The Death of Uzzah

Brian Ricks, “The Death of Uzzah,” in BYU Religious Education 2010 Student Symposium (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2010), 117–126.

 

The Death of Uzzah

Brian Ricks

The story of Uzzah, the Old Testament man who was struck dead for touching the ark of the covenant, often presents a challenge to students and teachers of the Old Testament. The story seems unfair. Uzzah tried to keep the ark, the most sacred symbol in all Israel, from falling embarrassingly to the ground. How could the Lord strike Uzzah dead for such a seemingly sensible act? The answer comes with a better understanding of Uzzah, his history, and similar experiences of his contemporaries. Investigating the full story of the man who steadied the ark reveals not one but three stories of those who were struck dead for ark desecration. These three stories not only help explain the Lord’s divine anger toward Uzzah but combine to reveal a historic pattern from which we can learn principles for our day. The death of Uzzah is actually the last of three Old Testament stories about those who desecrated the ark and were slain by the Lord. Each story led directly to the next, so the sudden death of Uzzah cannot be fully understood without starting at the beginning, a full twenty years earlier. Although these three stories follow the same pattern—the ark was desecrated and people were killed—the unique characters, motivations, and divine wrath in each story provide meaningful lessons for us.

The Philistines

The first story of desecrating the ark of the covenant is recorded at the beginning of 1 Samuel when Eli was high priest and his two sons were living contrary to the commandments of the Lord. Samuel, who was raised in the temple by Eli, was now recognized by all Israel as “a prophet of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:20). At this time, the Israelites were at war with the Philistines (see 1 Samuel 4:1–2). The Philistines were winning, and the Israelites decided their only hope lay with the ark (see 1 Samuel 4:3–4). Having the ark in the battlefield had assured Israel of military victory in the past,[1] but currently Israel was in a state of general rebellion (see 1 Samuel 7:3) and the power of God was not with them. Despite the presence of the ark of the covenant in the battlefield, the Philistines defeated the Israelites, and the ark was captured by the Philistine armies (see 1 Samuel 4:10–11).

For the first time in its history, the ark was now in the hands of those who did not worship Jehovah. The acts of the idolatrous Philistines led to dramatic manifestations of the power of the true God. Rejoicing and praising their pagan deity for their recent military victory, the Philistines placed the ark in one of their temples. This temple was dedicated to Dagon (probably a half-fish, half-human god[2]), and the ark was placed in front of Dagon’s image (see 1 Samuel 5:1–2). At this point, two things happened which demonstrated the sacredness of the ark to the heathen Philistines. First, when the Philistines returned to the temple, they found the idol of Dagon lying on the floor in front of the ark with the “head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands . . . cut off” (1 Samuel 5:3–5). Second, all the men of the city were smitten with emerods (probably boils[3]) on sensitive parts of the body (1 Samuel 5:6).

Instead of immediately returning the ark of the covenant to the Israelites, the Philistines decided to move it to the city of Gath.[4] However, the same uncomfortable curse was brought upon the men of Gath, so the ark was next sent to the city of Ekron. In this city the Philistines not only broke out with emerods but also began to die from them. Left with no recourse, the Philistines decided to return the ark of the covenant to the Israelites. This first story of death for desecration of the ark is notable because of the way divine punishment is administered. The Philistines brought the ark to their temple in an act of celebration of Dagon and belittlement of the God of the Israelites, yet the wrath of the Lord was not immediate. In fact, God’s wrath came slowly and grew over time. Understanding why the Philistines were punished gradually while the Israelites were punished immediately helps us understand the mercy of the Lord.

We often take stories of divine wrath, such as this one, as evidence of the justice of the Lord, but the story of the Philistines and the ark of the covenant is really a story of the Lord’s mercy. As will be discussed later, when the Israelites desecrated the ark, the fatal consequences were immediate. The Philistines did not know how to properly treat the ark, thus their desecration of the ark was a sin of ignorance. In his mercy, and in contrast to what we will see happen to the Israelites, the Lord did not smite the Philistines with death immediately. Instead, he tutored them. First, he destroyed their idol, teaching them that the God of the Israelites was stronger than Dagon. Then, when the Philistines still did not return the ark, the punishments slowly increased and the people broke out with emerods. When the Philistines moved the ark to different cities, the emerods moved with the ark. Throughout all of these events, the Lord was mercifully giving the Philistines a chance to return the ark. Only when the Philistines hardened their hearts and would not acknowledge the Lord’s power or return the ark did the Lord allowed the curse to become so sore that some of the Philistines died.

The principles found in this story of the Philistines and the ark of the covenant from thousands of years ago are still applicable today. As members of the Church, it is easy to be frustrated when we see those living in sin without any apparent punishment while other good people are going through severe trials. As this story of the Philistines demonstrates, the Lord in his mercy administers consequences based on the knowledge of those who commit sin, and we do not always know enough to explain the Lord’s justice. We can also remember this principle as we help those who know less about the gospel—whether they are nonmembers, children, or new converts. Like the Lord, we can mercifully teach and reprimand based on the ignorance of the person involved.

The People of Beth-Shemesh

The second story of those who died for desecrating the ark of the covenant starts when the Philistines decided to return the ark to Israel. The Philistines left the ark in a nearby Israelite city called Beth-Shemesh (see 1 Samuel 6:1–18). Although this seemed to bring the ark safely out of enemy hands, the ark was far from the care of those who would respect it. Instead of dutifully reverencing the ark (the requirements of which are given in the next section), the Israelites in Beth-Shemesh decided to open it and see what was inside. This was in direct violation of how the ark was to be treated, and those who looked inside died (see 1 Samuel 6:19). After this catastrophe, the remaining citizens of Beth-Shemesh decided they did not want to have the ark in their city, and they sent it to another Israelite city, Kirjath-jearim (see 1 Samuel 6:21).

This second story of desecration is the shortest of the three. However, the reason why the people of Beth-Shemesh looked inside the ark is clear: they were curious. Unlike the heathen Philistines, the people of Beth-Shemesh would have been familiar with the sacredness of the ark. Their knowledge of how to treat the sacred ark means the people of Beth-Shemesh acted in blatant disrespect and disobedience, thus meriting immediate and fatal consequences.

We live in a world where, like the people of Beth-Shemesh, things that are profoundly sacred are often flippantly inspected with curiosity instead of reverenced with love. Perhaps the most prominent example in our society is the sacred act of procreation. As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we know that despite what the world teaches, virtue and chastity are sacred possessions that should be handled with reverence instead of curiosity. In the last general conference of the Church, Elder Richard G. Scott raised his voice about those who fall into the trap of pornography because of curiosity: “It begins with curiosity . . . until the trap closes and a terribly immoral, addictive habit exercises its vicious control.”[5] Likewise, President Boyd K. Packer has warned that immorality in general “begins as an innocent curiosity” until it “may imprison . . . in an addiction.”[6] Like the people of Beth-Shemesh, those who treat sacred intimacy with curiosity suffer the prophesied consequences.

What makes the fate of the people of Beth-Shemesh even more disappointing are the blessings they forfeited by not reverencing the ark. Later in the Old Testament story, the ark was temporarily placed in the house of a man named Obed-edom. The scriptures note that, “The Lord hath blessed the house of Obed-edom, and all that pertaineth to him, because of the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:12). If the people of Beth-Shemesh had reverenced the ark instead of acting with curiosity, these blessings would have been theirs. Likewise, when we treat the sacred with curiosity, we lose blessings we would have gained had we treated the sacred with reverence. Speaking of the blessings we lose by mistreatment of sacred intimacy, President Thomas S. Monson has said, “Permissiveness, immorality, pornography, and the power of peer pressure cause many to be tossed about on a sea of sin and crushed on the jagged reefs of . . . forfeited blessings.”[7]

The Lord’s Instructions about the Ark

After learning their lesson about curiosity, the people of Beth-Shemesh moved the ark to Kirjath-jearim (see 1 Samuel 7:1–2) where it would stay for twenty years. During this time, Saul became king, David rose in power, Saul died, and David was recognized as king over all Israel. David made Jerusalem his capital city and wanted the ark transported there (see 2 Samuel 6:2). During this transport journey, Uzzah and the third story of divine punishment for desecration of the ark are introduced. To fully understand this episode, it is important to understand the Lord’s specific instructions on how to treat the ark of the covenant.

From the time of Moses, the ark had been at the center of Israel’s temple worship as the representation of the earthly dwelling place of the Lord.[8] Its design was given by revelation (see Exodus 25:10–22), and the ark was to be placed in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle.[9] Since the tabernacle was designed to be portable, there were specific instructions about how to move the ark. Two of these instructions tie directly to Uzzah’s story. First, the Lord commanded the Levites to carry the ark on their shoulders (see Exodus 25:12–14). The ark was designed for this method of transportation: four golden rings on the four corners held two staves. Those who carried the ark put these staves on their shoulders, thus providing stable transportation without directly touching the ark. Second, the Lord commanded that only one family among the Levites was authorized to carry the ark—the sons of Kohath. The ark was so sacred that the sons of Kohath were specifically warned that if they touched the ark, even while performing their duties, they would die (see Numbers 4:15).

The Death of Uzzah

In the context of the Lord’s specific instructions about the ark, we can review the death of Uzzah and understand why the punishment was not unfair. The ark, now in Kirjath-jearim, was being stored in the house of a man named Abinadab (see 2 Samuel 6:1–7). David went to the house of Abinadab with a large procession and began the journey back to Jerusalem with the ark (see 2 Samuel 6:1). However, the commandments about moving the ark were not followed. First, instead of descendants of Kohath transporting the ark, two of the sons of Abinadab were selected—one of whom was Uzzah. Second, the ark was not carried with the staves on their shoulders; it was instead placed in a cart pulled by oxen.

If the ark had been moved in the lawful fashion, two things would have prevented Uzzah’s death. Understanding these two keys clarifies the story of Uzzah and why he was punished for his actions. First, if he had been obedient, the ark would not have tipped because it would have been securely resting on the staves on the shoulders of those carrying it. Second, Uzzah, who did not have the authority to perform this task, would not have been within arm’s reach of the ark.[10] In short, he was not just a passerby who noticed that the ark was about to fall; his very presence was an act of disrespect in multiple ways. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “[Uzzah] would . . . have been carefully instructed as to his duties, which should have check-reigned his eagerness.”[11] Disregarding the Lord’s instructions, Uzzah placed himself where he should not have been and did what he should not have done. At the culmination of this disobedience, he touched the ark and died.

This third story of desecration of the ark is similar to the story of the people of Beth-Shemesh in that the slain should have known how to treat the ark. However, this story differs from both of the other stories because of the motivations involved, and it is perhaps because of these motivations that this is a prominent story in the sermons of Latter-day Saint leaders. Uzzah was clearly not motivated by a desire to praise an idol like the Philistines, and there is no evidence that he was acting out of curiosity like the people of Beth-Shemesh. In fact, everything seems to indicate that Uzzah’s motivations were good—he was trying to help move the ark to Jerusalem where it belonged. Yet despite his rationalizations, Uzzah was still subject to the prophesied divine consequences. Uzzah’s combination of good motives but direct disobedience to the Lord’s commandments holds a powerful principle for our day. In the presence of thirty thousand people and King David himself (see 2 Samuel 6:1–3), Uzzah might have felt justified helping out in a good cause even if it meant disobeying the commandments of the Lord. On this Elder Neal A. Maxwell commented, “Some may reason that [Uzzah] was only trying—though mistakenly—to help out. But given the numerous times the Lord had saved and spared Israel, . . . surely He knew how to keep the Ark in balance!”[12]

Uzzah is not alone in history in having good intentions but poor actions. Just a few years before, King Saul found himself in a similar situation. Impatient at the late arrival of the prophet Samuel, Saul decided to preside over a sacrifice, an act he was not authorized to perform (see 1 Samuel 13:8–14). Shortly thereafter, when Saul disobeyed another command of the Lord, Samuel taught, “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22). As a result of his actions, Saul lost the blessing of the Lord and David was anointed king.

We live in a day when we are bombarded with temptations to leave the path of obedience to follow the path of good intentions. There are those who criticize the Brethren, thinking this loyal opposition will help the Church.[13] Some young men postpone or ignore the responsibilities of missionary work, thinking other contributions will help the Church more than bearing their testimony as a missionary. There is the constant temptation for mothers to seek unnecessary employment outside the home, thinking worldly honors and money for frivolous luxuries are more important than time with their families.[14] In the face of such temptations, President David O. McKay reminded us to “see how quickly men who attempt unauthoritatively tosteadythearkdie spiritually.”[15] Like Uzzah, our disobedience couched in good motivations will still bring divine consequences.

Conclusion

The death of Uzzah is not a mysterious or unexplainable event when understood in light of the greater story. On the contrary, the history of Uzzah and his contemporaries, coupled with the Lord’s specific instructions about the ark of the covenant, hold important principles for our day. From the Philistines we learn about the Lord’s patience with those who are ignorant of his laws. From the people of Beth-Shemesh we learn the importance of reverencing what is sacred. Finally, from the death of Uzzah we learn that good motivations do not rationalize disobedience.

Just as the scriptures contain stories of those who suffered as they desecrated the ark of the covenant, the scriptures are also full of stories of those who consecrated their lives to their covenants. The temptations and motivations that led to the death of the Philistines, the people of Beth-Shemesh, and Uzzah could have been conquered if the people had followed the faith-filled examples of Joseph, who fled sexual temptation even when it seem justified, Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son, and Noah, who built an ark while others mocked. Perhaps these principles of faith are best embodied by Brigham Young when he admonished, “Let the kingdom alone, the Lord steadies the ark. . . . I know enough to let the kingdom alone, and do my duty. It carries me, I do not carry the kingdom.” [16]

Notes



[1] See Joshua 6; Bible Dictionary, “Ark of the Covenant,” 613.

[2] See Bible Dictionary, “Dagon,” 651.

[3] For more information on emerods, see 1 Samuel 5:6 footnote a; see also Bible Dictionary, “Emerods,” 665.

[4] See 1 Samuel 5:8; interestingly, Gath is the future home of Goliath (see 1 Samuel 17:4).

[5] Richard G. Scott, “To Acquire Spiritual Guidance,” Ensign, November 2009, 9.

[6] Boyd K. Packer, “Ye Are the Temple of God,” Ensign, November 2000, 3.

[7] Thomas S. Monson, “The Call to Serve,” Ensign, November 2000, 48.

[8] See Exodus 25:22; see also Bible Dictionary, “Ark of the Covenant,” 613.

[9] See Exodus 26:34; see also Bible Dictionary, “Tabernacle,” 778.

[10] Although the Old Testament does not have genealogical information about Uzzah other than his father’s name, David’s insistence in his second attempt to move the ark that only Levites should move it seems to indicate that Uzzah was not of the right lineage (see 1 Chronicles 15).

[11] Neal A. Maxwell, Meek and Lowly (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 15.

[12] Maxwell, Meek and Lowly, 15.

[13] See M. Russell Ballard, “Beware of False Prophets and Teachers,” Ensign, November 1999, 64.

[14] See Ezra Taft Benson, “The Honored Place of Woman,” Ensign, November 1981, 105.

[15] David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals (Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1953), 258.

[16] Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1867), 11:252.