Uzzah and the Ark: Exegetical Considerations

Forgive the length of this post, but this is material adapted here from my commentary on 1 & 2 Chronicles. Tomorrow I will reflect on the text in connection with its usage among Churches of Christ.  But today it is the hard–sometimes boring–work of exegesis.

 

 

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The Chronicler moves from enthronement of David in 1 Chronicles 10-12 to the holy procession of the ark in chapters 13-16. Now that David is established as king over all Israel in Jerusalem, his first concern is to bring the ark to the city.

 

Israel Deliberates

 

The Chronicler begins the drama of the ark narrative by providing his own introduction (1 Chronicles 13:1-4) which does not appear in the parallel text in 2 Samuel.   He begins the narrative with a self-conscious deliberation on the part of “all Israel.” David consulted the leadership, but he spoke to the “whole assembly” and “the whole assembly agreed” because “all the people” thought it was a good idea (1 Chronicles 13:4). He suggests that Israel go “to the rest of our brothers throughout (literally, “in all,”) the territories of Israel,” including the “priests and Levites.” David does not act by fiat, but he consults his people and models a leadership that seeks their involvement. Significantly, the Chronicler uses the Hebrew term for “all” five times in 1 Chronicles 13:1-4.

 

This emphasis, however, is no mere repetition of Chronicler’s inclusivist theme. Rather, it reflects the religious motif that all Israel desired to renew their relationship with God. The contrast with Saul is explicit (1 Chronicles 13:3). Whereas Saul did not inquire of the ark, David makes it the center piece of his religious life. Just as the Lord turned the kingdom over to David (1 Chronicles 10:14), so David now seeks the Lord in a way that Saul did not (1 Chronicles 13:3). David’s deliberation with the “whole assembly” is a covenant renewal after the evil of Saul’s reign. The use of the term assembly has religious overtones, as well as David’s emphasis on people coming to “us” (1 Chronicles 13:2) and bringing back the ark “to us” (1 Chronicles 13:3). This is a communal event in the life of Israel. Bringing the ark to Jerusalem, then, is an act of covenant renewal. It is a national moment of rededication to the “LORD our God.” The transition from Saul to David is not only political but religious. Renewal, of course, is an important theme for the Chronicler’s postexilic community as well as the unity of North and South—all Israel.

 

However, something is wrong with this picture. Yes, David seeks the Lord through the ark. Yes, he seeks covenant renewal in concert with the people. But he seeks God in an inappropriate way. “Let us bring the ark of our God back to us” reflects a manipulative stance. David is going to place God’s ball in his court. He will reposition the ark in order to achieve his own ends.  The people agreed “because it seemed right to all the people.”  This is an expression of moral evil in Deuteronomic history—what seems right in the eyes of the people (cf. Deuteronomy 12:8; Judges 17:6; 21:25; 2S 17:4). The Chronicler contrasts doing what is “right in the eyes of Yahweh” (2 Chronicles 14:2; 20:32; 24:2; 25:2; 26:4; 27:2; 29:2; 34:2) and what is right in human eyes (1 Chronicles 13:4; but 2 Chronicles 30:4, due to its context, has a positive meaning). He acted by what was right in his own eyes instead of fully seeking the Lord.

 

The Chronicler makes this clear in 1 Chronicles 15. David takes responsibility for the debacle in 1 Chronicles 13. “We did not inquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way” and consequently “the Lord our God broke out in anger against us” (1 Chronicles 15:13).  David sought the Lord but he did not seek the Lord. He sought to bring the ark into his own possession—he sought the ark for his own reasons but he did not thereby seek the Lord. David, not just Uzzah, failed to keep the command of God in this situation (1 Kings 15:5).

 

The ark is of paramount significance as the Chronicler gives more attention to it than Samuel. Its descriptors verify this. In 1 Chronicles 13-17 it is variously identified as the “ark of our God” (1 Chronicles 13:3), “ark of God” (1 Chronicles 13:5-7, 12, 14; 15:1, 2, 15, 24; 16:1), the “ark that is called by the Name” (1 Chronicles 13:6), “ark of the LORD” (1 Chronicles 15:3, 12, 14; 16:4), the “ark of the covenant of the LORD” (1 Chronicles 15:25, 26, 28, 29; 16:37; 17:1), and the “ark of the covenant of God” (1 Chronicles 16:6). The ark is the presence of God among his people. 1 Chronicles 13:8 underscores this understanding when the people dance and sing “before God” as they move the ark. The Lord sits enthroned above the cherubims of the ark (1 Chronicles 13:6). To “inquire” of the ark is to “inquire” of the Lord (1 Chronicles 13:3). Thus, the Chronicler “emphasizes the sacramental character of the ark: to be in the presence of the ark is to be in the very presence of God himself” (Johnstone, 1:167). Sailhamer (38 ) comments, “the Ark was no mere symbol of God’s presence. It was the place where God had chosen to center His presence among His people (Ex. 25:22).” The ark identifies the presence of God and it also testifies to the covenant between God and Israel.

 

But why is the Chronicler so interested in the ark when the ark no longer exists in the postexilic community? Would not the loss of the ark indicate that God’s covenant had failed? The Chronicler is interested in the close identification of the ark with the temple and more specifically with God, that is, the presence of God. Consequently, even though the postexilic community does not possess the ark, they do have a temple. God’s presence is assured by the symbolic significance of the temple even though there is no ark since God’s presence is not dependent upon the ark (and neither is it dependent upon the temple). Rather, the ark and temple symbolize the same point: God is present. David’s attitude toward the ark is the kind of attitude the postexilic community must have for the temple. Just as David sought God through the ark, so postexilic Israel must seek God through the temple. At the heart of the ark narrative, then, is the theological point that “God is with us and that God is holy” and these are “what really mattered” to the Chronciler (Thompson, 135). The postexilic community yearned for the presence of God (cf. Zechariah 2:10-11). In the same way Christians seek God through the provision of his own mercy-seat in Jesus Christ and know the presence of God through his indwelling Spirit. This demands that we learn from David’s attitude toward the ark in order to fully appreciate the life given to us in Jesus Christ.

 

The Procession Begins

 

1 Chronicles 13:5-14 follows the wording of 2 Samuel 6:1-11 though there are a few significant differences. One difference is how the Chronicler emphasizes the religious meaning of this narrative. Whereas 2 Samuel 6:1 states that “David again gathered,” the Chronicler writes “David assembled” and uses a verb that is from the same root as the noun “assembly” (1 Chronicles 13:2, 4). This is an “assembly” of Israel which dances and rejoices before the Lord (1 Chronicles 13:8). The use of “assembled“ evidences sacral meaning as the “congregation of the Lord” which is a persistent them throughout Chronicles. The addition of the priests and Levites in 1 Chronicles 13:2 stresses this as well.

 

The participation of “all Israel” and the religious significance of the event provide an air of expectation and exhilaration. But, as Selman (1:150) notes, the “enthusiasm” of 1 Chronicles 13:3 with all the attendant dancing and singing “gives way swiftly to David’s despair” (1 Chronicles 13:12). The move from joy and anticipation to anger and fear is the narrative’s drama. The first attempt to move the ark is a bust. Something went wrong and interpreters have been perplexed by the nature of this misstep. It is clear, however, that the misstep has something to do with the ark as a symbol of divine presence in Israel.

 

All Israel gathers as a convocation to move the ark from Kiriath Jearim with a festive and processional celebration “before God” which was located on the Philistine-Judean border about seventeen miles from Jerusalem. The previous history of the ark in the hands of the Philistines provides the backdrop for the way in which the ark is moved. It is placed on a “new cart” (perhaps specifically built for this occasion). The Philistines moved the ark on a cart (1S 6:7) and David continues their practice. Selman (1:153) correctly notes that “Israel got into difficulties because they failed to recognize that worship of the true God meant they could no longer simply follow contemporary pagan practices.”

 

Johnstone suggests that David’s consultation with all Israel in 1 Chronicles 13:2 implied a hasty action that did not take full account of the seriousness of this move. David suggested that Israel “break out” (“send word far and wide,” 1 Chronicles 13:2) and gather the people from all the territories to relocate the ark. Given the use of this term in 1 Chronicles 13:11, 14:11, and 15:13, Johnstone (1:169) believes that Chr has “deliberately chosen” this word “to express the hot-headed and unconsidered way in which David sets about an action that is perfectly laudable in itself.” In other words, it was a good idea, but a bad or hasty way of doing it (Williamson, 114). Perhaps it was David’s pride that led to this hasty decision to move the ark without adequate preparation. Because David chose an unacceptable delivery method, God “broke out” on Uzzah when he reached out to touch the ark. The whole narrative, then, constitutes a warning against taking “sacred actions and holy objects lightly” (Sailhamer, 39).

 

As is clear from Chr’s own commentary (1 Chronicles 15:2, 13-15), the way in which the ark is moved is a violation of divine prescriptions (cf. Exodus 25:12-15). Even though David intended to “inquire” of the Lord (1 Chronicles 13:3), he did not “inquirehow to move the ark (1 Chronicles 15:13). He did not seek God’s guidance. While he intended to seek the Lord (though perhaps for his own purposes), his method was faulty. This movement of the ark, then, is a blemish on David’s record. The Levites alone were not responsible for this movement, but David is the leader who is ultimately accountable. Indeed, he takes responsibility in 1 Chronicles 15:13 when he says “we did not give it proper care.” The Chronicler does not whitewash David’s sin, but instead highlights it more than 2 Samuel does. David did not inquire of the Lord as he should have. This point, along with the religious nature of the event, must contextualize what happens next in the narrative.

 

The Procession Stopped

 

The “ark of God” is the presence of God. It embodies his holiness and majesty. Consequently, David and the people must respect its symbolism and meaning. The ark cannot be treated carelessly or irreverently. The brief story about Uzzah underscores these themes and we should not permit modern interpreters to either mischaracterize God (e.g., a vindictive tyrant) or underestimate the seriousness of Uzzah’s actions (e.g., he was just trying to keep the ark from falling). The text forcefully states: the Lord “struck him down.” What is the significance of this divine act?

 

First, as Selman (1:153) notes, God’s holiness, often associated with cultic practices and articles, “possessed genuine power and could have striking physical and spiritual effects” (Leviticus 10:1ff; Isaiah 6:1ff). Indeed, the ark itself was the focus of some powerful effects when it was among the Philistines (1 Samuel 5) and at Beth-Shemesh (1 Samuel 6:19-20). Those experiences should have warned Israel “that to be in the possession of the ark was no unqualified guarantee of divine blessing” (Selman, 1:153). But the people did not listen to the warnings. The ark’s holiness punished those who mistreated or abused the divine presence it mediated. This “mode of God’s revelation and presence in the OT—a presence much sought and graciously granted (Exod. 33:3, 12-23; 34:9ff.)—brought with it the need to deal carefully with it” (McConville, 38). The Holy Mount of Sinai was not to be touched.  The unholy cannot approach the holy and touch the face of God. Uzzah did not show respect for the divine presence. So, Uzzah died “before God” (1 Chronicles 13:10). Chr changed 1 Samuel’s wording (“beside the ark of God”) to “before God” which has liturgical meaning.

 

In this connection we should remember that modern Westerners are rather irreverent when it comes to holy objects. We do not understand holy objects and we are rather flippant with those kinds of traditions. However, in the ancient world (as well as the present third world and in certain Christian traditions), holy objects are revered. The community understands the distance they must keep and they know the rules for handling or not handling such objects. Israel, if they did not have, should have had a sense of the holy. Israel’s irreverence testifies to their lack of appreciation for the significance of the ark as a bearer of divine presence.

 

Second, many have read this story as Uzzah’s well-intentioned attempt to save the ark from harm (Allen, 99-101). But given that its movement on a cart was the continuation of a pagan practice, Uzzah’s act reflected a disregard for its holiness. Uzzah’s attempt to steady the ark was part of a larger profaning. Snyman sees the function of 1 Chronicles 13 as a legitimization of the Levites. They should have been carrying the ark rather than Uzzah steadying it. The holiness of the ark was disturbed and Uzzah paid the price (Snyman, “Responsible,” 203-17; Dempsy, “Ark,” 236-7). Johnstone (1:172) also notes that even the musical praise is restricted to the Levites in 1 Chronicles 15 which suggests that in 1 Chronicles13 “Israel’s rejoicing is at best a disorganized, over-exuberant tumult, a cacophony of raucous chant and blaring fanfare.” Israel’s procession was not a holy one; it was disorderly. Israel was trifling with a holy thing—the presence of God among his people. “All the music and singing was a hollow substitute for an attitude of deep respect for the presence of God” (Shailhamer, 39).

 

Third, read as a narrative, there is an “implicit invitation to us to fill in the blanks” as we participate in the narrator’s world. As Peterson (“Why,” 5-7) fills in the blanks, he sees Uzzah as one who takes “charge of God” and manages God’s presence by his own care. Indeed, “Uzzah is the patron saint of those who uncritically embrace technology without regard to the nature of The Holy.” The story of Uzzah posts a danger sign “Beware the God.” Long (“Fall,” 18 ) also sees this theme. Human beings believe they can manipulate or control the divine presence. Humans must bow before God’s holiness rather than act in ways that attempt to protect or manipulate God. By his spontaneous act, “Uzzah confessed his real faith: a God so impotent that if the box falls God falls; a God so weak that his God needs the help of the likes of Uzzah to dotter across the street; an empty shell of a God trapped inside fragile religious symbols.” Wilcox (67; cf. Thompson, 129) believes that the story serves as a “fearful warning against over-familiarity with God.” Uzzah did not respect God’s holiness. While the term “holy” does not appear in this context, it dominates the thought-world of the Chronicler (e.g., ark, temple; cf. Johnstone, 1:167ff).

 

Fourth, read in the context of Chronicles as a whole, this story illustrates the Chronicler’s retribution motif which will become more prominent in 2 Chronicles 10-36 (Snyman, “Reponsible,” 203-17). Uzzah dies as a punishment from the Lord. We must remember, however, that this motif functions alongside of “seeking” in Chronicles. God punishes those who do not seek him and he embraces those who do. When people are punished in Chronicles, it is not just a technical violation, but it reflects their hearts. In Chronicles others technically violate the law, but when their heart is seeking God, they are accepted (cf. 2 Chronicles 30:17-20). Within the theology of Chronicles, Uzzah is not punished based on a technicality, but because his heart did not seek God. As Peterson (“Why,” 7) writes, “Uzzah’s death was not sudden; it was years in the making, the ‘dead’ works accumulating like dead men’s bones within him, suffocating the spirit of praise and faith and worship.”

 

God’s reaction to Uzzah is contextualized by the disorderly procession and the pagan method of delivery (see the proper context for moving the ark in 1 Chronicles 15). Uzzah’s act was the most profane of all—to touch the holiness of God. Israel did not treat what was holy as holy; it profaned God’s presence. Uzzah sought to manage and control God rather then serve him. Uzzah’s act was a “presumptuous intrusion into the sphere of the Divine” (Johnstone, 1:172). He attempted to touch the presence of God. David did not seek out the Lord, but sought to get the Lord into his camp (Jerusalem). The first attempt to move the ark was a debacle and it signaled that heart of Israel was not yet ready to serve God in his majesty. Israel was too familiar with its Holy God. The holiness of God broke out against sin in Israel.

 

David’s Response to Uzzah’s Death

 

David’s response to Uzzah’s death is both anger (1 Chronicles 13:11; same word as in 1 Chronicles 13:10) and fear (1 Chronicles 13:12). Both are directed at God. This mixture is understandable. Anger is his response to the reversal he has just experienced. One minute all Israel is celebrating the return of the ark and the next minute the “LORD’s anger” breaks out against Uzzah. The sudden shift angered David; he was shocked by the divine response. David did not understand the problem nor did he see the disrespect he was showing God. But his anger soon turned to despair as stated in the question, “How can I ever bring the ark of God to me?” David recognized that something went wrong (though he sought to blame God more than himself at this point—McConville [38-9] writes, “In any case his exclamation in v. 12 is less pure enquiry than petulant self-justification. His naming of the place Perez-Uzzah belongs to his attempt to deflect the blame from the incident upon God.”), but his intention to bring the ark to Jerusalem remained. Consequently, David decided to wait for another occasion. He, no doubt, took the death of Uzzah as “God’s active objection to the removal of the ark, which put the whole project in jeopardy” (Japhet, 281). David needed time to reflect on his approach to God: “is this God wholly arbitrary in his otherness, or are there appropriate actions whereby one may safely associate with this God?” (Johnstone, 1:173).

 

David’s anger is memorialized by the name he gave to the place: Perez Uzzah. Perez is from the Hebrew verb which means to “break out.” David appropriately names the place as the point where the Lord broke out against Uzzah. The memory of that event is seared into the conscience of Israel as the place name remained even into the Chronicler’s time (note that he does not update the name for his readers as he did elsewhere).

 

The theology of Israel did not take the holiness of God lightly. When his holiness was violated, God’s anger responded. His holiness consumes those who treat him with disrespect and irreverence. The exile itself was an exclusion of an unholy nation from a holy God. The lesson for the postexilic community is to revere God’s holiness. They must not dishonor the temple of God, but acknowledge his presence and worship his majesty. In the same way, Christians must respect the divine presence within us and honor him with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:20).

 

Neither may we treat what is holy as something for manipulation. Contemporary worship discussions need to wrestle with the sense of the holy that must pervade our assemblies as we gather before God. As much as we seek God to “break out” for us in blessing, church growth and conflict resolutions, we too often fail to recognize that God sometimes breaks out in judgment and against the sin in our own lives. The call to holiness is perpetual and unbending. God says, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:14, 45; 1 Peter 1:16).

 

Resources Quoted

 

Japhet, Sara. I & II Chronicles: A Commentary. OTL. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993.

 

Johnstone, William. 1 and 2 Chronicles. 2 volumes. JSOTSup 253. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

 

Long, Thomas G. “The Fall of the House of Uzzah and Other Difficult Preaching Texts.” Journal for Preachers  (1983): 13-19.

 

McConville, J. G. I & II Chronicles. DSB. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984.

 

Peterson, Eugene. “Why Did Uzzah Die? Why Did David Dance? 2S 6-7,” Crux 31.3 (September 1995): 3-5, 7-8.

 

Sailhamer, John. First & Second Chronicles. EBC. Chicago: Moody Press, 1983.

 

Selman, Martin J. 1 Chronicles: An Introduction and Commentary and 2 Chronicles: A Commentary. Tyndale. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

 

Snyman, Gerrie. “Who is Responsible for Uzzah’s Death? Rhetoric in 1 Chronicles 13.” In Rhetoric, Scripture and Theology: Essays from the 1994 Pretoria Conference. JSNTS 13. Edited by. Stanley E. Porter and Thomas H. Olbricht Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.

 

Thompson, J. A. 1, 2 Chronicles. NAC. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994.

 

Wilcox, Michael. The Message of Chronicles. BST. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987.

 

Williamson, H. G. M. 1 and 2 Chronicles. NCB. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.

 

 



5 Responses to “Uzzah and the Ark: Exegetical Considerations”

  1.   Bobby Valentine Says:

    It seems like a life time ago that I sat in that class!! I look forward to the stuff on the CofC usage of that text.

    Seeking Shalom,
    Bobby Valentine

  2.   Tim Archer Says:

    Thanks for an excellent study. I look forward to reading more. I’ve taught on this from the account in Samuel, but never from Chronicles.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim

  3. Profile photo of John Mark Hicks  John Mark Hicks Says:

    Bobby, it seems like a log time ago, my friend. But it was helpful to me for that group to read my Chronicles commentary with me before it went to press. Saved me some embarassment. 🙂

    Thanks, Tim….I have a bias toward the Chronicler’s story….perhaps only because I know more about it. 🙂

  4.   R.J. Says:

    Uzziah was malicious and arrogant in his deliberate sacrilege. Anything less would make God unholy and unjust. But Yahweh is not a monster.

    “In this connection we should remember that modern Westerners are rather irreverent when it comes to holy objects”.

    In all due respect. That simply is not true. Holiness has nothing to do with being overly cautious(a paganistic modif). But simply indicates purity of character and profound respect(reverence).

    I apologize if I’ve misunderstood you. But it seems this essay somewhat deviates from the thesis of part 2?

  5.   R.J. Says:

    Again, I in no way intend disrespect to your point of view.

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