David’s first effort to bring the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem was a failure. The set-up was wrong from the beginning; instead of appointing Levites to transport the ark on their shoulders, David placed the ark on a cart pulled by oxen. When the ark became unsteady, Uzza reached out his hand to catch it and was killed (1 Chronicles 13). It was a repeat of the establishment of the Mosaic tabernacle: As soon as it was erected, Aaron’s sons offered strange fire and were killed (Leviticus 10).
Fearing God’s wrath, David placed the ark in the house of Obed-edom, identified as a “Gittite” in 1 Chronicles 13, that is, a native of the Philistine city of Gath (Goliath’s city), that is, a Gentile. Instead of destroying Obed-edom’s house, the Lord blessed it and eventually David was able to bring the ark to the capital, using Levites this time (1 Chronicles 15).
Obed-edom’s ethnicity is ambiguous. Though identified as a Gittite, he is also included in lists of Levites (1 Chronicles 15:24; 16:5, 38). Possibly, Obed-edom was a member of the tribe of Levi born in Philistia or resident in Philistia for a time. It’s possible that his family was among the exiles who joined David in Ziklag, a city under the hegemony of Gath.
Obed-edom’s name (“servant of Edom”) suggests otherwise, and there is another explanation: He was ethnically Philistine, a Gentile, who was adopted into the Levitical clan after caring successfully for the ark. Gentiles were often incorporated into Israel, and this might be another instance.
If that is the case, the lesson of the episode is this: Just as Joshua conquered the land with a “mixed multitude” of Israelites and Gentiles, so David could re-conquer the land and raise up the Lord’s throne only with the assistance of Gentiles. Israel was never supposed to be isolated from Gentiles; incorporating Gentiles was essential to the success of Israel’s mission.
One detail of 1 Chronicles 13 supports this, or is at least consistent with it. Typically, the ark is identified as “ark of the covenant” or even “ark of the covenant of Yahweh of Hosts.” Both names highlight the unique relationship between God and Israel because they use the term “covenant” and the covenant-name Yahweh. In 1 Chronicles 13, it is the “ark of God” (elohim), a more universal designation (Johnstone, 1 & 2 Chronicles, 170). The ark-throne of Elohim is established not just by Israel but by all humanity, Jews and Gentiles. God’s kingdom comes when Jews and Gentiles unite around the throne.