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Why did the Lord kill Uzzah? Apparently he was trying to help (2 Sam. 6:6, 7).
This is a question people have asked since the moment the incident happened. David himself was confused by it (2 Sam. 6:8).
In order to understand what took place by the “threshing floor of Nacon,” we need to examine the laws regulating the transporting of the ark of the covenant and pay attention to the details of the story and its purpose.
1. Transporting the Ark: The Israelite sanctuary accompanied the people throughout their sojourns. Portable, it was dismantled and set up again in different places according to the travel itinerary of the people. When dismantling the tabernacle, the high priest covered the ark with some of the curtains of the tabernacle and put the poles in place in order for the Levitical family of the Kohathites to carry it on their shoulders (Num. 4:5, 6, 15). They were to show reverence and respect to the holy by not touching it, at the risk of their lives.
In moving the ark, David did what he thought would be best (1 Chron. 13:1-4). He built a new oxcart, brought the ark from the house of Abinadab, placed it on the cart, and celebrated while it was being transported (2 Sam. 6:3-5). The sons of Abinadab, Uzzah and Ahio, guided the cart.
2. The Incident: The biblical text is not clear about the exact nature of the accident that led Uzzah to touch the ark. The text suggests that something happened to the oxen. Perhaps they stumbled or became unyoked (the meaning of the Hebrew term shamat is uncertain)-and apparently the ark moved. Uzzah immediately reached out and took hold of the ark. God reacted, striking down Uzzah, and he died. The text gives a reason for God’s drastic action: “The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act” (verse 7).*
The Hebrew noun translated “irreverent act” (shal) appears only here in the Old Testament; its exact meaning is unknown. This has caused some scholars to argue that we probably have here a textual corruption. They prefer to follow the reason given in the parallel narrative in 1 Chronicles 13:10, that “he had put his hand on the ark.” Based on comparative linguistics, scholars have suggested that the Hebrew noun shal expresses the ideas of disdain, impudence, and slander. In the context it indicates that Uzzah showed disrespect to God by improperly handling a symbol of His holy presence.
It is impossible to know the mental state of Uzzah as he reached out to seize the ark. One could argue that he was sincerely interested in protecting it. In that case the Lord was revealing to the people that the ends do not justify the means, that He can protect His holiness without our disrespectful assistance (cf. 1 Sam. 6:1, 2, 7-9). It could also be that since the ark had been in his house for several years, Uzzah was too familiar with it and lost some of the deference he should have had for its holiness. In any case his action was an act of desecration.
3. Purpose of the Narrative: Determining the purpose of a narrative is not a simple task. It requires looking for hints in the text as to the intention of the biblical writer in preserving the story. There are several elements in the narrative that help us identify aspects of its main purpose.
Notice that David was surprised by the death of Uzzah, and consequently he feared the Lord. The new king of Israel needed to regain a sense of God’s greatness and power, the seriousness of coming into contact with His holiness. Familiarity with God does not mean disrespecting Him. God wants us to take Him seriously when He addresses us. This was extremely important for the new king to learn. The next time David moved the ark, he followed God’s instructions (2 Sam. 6:12, 13), thus showing sincere reverence to Him and His will.
Second, the story of Uzzah’s death is followed by the story of Obed-Edom. The symbol of God’s presence in his house resulted in blessings from the Lord. When His presence is taken seriously, it is a source of blessings and life.
Perhaps we need to recover the sense of God’s holiness and stop treating Him as our “buddy.” We show respect to our Creator and Redeemer by being submissive to His gracious will.
*All Scripture quotations in this article are taken from the New International Version.