Was God being cruel for striking Uzzah dead for touching the ark of the covenant?

If you want to find a story where Yahweh looks like a merciless dictator, critics will say look no further than the story of David returning the Ark to Jerusalem. There was dancing in the streets as they were bringing the Ark back when all of a sudden the proverbial needle scratched off the record. Uzzah was struck dead for trying to keep the cart from falling when one of the oxen stumbled. Here’s the passage in question:

“David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. And David arose and went with all the people who were with him from Baale-Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who sits enthroned on the cherubim. And they carried the ark of God on a new cart and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. And Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart, with the ark of God, and Ahio went before the ark. And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-Uzzah to this day. And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” So David was not willing to take the ark of the Lord into the city of David.”

2 Samuel 6:1-10

As we can see from the text, even David thought God went too far. The Freedom From Religion Foundation calls Uzzah’s death nothing short of cruel: 

Here is a chance for Jehovah to demonstrate some understanding in a one-on-one interaction with a faithful follower. After all, he is supposed to have designed and created every detail of the human brain, so he knows perfectly well that Uzzah’s reaction was reflexive and aimed only at protecting the Ark. Yet Jehovah chooses cruelty rather than compassion…The terminally abusive treatment of Uzzah is just one of many instances enabling a perceptive reader to see that Jehovah’s conduct falls far short of justifying the stream of uncritical praise constantly heaped on him. 

The Execution Of Uzzah, ffrf.org

In the Psalms, David calls Yahweh slow to anger and full of compassion. (Ps 145:8) But after this, how could he say such a thing? When I first read this story, I’ll be honest, I was on #TeamDavid as far as being upset at God. It looked like He was being petty. But after a deeper look, I realize I focused too much on God’s judgment of Uzzah and failed to see his mercy. The truth is that things could’ve gotten a lot uglier, and Israel and their king would’ve had no one to blame but themselves.

Israel Disobeyed God

In Exodus 25:10-15 God gives Moses very clear instructions regarding how the Ark should be carried. And in Numbers 4:15 God told them exactly what would happen if they didn’t listen: “And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die.”  See also Numbers 7:7-9 and Deuteronomy 10:8. God repeated Himself how the Ark was to be transported and what would happen if they got it wrong.

And it’s not like David and his men could plead ignorance. After Uzzah died, they moved the Ark as the Lord prescribed. They knew the correct way all along but just didn’t seem to want to go through the trouble. Previously Israel had always carried the Ark of the Covenant in the right way. (See Dt 31.9, 25, Josh 3:3, 15, 17 4:9-10, 18, 6:6, 8:33, 1 Sam 4:4)

Not only that, but there were 30,000 people present. So for a two-day journey, these men treated God’s commandments as if they were optional, and God seemed willing to put up with it for a time. But as they neared Jerusalem, Yahweh couldn’t be seen as just some run-of-the-mill deity that would be treated just any old way the people saw fit. His words could not be seen as voluntary before all of Israel, even though He gave them space to get it right. Uzzah touching the Ark was the last straw.

Recall what happened when Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire before God and fell dead. Yahweh said ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ (Lev 10:1-3).  As with Aaron’s sons, bad things happened when God wasn’t set apart as holy.

Israel Didn’t Discern God

But wasn’t God being persnickety about how the Ark was being carried around? Does He have some sort of spiritual OCD?

While God is loving and merciful, He’s also the creative force behind the entire universe. He’s the only being that can create a world full of life and beauty. That sets him apart from anyone else. That’s what holiness means – set apart, sacred and worthy of veneration. So no, He’s not being weirdly picky. He’s showing that He’s to be taken seriously.

I’ll borrow a helpful illustration from Tim Mackie of The Bible Project. You could in some sense say that the sun is holy. It’s set apart and unique, we require it for life. But the closer you get to the sun, the more intense it gets. The power and goodness that allows for all this life is also extremely dangerous. Get too close to it and you’ll end up becoming a ‘crispy critter’. Even here on earth if you don’t take proper precautions, the heat of the sun can severely damage you if you don’t respect it.  

And in the same way, God in his holiness has created and sustains all life. He’s good. But if you approach God in the wrong way or in an impure state, His presence is also very dangerous. We see this when Moses draws near to the burning bush. God says “don’t come any closer…take off your sandals, for the place you’re standing is holy ground.” (Ex 3:5)

Israel Disrespected God

While God didn’t literally live in the Ark, it did represent His presence to Israel. He said it was where He’d meet with Moses. Exodus 25:22 says “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel.”

In his book God Behaving Badly, author David Lamb points out that the Ark was to be carried on a litter, which is a conveyance with a throne on it. King Solomon was carried on a litter. They were for rulers and kings, ox-carts were for carrying stuff, like offerings for the tabernacle, tabernacle equipment, or even grain. (See Numbers 7:3, 7, Amos 2:13)

Israel was basically calling the Ark of God ‘stuff’, like a good luck charm. They weren’t seeing it as representing the presence of God Himself. The Ark also contained God’s commandments, which they treated lightly. (Deut. 10:1-5)

Think about it for a second. If the Queen of England visited America, we wouldn’t ask her to sit in the back of a pick-up truck. We might as well declare war with our friends across the pond. The Queen and the people of England would rightly be offended. As royalty representing their great history, we’d obviously put her in the back of a limousine and handle her with the greatest security and care.

If that’s the case, it’s hard to blame God for being angry when He’s being tossed in the back of a pick-up bed, so to speak. It’s no wonder why David repented, even if he was angry at first. (1 Chron 15:11-13)

And there’s also the whole sticky situation of Israel losing the Ark in the first place like someone would lose a pair of socks. We don’t tend to lose things that are really valuable and important to us. We keep them somewhere safe.

Why this story really bothers us

While God is seen as the bad guy here, critics fail to see that He put up with Israel breaking His commandments over the course of a 12-mile journey. They didn’t recognize the holiness of the One whom they were celebrating. David and Israel didn’t show God proper honor.

Let’s just be real for a second. I think the reason we recoil at stories like these is that we don’t like the idea of God not being casual. We tend to think of things like honor and respect as outdated and even oppressive ideas. We live in a society that’s quick to not only harshly condemn those who stand in offices of authority but even act out murder towards them

The right response to this passage isn’t “look what a cruel jerk God was!” The proper reaction is to look in the mirror. If we do, we’ll see that we’ve been too have been far too light and casual with the One who gives us our every breath.

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