Handling the Holy
One of the stories that have proved troubling to students of holy Scripture over the years is the account of Uzzah, who stretched forth his hand to steady the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, we recall, was being carried by oxcart in order to be installed at David’s projected new shrine at Jerusalem. Some obstacle, however, perhaps a bump in the road, caused the oxen to lurch, nearly upsetting the cart and putting the Ark in danger. The Bible describes the scene: “Uzzah put out his hand to the Ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. Then the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the Ark of God” (2 Sam. 6:6–7).
The shock of readers is surely understandable. Wasn’t Uzzah’s sudden reaction, after all, simply an instinctive response to save the dignity of the Ark? To the extent that we can even describe his deed as intentional, wasn’t that intention good and honorable? How is it, then, that the all-seeing Lord, the God who searches hearts, did not look favorably on what Uzzah did?
The problem is not a recent one, and readers of the Bible have pondered it for centuries. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus, writing about the same time as some New Testament authors, explained that Uzzah was struck dead for touching the Ark, “since he was not a priest” ( me on hierus—Antiquities of the Jews 126.96.36.199). This explanation of Josephus is based on prescriptions in Numbers 4, which lists the duties of priests and Levites in regard to the treatment and transportation of the Ark.
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Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).
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