When I was an interim pastor, I lived a kind of nomadic life-style. I would go for a year or two and live in a community where a church was between pastors. I had a walking stick that I gave to the chairman of the board on my first Sunday. He or she gave it back on my last Sunday. This symbolized the temporary nature of interim ministry. I took my walking stick and walked on down the road to my next posting.
In a lectionary reading for the last Sunday in Advent, God tells Nathan, “I have not lived in a house since the time that I brought up the children of Israel out of Egypt up until now, but have moved around in a tent and in a tabernacle” (2 Samuel 7:6).
This was because ancient Israel, unlike her neighbors, was at first not a feudal, city-state based society. The original Israelites were clan and village based. They had roots as refugees, nomads, caravaneers, and displaced people (perhaps the ‘apiru people of the Amarna letters, although I am not fully convinced of this). There are a lot of references to them dwelling in tents and camps. God was mobile and nomadic, just as they were. God also dwelt in a tent. He moved around. You could anthromorphize this God as carrying a walking stick.
But David altered Israel. He wanted to make them a city-state based society. He wanted to impose more centralization.
A hobby of mine is trying to figure out what really happened behind the story told in 1 and 2 Samuel. What really happened seems not to have been very pretty. There is no way to make King David out to be anything but a ruthless politician and warlord. Baruch Halpern has a fascinating book, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King. It is fascinating because Halpern is not some minimalist who thinks 1 and 2 Samuel are fictions invented centuries later. He thinks the sources largely come from the time of David and shortly later. But he also thinks that they are propaganda for David’s dynasty and tend to cover up murder and treason on David’s part.
I do not entirely agree with Halpern. But I do think that David, in alliance with enemies of Saul, like the Philistines of Gath and the Ammonites, imposed the rule of Judah on the former kingdom of Saul by military force. Therein lies the root of the later division of the kingdom into Israel and Judah. It was an unnatural and forced unity in the first place.
There is a tension in the Bible about whether what David did was a good thing. David was forbidden to build a centralized temple. His intention to use God for political purposes was called into question. Later interpretation of this was that just David was forbidden. Kings after him had a go ahead. But that is not what 2 Samuel 7 says.
What I get from this is that God adapted to his people. God was with his people when they were nomads and refugees. God was with his people when Israel became a city-state. God was with them in tents, camps, and villages. God was with them in the city. He was not just with them to support everything they or their kings wanted to do. He was with them as a critic, and judge as well as a comfort.
At Advent we think that in Jesus God is with his people. He is named Immanuel-God with us. John 1:14 says that the word became flesh and dwelt (literally tented) among us. In our rather mobile society, we can take reassurance from God moving around with his people. His presence is not a distant presence.