Today I’m going to talk about this strange story in the Old Testament of how a man was apparently struck dead by God for the simple act of trying to steady the ark of God when it was about to slide off the cart it was being carried on. What on earth is that all about? What sort of God would strike a man dead for doing a thing like that? In a world where there was child sexual abuse, slavery, misogyny and a host of other obvious evils, how could God be so petty? Didn’t God have bigger fish to fry?
This is not simply a case of our modern age having different standards; that may be true, but it’s not a complete explanation for this story. How do I know that? I know, because David was apparently as outraged as we are! Verse 8 says ‘David was angry because the LORD had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah’. David did not find this acceptable behaviour on God’s part! David was afraid, and he stopped the whole procession; “How can the ark of God come into my care?” he asked (v.9). ‘So 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’ (v.10) (lucky Obed-Edom!).
So how are we going to understand this? Well, let’s start by addressing an issue that might be a little easier to understand: flags.
When it comes to flags, there’s an awful lot of emotion tied up in a bit of cloth. That’s because it’s not just a bit of cloth, of course. To many people, the flag of their country symbolizes the country itself; to be disrespectful to the flag is to be disrespectful to the country. To burn the flag is sacrilegious, even if the country is officially on the side of free speech and free expression of opinion.
Flags have ceremonies attached to them. When I was a cub scout, all those years ago, one of the things I was taught is that you don’t leave a flag flying after dark; it’s disrespectful to the flag to fly it when it can’t be seen. So there are flag-raising ceremonies at dawn, and flag lowering ceremonies at dusk, and if you’ve got a bugle, there are appropriate tunes to be played, too.
If we understand the way people tend to see flags, it will help us to understand the way Israel saw the ark of God – or, to use its full title as in verse two, ‘the ark of God, which is called by the name of Yahweh of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim’. Just as flags are symbols of the countries they represent, so Israel saw the ark as the most important symbol of God’s presence with them.
The word ‘ark’ is actually a little misleading; we’re not talking about anything like Noah’s ark here. The ark was a highly ornate ceremonial box in which Moses had placed the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. It was nearly four feet long, just over two feet wide, and just over two feet high; it was overlaid with gold, with two large solid gold angels, or cherubim, mounted on top of it (by the way, put baby cherubs right out of your mind; Old Testament cherubim were warrior angels, and they were scary, not cute); it had rings on each side to insert the golden bars by which it was to be carried by the Levites. By the way, many biblical scholars think it would have been extremely heavy, with all that wood and solid gold. If Uzzah had gotten underneath it and it had fallen on him, it could easily have killed him!
In the desert Israel did not have a temple; it had a moveable house of worship, a glorified tent, which our Bibles call ‘the tabernacle’, and for hundreds of years after they arrived in the promised land, Israel seems to have continued to house the ark in the tabernacle, or something like it. It wasn’t until the time of David, apparently, that anyone thought the ark might need something more elaborate; more about that in next week’s reading!
A few decades before our story took place, a calamity happened to the ark. In the days when Eli was acting as priest, the Philistines were attacking the nation, and they won a great victory against Israel. The Israelites thought they needed a little extra firepower, and so they sent word to Eli that the ark of God was to be brought from Shiloh, where it lived, so that God could lead them in battle against their enemies. You just know, when you hear this, that it’s not going to work out well!
And so it was. Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, brought the ark down to the battlefield, and the troops gave a great shout when they saw it arrive; now the Lord was really with them, they thought! But in fact, the arrival of the ark had the opposite effect. The Philistines heard about it, and they said to each other, “These are the gods who routed the Egyptians; we’re going to have to fight really hard to defeat them!” And fight hard they did, and they won again; Eli’s two sons were killed, and the enemies of Israel captured the ark of the covenant.
But the Philistines didn’t get to gloat for very long! Everywhere they took the ark, it caused trouble! People in their towns started getting sick. When they placed the ark in the temples of their gods, the statues of their gods started falling down and breaking in front of it. And eventually the Philistines said to each other, ‘we’d better send it home’. So they put it on a cart, hitched it up to a couple of cows, and off it went, across the border, to Beth-shemesh. From there it was taken to Kiriath-Jearim, also called Baale-Judah, and there the Israelites left it for many years.
Until David came along. As we read last week, David had been crowned king of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah; he had left his ancient capital of Hebron and had captured the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, which was close to the border between Judah and Israel, to be his new capital city. David was a man who loved God and genuinely tried to follow God, but he was also a man who had faults and character flaws, as we saw last week. And, like many kings before and after him, he wasn’t above using religion to increase his own power, if he could get away with it. And what better way to raise the prestige of his new capital city than to bring the ark of God there! Then everyone who wanted to consult with God would need to come to Jerusalem, the city of David!
I’m not claiming that David’s motives were entirely political. As we’ve seen, even though he had very real character flaws, David genuinely loved God. I’m sure he felt that his capital city would not be complete unless it was also the national centre for the worship of the God of Israel. What could be more appropriate and more natural than that? But David would have had to be more than human if he had not also been keenly aware of the political advantages this would give him.
And so we come to this incident on the road that causes David – and us – so much grief. Kiriath-Jearim isn’t far from Jerusalem – you can actually see it in the distance – and so it would be a short journey for David’s triumphal procession. But then disaster strikes. As the ark approaches the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen stumble and the cart teeters. Without thinking, Uzzah reaches out to steady it. And that’s the last thing he does.
What happened? Did God actually strike Uzzah dead because of his presumption?
It’s hard to tell, even if you take the story as essentially historical, as I do. The reason it’s hard to tell is that Old Testament people tend to ascribe everything that happens, whether good or evil, to the will of God. When bad things happen to Job and his wife mocks him for not cursing God, he says, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10). And earlier in the story of David, we’re told that after his predecessor Saul was rejected as king of Israel, ‘the spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him’ (1 Samuel 16:14).
An evil spirit from the Lord? How can an evil spirit come from the Lord? Isn’t the Lord holy, and separate from all that is evil? Yes he is, and we can see as we look at the big picture of the Bible that the authors are struggling with an issue that we struggle with too: how do we relate the greatness and power and love of God to the obvious presence in the world of evil things? There is no explanation of that problem that crosses all the ‘t’s and dots all the ‘i’s! Generally speaking, the Old Testament writers tended to lean toward the explanation that somehow, mysteriously, it all came from God, whereas the New Testament authors tended toward the idea that ‘God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all’ (1 John 1:5).
So did God strike Uzzah dead? Or did Uzzah, who had been brought up with the idea that contact with a holy God was dangerous, suddenly realize what he had done, and have some sort of extreme physiological reaction to it, which the onlookers interpreted as an act of God? The text doesn’t specify exactly how Uzzah died. As Marci pointed out to me earlier this week, it’s entirely possible that when he was trying to steady the ark he somehow got under it, and it fell on him!
I expect different people will come up different answers to the question of whether or not this actually was an act of the God who Jesus describes to us as a caring father, the one who knows us so well he knows how many hairs we have on our heads. But what we do see for sure in the story is that at this point David was brought up short. He was angry with God, but he was also afraid. “How can the ark of the LORD come into my care?’ (2 Samuel 6:9), he asks.
So he leaves the ark at the home of Obed-Edom for three months. Strangely, only good things happen to Obed-Edom: ‘The LORD blessed Obed-Edom and all his household’ (v.11). So David decides to take the risk again. This time, though, he offers elaborate sacrifices along the way, treating the ark with all the respect he can muster. And the result is a happy celebration for everyone in Israel.
Everyone, that is, except for Michal. Who was Michal? She was the daughter of old King Saul. Years ago, when Saul had been looking for a man to kill Goliath, he had offered her as a reward; the man who kills this giant will have my daughter as his wife – he will become the king’s son in law. David, of course, had been successful against Goliath, and so Michal had become his wife.
We’re told in the text of 1 Samuel that Michal genuinely loved David (1 Samuel 18:20), but we’re never told that David loved her. Her father had used her as a reward for political and military service; later on, when David fell out of favour and had to run away from Saul, Saul took her back and gave her in marriage to another man, Paltiel, and she lived with him for many years. But after her father’s death, when his old general Abner was negotiating with David to make him king over all Israel and Judah, David made Michal part of the asking price: “Give me my wife Michal”, he demanded. Of course, his reasons were entirely political; Michal was the daughter of the old king, and marriage to her gave David dynastic legitimacy in the eyes of the old guard in Israel. Once again, there is no evidence that David loved Michal for herself; she was a political symbol. And understandably, she had no desire to be taken away from the husband she had lived with for many years, who loved her, and given once again to David. But her desires weren’t taken into account. Hence her bitterness toward David in this story: ‘she despised him in her heart’ (v.16).
As we saw last week, David was a real human being with huge character flaws, and he was living in a patriarchal society where misogyny was very common. We can be grateful for the mercy and patience of God, that God takes us as we are, loves us anyway, forgives our sins and gives us second chances and third chances and maybe even three hundredth chances. But we should never take that for granted and use it as an excuse to continue doing things that God has told us quite clearly are wrong.
It’s clear that David, a man after God’s own heart, a man who wrote many wonderful psalms that we still use in worship today, had a weakness for using things, and people, and sometimes even God, for his own ends. His motivation for bringing the ark to Jerusalem was probably not entirely pure; he wanted to honour God, but he wanted God to honour him too, and he wanted the ark in his capital city for that purpose.
And this is not just ancient history. Today there are still politicians, on the left and the right of the political spectrum, who want to use God to score political points against their adversaries. But God does not take kindly to that. God is not in anyone’s pocket; God does not belong to anyone. I like what Treebeard says in The Lord of the Rings: “I am not altogether on anyone’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side!” I suspect there are times when God feels that way too!
Our psalm for today says, ‘The earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it, the world, and all who live in it’ (Psalm 24:1). God does not belong to us; we belong to God. So the proper attitude for us to take before the Creator of heaven and earth is not to enlist him to promote our own agenda, whatever it might be. Rather, we should be approaching him with reverence, which I think is what the Book of Proverbs means when it says ‘the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom’ (Proverbs 9:10).
And of course, there are still people who want to use other people as pawns or tools for their own ends, rather than loving them as human beings made in the image of God. Sadly, this was a lesson that David found it very hard to learn. Only a few chapters later, we find the story of his adultery with Bathsheba, as I mentioned last week, and then his murder of her husband so he could take her for himself. Once again, just as he had done with Michal, David used a woman for his own ends, and then mercilessly had her husband killed to get him out of the way.
It’s been observed that we were created to love people and use things, but far too often we have loved things and used people. This has a tendency not to work out too well, and that was certainly the case for David; as I said last week, his family life was always a mess. David needed to learn the age-old lesson: love your neighbour as yourself, and do to others as you would have them do to you.
I suspect we’ll never come to agreement about what exactly happened to Uzzah, although personally I lean toward the idea that it was an unfortunate accident of some kind that the Israelites interpreted as God’s punishment on Uzzah for touching the ark (an ‘act of God’, as the insurance companies say!). But if we take the story as a whole, there are lasting lessons in it for us. God is not to be used to serve our own agenda, and neither are people. God is to be approached with reverence and awe, remembering the words of the psalmist: ‘The earth is the LORD’s, and all that is in it, the world, and all who live in it’ (Psalm 24:1). God does not belong to us; we belong to God.
God is to be approached with reverence, and so are people. As C.S. Lewis once said, your neighbour is one of the holiest objects you will ever see. People are made in the image of God, and each of them is loved by God. So we should not use people as objects in our own selfish and self-centred plans. The Michal story reminds us that women have often been subjected to this throughout history, and we should be vigilant about that. But it’s not just a male-female problem: it’s a human problem. We have to learn to let go of our tendency to love things and use people, and learn to follow Jesus in using things and loving people.
Approach God with reverence. Approach human beings with reverence too. That’s the lasting lesson of this passage for us today. May God give us courage and strength to do that. Amen.