Prickly Passages: Why Did God Kill Uzzah?

Programming Note: This is the first in series on problem passages in the Bible. Frequently, pastors receive thoughtful questions from those who are interested to know more about God and His book, the Bible. Prickly Passages will be devoted to Scripture texts that have caused good people to scratch their heads in perplexed wonder. Check back here from time to time as I’ll prayerfully respond to some of the best questions I’ve received.

Tucked away in the middle of the Old Testament is a story that has caused many to think God is unfair. It’s the story where God takes the life of man named Uzzah (2 Samuel 6). We know very little about Uzzah as he makes but a cameo appearance in a story that is more about King David of Israel than it is Uzzah. Here’s a synopsis: David had assigned Uzzah and his brother, Ahio, the task of moving the Ark of the Covenant along with a host of others. As the Ark is being moved on the back of an ox cart the oxen stumbles. Uzzah puts out his hand to prevent the Ark from falling to the ground where the Bible records these words: “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark, and he died there before God.” (1 Chronicles 13:10). You can read the entire story in both 2 Samuel 6 and 2 Chronicles 13.

People are perplexed when they read these words. Maybe you’ve wondered what God was doing when you read this story. A friend recently commented, “My first reaction in reading about Uzzah was – why would God do this? After all, Uzzah was just to keep the ark from falling.” So, why did God kill Uzzah?

The Ark of the Covenant

Most of us are more familiar with Ark from the Indiana Jones movie series, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Yet, the Ark is more than the stuff of Hollywood legends. The Bible gives us a rich history and meaning to the Ark of the Covenant. The word “ark” in Hebrew simply means chest. And the Ark was a wooden box overlaid with gold. It was over four feet long and approximately 2.5 feet high and 2.5 feet wide. On the top of the Ark was a slab of pure gold called the Mercy Seat. Above the slab of gold were two golden angels facing one another over this Mercy Seat. The Ark of the Covenant was the central piece of furniture in the Tabernacle. It was placed in the back of the Tabernacle in what was known as the Holy of Holies. Only the Levites, the group from within Israel, could carry the Ark. It was the only piece of furniture in this room. Amazingly, God appeared over this Ark as this chest signified the very presence of God Himself.

The Background to Uzzah’s Story

Again, the Ark represented the experience of God – it was the visible throne of God on earth. We sense the significance of the Ark and of God’s presence when read of how the Philistines captured it during the time when Israel had no king. Soon, the Philistines brought the Ark back to Israel because every morning when they woke up, their god Dagon was flat down on his face before the Ark. They set their god back up, only to find their god back on his face before the Ark, only with his hands and head cut off.

It had been twenty years since the Philistines returned the Ark where it came to rest in a small town within Israel, named Beth-shemesh. It’s in this small town where seventy men decided to look inside the Ark. Curiosity overtook them and the Bible says that these seventy men died by the hand of God that day. Because the seventy died, they sent messengers to the nearby town of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “Come, get this thing because it scares us.” So they returned the Ark but it only made it as far as the fairly remote place of Kiriath-jearim, a small town within Israel.

King David becomes the leader of Israel in time and he had a desire to place the Ark inside the Tabernacle. He wanted God to be central and in His rightful place again. King David gathered thirty thousand men to bring the Ark to the Tabernacle in Jerusalem along with brothers, Uzzah and Ahio. They placed the Ark on an ox-cart, those of you who have been to places in Asia can picture this scene easily. Uzzah walked along side the ox-cart when the oxen stumbled and the Ark was set to fall. It was right then that Uzzah placed his hand out to steady the Ark from falling to the ground. And it was right there that Uzzah was struck down dead for touching the Ark. Again, he simply placed his hand on the Ark in order that it would not fall. And he was instantly killed. Imagine the scene as thousands of people dancing and singing and Uzzah drops dead. Everyone and everything goes silent. Uzzah is dead and everyone goes home. And the Ark was left right there at the home of Obed-edom, someone described as a foreigner. The Ark stayed in his home for three months.

Why Did Uzzah Die?

God gave rules for the transportation of the Ark in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. What were those rules?

1. The Ark was to be Covered. People were not to look upon it.

2. The Ark was to be Carried. There were golden rings on the side of the Ark where you would poles through it. Here four men were to carry it. God gave specific directions on how the Ark was to be transported.

3. The Ark was to be Carried by Levites. These men were special and unique because they were consecrated for this work by God.

4. The Ark was not to be Touched.

Why did Uzzah die? Everyone of these rules were disregarded. Uzzah was not a Levite. They were not carrying it but instead David instructed the Ark to be placed on a cart. And lastly, Uzzah touched it. They broke everyone of God’s rules. Uzzah died because he broke the rules. Uzzah thought the dirt of the ground would defile the Ark more than he would. He thought the soil was dirty but he was not. Uzzah’s instincts assumed that his hand was holy enough to touch the Ark.

We must remember: no one can come before the presence of God without radical grace. God is radically unlike anyone or anything else.

I Cannot Believe in a “God” Who Kills 

No doubt someone may say, “I cannot believe in a God who does this to good people like Uzzah. I cannot believe in a God where you break just one rule and you are killed instantly.”

But that’s simply not the case. Look at the story again. There wasn’t just one rule that was broken. Instead, a number of God’s rules were broken. Let me count a few… How did they get the Ark on the cart? Didn’t multiple men touch it when it was placed on the cart? Why were these men not also killed? Why wasn’t David killed who lead the entire parade where each of these four rules were broken? Why was only Uzzah killed? Why didn’t God kill Ahio alongside with Uzzah? He was also guiding the Ark?

Even in God’s anger, He was tremendous mercy. Only one man was killed. God is merciful even when He’s angry.

Series Note: Next in the series of Prickly Passages – What are we to make of the “saints” who were raised on Good Friday (Matthew 27:52-53)?