The Old Testament story of Uzzah, apparently killed by God for steadying the Ark of the Covenant in transit, is one of the set readings in the RCL for this Sunday (Pentecost 7; Proper 10).
We have two posts on this troubling story. CSBV Research Associate Ashley Hibbard puts the story in context and offers a powerful and compelling reading of it, then CSBV Director Helen Paynter offers a very personal take on the story. We hope that you find these helpful as you prepare to preach on the story or just seek to engage with it in your own study and reflection. If you have any thoughts or responses, you are invited to join the conversation below.
Ashley Hibbard writes:
Exodus 25-30 contain God’s instructions to Moses regarding the design and construction of the tabernacle. While these chapters often seem like little more than irrelevant and nearly mind-numbing detail, their very presence is instructive, as they demonstrate how seriously God expected Israel to take the matter of proper worship, and the proper handling of the objects that facilitated their worship. In Exodus 25:10-16, Israel is told that rings were to be fitted to the feet of the ark of the covenant, and poles for carrying it inserted that were never to be taken out. As the tabernacle was, by its very definition, a mobile worship site, the ark was likewise to be in a state where it could be easily moved by the Kohathites, the Levitical clan whose duty it was to care for and transport it. While the lesser materials, like the structure of the tent itself, could be transported by ox cart by the other clans (Num 7:6-8), no oxen or carts were given to the Kohathites, who were themselves to carry the holiest objects (Num 7:9).
All of this provides a helpful background to understand all that goes wrong in the story of Uzzah, in 2 Samuel 6:1-11. When David goes to retrieve the ark to bring it to Jerusalem, the ones who take responsibility for the ark are not the Kohathites, but the sons of Abinadab, who has hosted the ark since its return from the Philistines (1 Sam 7:1). They do not carry (nasa’) the ark, but rather mount it (rakab) on a cart pulled by oxen (2 Sam 6:3). Rather than being borne carefully by humans, the ark is now at the mercy of animals. Most of our versions say that the oxen stumbled, but the word, while rare, typically has more of a sense of release or loosening. Since we are told that this happens at a threshing floor (6:6), it seems quite possible that the oxen are distracted by the grain and pull away from their handlers. It is then that Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark. There is strong irony here: a man reaches out to take personal responsibility for the safety of the ark, just as God had commanded should be done in the first place.
We are then told that God’s anger burned against Uzzah and he struck him dead. And perhaps God was angry at Uzzah, who had presumptuously taken on himself a role only belonging to the Kohathites. But there is another figure in this story who I think may well be the ultimate object of God’s anger, but shielded, as he so often is: David. David is the king. The king was to write for himself a copy of the law and to read it daily (Deut 17:18-19). It is David who has gone to retrieve the ark. It is David who leads this joyful procession. It is David who ignores what God has commanded. While typically this story occurs in what is considered David’s “good years,” before his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam 11), it should not be lost on us that this story contains the death of an innocent for David’s sin. Uzzah dies, much like David’s son (12:18). Even the outcome of this story is somewhat similar to that story. In both cases, David pauses in his distress, and then undertakes the same action as before, only with greater reverence and propriety. The ark is indeed brought to Jerusalem (6:12). David does indeed have a son by Bathsheba, having made her his wife (12:24-25).
In my youth, this story was often taught as being about Uzzah: Uzzah was wrong. Uzzah shouldn’t have touched the ark. Uzzah brought his death on himself. Don’t be like Uzzah. Only worship according to the pattern that God gave us or he will be angry. And I would be the last person to suggest that what we do and how we act in worship should be some sort of free-for-all, or something that we make up according to our own inclinations. But let us not use this story to drive fear into the hearts of our congregations – or worse, our children. This story, as is true for so many, is about the the failure and disobedience of the leaders of God’s people. Leadership matters. Holy, reverent leadership matters. Leaders who know God’s word and seek his face in all things matters. Because terrible things may result that affect innocent people when leaders are disobedient.
Helen Paynter writes:
As someone who suffers with mild to moderate vertigo, I find images and videos of people performing extreme parkour simultaneously compelling and appalling. I’ve seen photos of people performing handstands on the very edge of high-rise buildings, or on girders hundreds of metres above the ground. I’ve seen people leaping across terrifying gaps. Once, I even saw something similar in real life. In Bristol, where I live, we have the world-famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, which sadly is a favourite suicide spot. One Sunday we were driving back from church, and were almost under the bridge, when we saw someone fall from it. I had that sickening feeling in my stomach that I had just witnessed a suicide, but even as I watched a parachute opened, the person landed, grabbed their ‘chute, and ran away. (Base jumping like this is illegal here.) I’ve managed to find a photo of someone doing it.
I wonder what such people would say about why they do what they do. They surely aren’t unaware of the possibility that they might die. I’m guessing that they would tell us the game is worth the candle. That the utter thrill of the adrenaline rush justifies the possibility of catastrophe. I think they might say that if they were to fall to their deaths it would have been worth it for the thrill, for that glorious glimpse of transcendence.
I wonder if this perspective can shed any light on what we often regard as a horrific text, where Uzzah puts out his hand to the ark and is struck dead. As modern readers we are often appalled by this. Was God’s pride so easily wounded? Was he so indifferent to the good intentions of this man? But I wonder if this perhaps is looking at the question the wrong way.
The Old Testament, in particular, is very explicit that the unmediated presence of God is extremely dangerous for humans. The book of Exodus has perhaps the clearest exposition of what I describe to my students as the “push-pull” theme of the Presence of God. So, fearful Moses is reassured by God that, “I will be with you” (Ex 3:12), in the same conversation where God has told him not to approach (3:5). After the incident with the golden calf, God tells Moses that he does not intend to go with the people, because he might consume them (33:3-5). In response, Moses begs him not to leave them and God promises to send his Presence after all (33:14-15). We are told that no one can see the face of God and live (33:20), and also that Moses saw God face to face (33:11). There is something here about the utter irresistibility of the Presence of God and yet its sheer raw danger. The establishment of the Tabernacle was a way of attempting to mediate God’s utterly essential Presence with his people, in a way which did not leave them wholly exposed to the threat that it posed. But the protection that the Tabernacle offered was limited. Tradition has it that the high priest used to enter the Most Holy Place on the annual Day of Atonement with a rope tied around his ankle, so that his body could be extracted if he was struck dead in God’s presence.
I don’t think we should view this so much as God getting angry with people who come close, but rather that his holiness is, inherently, a threat to unholy people. There is a limit to the value of this metaphor but let me try it. Some things in our world are too dangerous to approach – certain forms of radioactivity, extreme heat, very high electrical charges, and so on. There’s nothing malign about these things, they simply are too dangerous to touch. Now, as I’ve said, this metaphor has its limitations. God is not an inert substance or force. But I still wonder if this might provide a lens for helping us understand what happens to Uzzah. I think it’s not so much that God was angry with him and struck him down as a punishment. It’s more that Uzzah simply stepped into the danger zone, and there is a consequence to that.
But here’s where the parkour metaphor might pay off. I have a sneaking suspicion that Uzzah might say the game was worth the candle. I’m not suggesting he deliberately put his life in risk like that base jumper. I don’t read any such suggestion in the narrative. But maybe that moment of experiencing the transcendent glory of God, unmediated by priest or sacrifice, maybe the necessary price he paid was worth it. I’d like to think that I’d take that bargain, at least on one of my better days.
In our risk averse modern world, perhaps it’s hard for us to understand that the ancient writer might view the Presence-death trade off differently. But I think this story provides an opportunity for exploring these themes in the pulpit – not simply trying to provide an apologetic for God’s actions, but using the story more positively. It provides an opportunity to explore the glorious reality of the God who is not now simply near and dangerous, but who has come as God with us, and is now God in us.
 Contextually, it is probable that this refers specifically to Deuteronomy, but it is nonetheless evident that Israel’s king was to be responsible for knowing what God required.