Spokane Friends met at A.M. Cannon Park on Sunday to worship and play. I think I found a a great text for a Picnic! It is a story that has caused heads to be scratched in Jewish circles for millenia. It is of the same character as the continuing discussion of why God didn’t permit Moses to enter the Promised Land. Uzzah is struck dead on the spot by God when he simply reaches out to keep the Ark of the Covenant from falling from an ox-cart. David was angry with God and then scared. Later he was envious enough to try moving the Ark again but this time by the book. And the result was a huge barbecue.
II Samuel 6:
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.2David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. 3They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart 4with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. 5David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
6When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it.7The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. 8David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day. 9David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” 10So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. 11The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months; and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.
12It was told King David, “The Lord has blessed the household of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; 13and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. 16As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. 17They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. 18When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, 19and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.
David threw a grand barbecue with cakes and raisins before sending all the people back home. But the bigger story is, similar to Moses being denied entry into Canaan, what happened to Uzzah. It has been a conundrum for Jews and Christians for thousands of years. But you heard what took place, to keep the Ark from falling from the Ox Cart on which it was being transported to Jerusalem, Uzzah reached out to steady it. God killed him on the spot. At first it made David angry with God but his anger soon turned to fear. David decided that taking the Ark into his possession was intrinsically dangerous so he left it where it was for three months. I guess we’d call David risk averse. Maybe you would be too.
But the people who were left to care for the Ark were evidently rewarded by God and David learned of it. He wanted that blessing for himself and his new political regime. The reason for the great barbecue was that for each six steps taken by the Levites in moving the Ark the way it was supposed to be moved David ‘sacrificed’ an ox and a fatted lamb. And I get a charge out of how David worked so hard not to anger God by dancing nearly naked as hard as he could. And maybe you’ve tried to negotiate with God too.
But for the record, the Ark of the Covenant was a rectangular box, not quite four feet in length and a little over two feet in depth and width. It was constructed of wood and plated with gold. Its lid of solid gold was called the mercy seat. Two cherubim, angel-like figures at either end, framed the space around the central mercy seat from which God’s word was honored.
The Ark contained three items: the tablets of stone that Moses had delivered to the people from Sinai, a jar of manna from the wilderness years of wandering, and Aaron’s rod which budded. These objects were the continuing and reminding evidence that God worked among them: commanded them (the tablets), provided for them (the manna), and saved them (the rod). The Ark gave worship a hard, historical focus to the revealed character of God whom they worshipped.
According to Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor, the Ark did not have magical properties. The Hebrews weren’t a superstitious people. They didn’t think the Ark made them lucky. What they believed was that God worked in their lives — God did things. God was not an abstract concept. God was not a remote legislator passing laws on gravity and adultery. God was not a bearded judge, austere and exacting. God was personal in history: creating, directing, saving, blessing. God entered the affairs of men and women and, when God did, it was to judge and save, to call to account and bless. Most of all, God loved. God entered into covenants with his people, giving them the dignity of sharing God’s work, living by faith and in love.
The Ark kept all this before them. That was its purpose — to hold up the evidence of the kind of God they had. It was not a piece of memorabilia. It was a material representation of what was going on, what is still going on: God’s presence and action among them worked into the material (stone and pottery and wood) of their lives.
That is what David went to get, this Ark that had been sitting for 20 years in the house of the old priest Abinadab. Abinadab assigned his two priest sons, Uzzah and Ahio, to supervise conveying the Ark to Jerusalem.
They put the Ark on an ox-cart, Ahio leading the oxen and Uzzah walking alongside. One of the oxen stumbled. The cart lurched. The Ark began to slide off. Without thinking Uzzah reached out to steady it. And he died.
Why did Uzzah die? Why did God, as the text puts it so bluntly, strike him there? It’s tough to fit this episode into our picture of the God who is consistently revealed as the giver of life, patiently calling us to repentance, constantly seeking the lost, undeflected in his steadfast love for us. It doesn’t set easily with us when we come across an assertion that God kills. Judgment, certainly, but sudden death? The text does not answer our questions. We will likely go to our graves scratching our heads over this.
Over the centuries, as Jews and Christians have considered Uzzah’s death, one insight keeps surfacing: it is fatal to take charge of God. Uzzah is the person who has God in a box and officiously assumes responsibility for keeping God safe from the mud and dust of the world. Men and women keep showing up who it take upon themselves to protect God from the vulgarity of sinners and the ignorance of common people.
Uzzah’s simple act of reaching out to steady the Ark as the oxen stumbled was not the mistake of a moment; it was a piece of his lifelong obsession with managing the Ark. There were Mosaic traditions that gave clear directions regarding the handling of the Ark: it was not to be touched by human hands but carried only by Levites and on poles inserted through rings attached to the Ark. For the explicit Mosaic directions Uzzah substituted the latest Philistine technological innovation — an ox-cart, of all things. Undoubtably, a well-designed ox-cart is much more efficient for moving the Ark than pallbearer like Levites. But it is also impersonal — the replacement of consecrated people by an efficient machine.
Uzzah is the patron saint of those who uncritically embrace technology without regard to the nature of The Holy. Uzzah mistakenly thought that he was in charge of God, and meant to stay in charge. Uzzah had God where he wanted him and intended to keep him there. The eventual consequence of this kind of life is death, for God will not be managed. God will not be put in and then kept in a box, whether the box is constructed of crafted wood or hewn stone or brilliant ideas or fine feelings. We do not take care of God; God takes care of us.
II Samuel posts Uzzah as a danger sign for us: “Beware the God.” It is especially important to have such a sign posted in places designated for worship and learning. We want to learn of God, be trained in knowledge and obedience and prayer. And, hopefully we discover a truth that centers us, words that command and comfort us, worship that stabilizes us, and work that gives our life meaning, a community of sustainable relationships and forgiveness that frees. We find God. We change our ways. We repent and believe and follow. We rearrange our circumstances and reestablish our routines around what now gives us meaning and hope.
We take on responsibilities in the wonderful new world of worship and work. We advance in the ranks and, before we know it, we are telling others what to do and how to do it. All this may be good and right. And, then, we cross a line — we get bossy and cranky on behalf of God. We began by finding in God a way to live rightly and well and, then, along the way, we take over God’s work for God and take charge of making sure others live rightly and well.
Religion is a breeding ground for this kind of thing. Not infrequently, these God-managing people work themselves into positions of leadership. Over the years, the basics with which they began — the elements of reverence and awe, the spirit of love and faith — erode and shrivel. Finally, there is nothing left. They are dead to God.
Uzzah is a warning. Jesus called such people “whitewashed tombs … full of the bones of the dead” (Matthew 23:27). If we think and act like that sooner or later we will be dead men and women. Dead like Uzzah. Dead in our spirits. Dead to the aliveness of God.