Monday, November 24, 2008

Uzzah and the ark

In this installment of Stories From the Bible, I will address one of my childhood boogeymen. This story has always bothered me and, because I was a Christian at the time, it caused no small bit of resentment, fear and mistrust of God. 2nd Samuel 6:1-11.
1 David again brought together out of Israel chosen men, thirty thousand in all. 2 He and all his men set out from Baalah of Judah [a] to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, [b] the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark. 3 They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart 4 with the ark of God on it, [c] and Ahio was walking in front of it. 5 David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the LORD, with songs [d] and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.

6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The LORD's anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.

8 Then David was angry because the LORD's wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah. [e]

9 David was afraid of the LORD that day and said, "How can the ark of the LORD ever come to me?" 10 He was not willing to take the ark of the LORD to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it aside to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. 11 The ark of the LORD remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the LORD blessed him and his entire household.
Why, I wondered, did God kill Uzzah who did nothing more than to make sure that God's ark did not fall. I do not recall what the explanation given me was, but I imagine that it was something along the lines of having faith in God - perhaps a bit of a twist on the general theme of Abraham and Isaac where God wants to test the obedience of his people and their general faith. In the case of Abraham and Isaac, God wants to make sure that Abraham will obey God even to the point of killing his own son; in the case of Uzzah and the ark, God is testing Uzzah's faith in God's ability to protect his precious ark. But the text never says that, the text never implies anything at all and simply tells the story of Uzzah, who is killed for being a good person with good reflexes in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who knows what might have happened had Uzzah not been there? Perhaps the ark would have fallen and God's anger would have 'burned against' King David instead. And if God could have moved it without the assistance of men, why take the chance? Pretty much any way you cut it, this story portrays God in some kind of unflattering light. Maybe God is unable to move this physical object all on his own. Or maybe he's just being a jerk - after all, the passage gives no indication that God is remotely sorry for his action. He simply gets angry and kills Uzzah.

As a child reading this, I just didn't get it. Why would God do that? Sure, it says that it was an irreverent act, but why was the so-called transgression not mitigated by the circumstances and intentions? In other stories where God killed people, some better reason was given for their demise. Even in a cursory way, they were shown to have deserved it. Until this point, I could always depend on God to be on my side. But now I didn't know where, or who God was. He went from wise ruler to mad dog in one smite.


Saint and Sinner said...

Hi Nathaniel. I was doing a google search on Uzzah and the ark and found your article. It is important to understand that what Uzzah did was not an innocent act, even if well intentioned. God's purity and utter "otherness" (we call it holiness) is something which is greatly admired about His nature, and what sets Him apart from humanity. One could look at these stories in disgust and question why a good God would kill a man for trying to steady a valuable load, but in essence what Uzzah was doing was trying to approach the Great King of the Universe on his own terms. God can never be approached on "our" terms, but on His. When we do approach Him on his terms, in humility, repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, we find Him to be full of mercy and love.

nathaniel wallace said...

SaS: Thank you for your comments!

You're right, of course. That's probably the only way to view this story and retain any respect for such a god. And as a fictional character, I recognize that such a smiting is consistent with many of his actions. It does not square with the image of him as a personal savior and loving father figure, however.

For the unfortunate Uzzah, I guess we should just be glad that this episode took place in the Old Testament, before god decided that there should be a heaven, a hell and such a thing as eternity.

Saint and Sinner said...

NW: I would find God's nature as consistent on this issue in both the old and new. God's nature as holy and wrathful against sin squares with His nature as savior and loving father at the cross. For this reason I don't view God as biblically being at one time a meanie God but now a softie- I see real coherence in both testaments. Even in the old, there was a mercy seat where sin could be atoned for by the high priest. The cross is the ultimate mercy seat where God's holiness and wrath is reconciled with His grace and mercy for those who trust in the substitute for their sins- The Lord Jesus Christ. It is because God's utter holiness is so foreign to us that we would accuse Him of injustice for upholding the purity of His nature. To have a god who can be fashioned in our image is no god at all.