with a darkly textured backdrop: death looming over there, barrenness skulking over here. It begins when David wants to make the ark of the covenant a symbol of his royal authority. David, after seven years of court intrigue and brutal civil war against the house of Saul and the northern kingdom, has finally been crowned king of both north and south, Israel and Judah. Now David has breathing room. It's time to turn his abundant energy toward other things: civic development, cultural initiative, scientific inquiry, political fence-mending, worship.
The ark of the covenant baptizes David's political daring and novelty with ancient authority. It gives David the imprimatur of Mosaic legitimacy. Such might well be David's political motive in bringing the ark "home." But David, who is not above shrewd political calculation, almost always transcends it. So the ark coming to Jerusalem is not primarily a political gesture. It is primarily worship. By this, David makes a powerful statement: God is king in this kingdom, lord of this land. The king acknowledges the King beyond him, above him, to whom he owes all fealty. For whom he dances.