An Exercise in Containing God

For our Jewish neighbors Yom Kippur, their Day of Atonement, fell this year on October 11th and 12. Five days after Yom Kippur, they entered a week long festival call Sukkot. Sukkot is a Hebrew word meaning “booths” or “huts.” This distinct traditional festival takes seriously the commandment in Leviticus 23:42 that all who are born Israelites are to dwell in booths seven days. So they erect flimsy, makeshift, temporary small shelters in which to live. It is the Jewish festival of giving thanks for the bounty of the earth during the fall harvest. It’s a time to pray for all the peoples of the world remain safe and prosperous, for those who struggle with terrorist to be vigilant and that those who foment violence to change their ways. It calls attention to the frailty and transience of life and in the end our dependence on God. But more to the point it reminds contemporary Jews of what it was like for their ancestors as they wandered in the wilderness for forty years.  Last Sunday was the last day of Sukkot.


II Samuel 5, tells us that when David was 37-years-old his men captured from the Jebusites the centuries old “stronghold of Jerusalem.” He began an extensive building program in Jerusalem which he renamed “the City of David.” II Samuel 7 tells us that Now when the king (That’s David.)was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

David knew what it was like to live alfresco. As a youth and then as a young man, when his family put him to shepherding in the wilderness, he lived in a tent. After he was anointed by Samuel as the successor to Saul  as part of the national military and then as a leader of the insurrection he had lived in tents. And now, after God had brought him through all the struggles and the land was at peace David was living in luxury – in a house made of cedar – which was the finest residential construction available.

After Nathan told David to go ahead and build God a house he got a wake up call from God. “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”


Without any prayerful consideration Nathan had glibly told his King that whatever he’d like to do would certainly be pleasing to God. If David wanted to take God out of a tent and build for him a temple, what could be wrong with that? For some reason God’s response was “Thank you David, but no thank you.” And Nathan had to go back and deliver that message to his King.


Was God questioning David’s motives? Or was it something about God that caused David’s offer to be rejected? Or maybe both? In practical terms a house for God would be a permanent home for the Ark of the Covenant, the iconic symbol of God’s presence with Israel.  Since the extraordinary march from Sinai the Ark preceded the people, especially when they crossed the Jordan river into the promised land on dry ground.  It was carried around the city of Jericho before the walls fell.  Joshua with all the people in attendance set up the Ark as a ritual site in the ancient city of Shiloh. In the futile attempt to enlist God’s help in defeating the Philistines 1st Samuel tells us that the Ark was brought from Shiloh to lead the army into battle. After twice being defeated by the Philistines they captured it. Each place where the Philistines kept the Ark misfortune happened, all the way from an outbreak of boils, to hemorrhoids to an infestation of mice. After seven months of one misery after another the Philistines returned the Ark to the Israelites. It was left in a field in Judah until the curious neighbors looked into it which result in the whole community being afflicted. They petitioned to have it removed. It spent the next twenty years in the care of Eleazar. It was from here that David decided to have had it moved to Jerusalem. On its way one of the drivers of the cart on which the Ark was carried was smitten when he put out his hand to keep the Ark from falling. Instead of carrying the Ark on to Jerusalem, fearful of it and its power David left the Ark with Odeb-edom for three months. When it’s new keeper prospered greatly David changed his mind and had the Ark brought to Jerusalem.


We could imagine David thinking that if God was given a place of God’s own God would be grateful and bless David even more than he had already. Or maybe he thought that if God had God’s own place God would have some interest in keeping the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Israel safe. One thing seems certain, David brought the Ark to Jerusalem to consolidate his authority as the civil and religious leader and solidify his support in the nation. Having heard the stories and now having seen the power of the Ark David realized that such power independent from his rule as King could be a problem. To provide a permanent home he would, like those before him, benefit from its power but to do so he had to domesticate God’s power. Regardless of David’s agenda, what is clear is that he is told it wasn’t for him to build a box which would hold God.


In responding to David, the first thing God explains is that God never commanded any of Israel’s leaders to build for him a house. God seems to be just fine with the tabernacle. What do you think of the notion that the people of God are, as is God’s own self, not meant to be settled in houses of cedar. What is symbolized by God’s preference for an uncertain structure of the four walls of a temporary dwelling?


In the time of Jesus the people of Galilee were the most religious Jews in the world, they were most highly educated in the Scriptures. More famous Jewish teachers came from Galilee than any other place. Interpretation of Scripture was debated with enthusiasm. It was into that environment that Jesus was born, educated and spent his ministry. Local synagogues hired teachers who were called ‘rabbi’ and though he had responsibilty for the education of the village they were only authorized to teach accepted interpretations of the law. Children began their studies of the Torah at age 4 or 5 memorizing large portions of it.  The best students continued their studies including the prophets and writings and began to learn the interpretations of the Oral Torah. A very few of the most outstanding students were allowed to study with a famous rabbi – they were called disciples. Their teachers saw themselves as passing on a life style to their students. This was the route Jesus took to be acknowledged as a ‘rabbi’. Unlike most rabbis, Jesus appears to be a type of rabbi believed to have the authority to make new interpretations and pass legal judgments. Crowds were amazed because Jesus taught with authority not as their Torah teachers (Matt. 7:28-29). Jesus said that he didn’t come to do away with God’s Torah or Old Testament, he came to complete it and to show how to correctly keep it. One of the ways Jesus interpreted the Torah was to stress the importance of the right attitude of heart as well as the right action (Matt. 5:27-28).  This is one of the most significant concepts of the New Testament. Jesus, the divine Messiah,  taught like a rabbi. He interpreted God’s word and completed it. He demonstrated obedience to it. He chose disciples whom he would empower to become like him and led them around until they began to imitate him. Jesus showed his contemporaries and us that God can’t be domesticated and interpretations of the Words of God were not stagnant and unchanging but alive and applicable to a changing world. The Sabbath, Jesus said, was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.


As lovely as is the image of the dove, Celtic spirituality found that the wild goose was a much more appropriate symbol of the Holy Spirit. Wild geese are, well, wild. Untamed, uncontrolled. They make a lot of noise and have a habit of biting those who try to contain or capture them. That has been the experience of Christians with the Holy Spirit for over two thousand years. Repeatedly, when an orthodoxy has taken firm control of the religious establishment, the Spirit of God has broken free and has often bitten those who tried to constrain it. Our understanding of the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit is simply that such spiritual reality extends to us today. Nathan had to tell David, Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”  Could it be that we need to hear the same message as we attempt to shore up established and acculturated orthodoxy rather than being open to the fresh breathings of God’s spirit.?





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