Summary: God is holy, and not to be trifled with. We wisely enter His presence with the awareness that He is a consuming fire.
“Death and the Dance: David, Uzzah, and the Ark”, II Samuel 6
This chapter qualifies as one of the difficult passages of Scripture. We are taken aback at the harsh action of God, in what we might regard as a merciless act of justice. On the surface, we see Uzzah doing what appears as a good deed, and God responding with swift vengeance. We also see David in what appears as inappropriate behavior before God, suffering no ill consequences.
The Ark of the Covenant had been captured by the Philistines nearly 20 years prior to this incident (I Sam 4-7), before David became king. The Ark was Israel’s national treasure and most sacred object; it was the presence of God among His people. It was kept in the Tabernacle, in the Most Holy Place, a curtained-off location where only the High Priest would enter on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The Philistines captured the Ark, but soon gladly sent it back after God destroyed the idol of their god Dagon and the people were stricken with tumors. Abinadab was housing the Ark in Kiriath-Jearim (approx. 20 miles west of Jerusalem) after its return from the Philistines. When David established his throne in Jerusalem, he determined to bring the holy Ark to his new capital, to provide the focus for worship and a rallying point for the nation. He wanted the glory back. David’s mission is an important, holy task. The day David brought the Ark to Jerusalem was perhaps the greatest day of his life.
The Ark was placed on an ox cart. The oxen pulling the cart stumbled, and the Ark slid and was about to fall to the ground. Uzzah, one of the priests charged with transfering the Ark, put out his hand to prevent the Ark from striking the ground. Then came the blunt, hard sentence (vs 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”. We might have expected God to thank Uzzah; instead He executed him on the spot.
David called off the mission immediately. Who would dare continue after that? Three months later David completed the task, and this time with extravagant celebration. We read that “David danced before the Lord with all his might,” accompanied by “shouts and the sound of trumpets” (vs 14, likely the shofar, a trumpet made from a ram’s horn). The Ark of the Covenant was the occasion for death and the dance…Uzzah’s death and David’s dance.
What was Uzzah’s sin? It’s tempting to say he was in the wrong place at the wrong time! Uzzah was slain for “irreverence”, vs. 6. The Hebrew people largely regarded the Ark as a good luck object. I’ve been treated that way—climbing onto an Army helicopter or into a C-130, soldiers invariably say “O good—the chaplain’s with us; we’ll be safe.” I usually reply, “How do you know this isn’t the day God’s going to take me home?”
Uzzah saw himself as one whose job it was to “take care” of God. He had God in a box, and assumed responsibility for keeping Him safe from the mud and dust of the world. Uzzah ignored, perhaps defied Moses’ clear directions on the proper handling the Ark. It was not to be touched with human hands, but carried by Levites using poles inserted through rings attached to the Ark. Only the poles could be touched. In his book The Holiness of God, R.C. Sproul points out: “Uzzah assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth. But it wasn’t the ground that would desecrate the Ark; it was the touch of man.” Uzzah was a Kohathite, a clan from within the tribe of Levi, which had been consecrated by God to handle the logistics of moving the Tabernacle—the tent and its furnishings. The book of Numbers clearly warns that they may not touch the holy objects “or they will die”. Only the Levitical priests were allowed to carry the most holy objects; the Kohathites were not to even look at the Ark (Num 4).
In Bosnia there are areas of uncleared land mines. Most are clearly marked with warning signs. While in Tuzla I walked past several such areas. I was told that everyone in the area one night awoke to a huge explosion—an animal apparently stepped on one of the mines. In the Mosaic Law there were clear warnings about the Ark, but they went foolishly unheeded.
Uzzah substituted what he might have regarded as a more efficient innovation. He had greater technology, but his method was impersonal. He replaced consecrated persons with a machine…the cart was new, and the priests may have figured it was an appropriate method. I am not opposed to technology—I prepared my sermon on a computer! I am, however, opposed to treating God as an impersonal force. Uzzah fatally discovered that he was not in charge of God. His method was contrary to God’s Law and offensive to God.