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Bible Answers to your Questions | Vol. 28 No. 6 | Sep-Oct 2018

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Q: I have always found the story of Uzzah’s death disturbing (2 Sam. 6:1–8). Why did God strike him dead for touching the ark? Wasn’t Uzzah just trying to help?

Answer:

The Ark of the Covenant, covered by the mercy seat, was the earthly representation of God’s throne. It was to be housed in the Holy of Holies in the sanctuary. Only the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies once a year after careful spiritual and physical preparation. God had left clear instructions for how the ark should be moved when necessary. A certain branch of the Levites, the sons of Kohath, were to carry the ark on poles upon their shoulders. See Ex. 25:12–14; Num. 7:9. They were strictly forbidden to touch the ark on pain of death. See Num. 4:15. This arrangement was meant to impress upon Israel the holiness of God and the attitude of reverence with which they should be approaching the Almighty.

Presumptuously, the corrupt sons of Eli had taken the ark into battle with the Philistines, hoping that the sacred object would ensure victory. But disaster struck when the Philistines captured the ark. Eventually, the Philistines returned the ark the best way they knew, on a new cart pulled by two milk cows. When it arrived in Israel, some locals carelessly peered into the ark, and the Lord struck them dead. See 1 Sam. 6:19. Gripped by fear, the people parked the ark in the house of Abinadab, where it remained for 20 years. See 1 Sam. 7:2.

When King David came with a large entourage to collect the ark and take it to Jerusalem, it was set on a new cart. The sons of Abinadab, Ahio and Uzzah, guided the cart. At one point, the oxen stumbled and Uzzah touched the ark, presumably to steady it, but was struck dead by God.

We may not fully understand why God took such a severe measure against Uzzah, but here are some possible reasons:

  1. The method of transporting the ark was not according to God’s explicit instructions. Uzzah, as one of the people in charge of conveying the ark, was sharing in the blame. While placing it in a new cart was good enough for the Philistines, who were ignorant of God’s instructions, God expected His people, in view of His express will and past lessons, to do the right thing.
  2. As the saying goes, “familiarity breeds contempt.” After being around the ark for 20 years, Uzzah seems to have lost the reverence required in handling the sacred object. The biblical context stresses that this was the ark of God, “whose name is called by the Name, the Lord of Hosts who dwells between the cherubim.” 2 Sam. 6:2. With its two winged golden angels, the ark symbolized God’s throne, and it was to be carried like a royal palanquin or litter. God may have intended to teach the lesson that His holy presence is not to be approached carelessly.
  3. The account says that the oxen stumbled. The cart did not fall, just as it had traveled safely down the hill from Abinadab’s house. See 2 Sam. 6:3. Uzzah presumed to help the Omnipotent One by going against His clear command of not touching the ark. God requires close adherence to His commandments.

Similarly, Moses lost the privilege of entering the Promised Land because he struck the rock twice, instead of speaking to it as God had instructed. See Num. 20:7–12. We are to follow God’s commandments both in spirit and in detail to the letter. Nothing short of that will do, and God may have wanted to remind the nation, as they were re-establishing the sanctuary worship, that He expects strict obedience.

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