I suppose a mysterious, strange, unsettling story might just as well be mysterious and strange and unsettling from the very beginning. After all, the ark of the covenant itselfthe cause, proximately speaking, of the whole uproarwas a rather mysterious item. What was the ark of the covenant, anyway?
The ark was a symbol of God's presence.
As a piece of furniture, it is described in Exodus 25 with some precision. It was a chest, a little bigger than 31/2 x 2 x 2 feet, with two rings on each side through which carrying poles were to be thrust. Remember the poles; they're important. It was made from acacia wood, a hard, durable wood ideally suited for cabinet making. You wouldn't have noticed the color, though, because the whole thing was overlaid with pure gold, and the top was covered by a slab of gold, the mercy seat, with two golden cherubim facing one another on either side. What, precisely, is a mercy seat? Well, there's some question about that, too, but it had something to do with the presence of God. All in all, in any case, this ark was quite a magnificent piece.
And inside, we discover from various references, were placed the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written; Aaron's rod, the rod of the house of Levi that had miraculously sprouted; and a pot of manna, a reminder of the long sojourn in the wilderness. That's all. That much seems straightforward enough.
But surely the ark was more than a gorgeous piece of furniture. When Joshua was to cross the Jordan River, the waters stopped flowing as soon as the soles of the feet of the priests who bore the ark touched the edge of the river. When Joshua marched around Jericho, before the walls came ' down, the ark was carried around Jericho, too. When the ark fell into the hands of the enemy Philistines, it brought destruction wherever it went. The Philistine idol, Dagon, fell on its face two nights running and broke when the ark was simply brought into its shrine. Philistine citizens died or broke out in tumors when the ark came into their city. The Philistines, therefore, most earnestly wanted rid of that ark. So they put it on a driverless cart, to which they hitched two cows just deprived of their calves. They watched closely where it went for they said to themselves, "If it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth Shemesh, then it is the Lord who has done us this great harm. But if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance." Sure enough, the cows paid no heed to their lost calves but headed straight for Beth Shemesh, lowing as they went, turning neither to the right hand nor to the left.
No doubt about it: There was something uncanny about that ark. Oh, yes, it was a chest, a container for the tables of the law. But was it also a war palladium, an object giving special protection to Israel's armies? Or the very embodiment of the presence of God? Or a throne for the invisible presence of God? Probably it was all of these. In any case, God was fully present wherever the ark was.
That's why, you see, it was so important to David to bring the ark back to Jerusalem after he was firmly settled on the throne. For all the years since it had been restored by the Philistines, it had resided in the household of Abinadab in Kiriath Jearim (also known as Baalah Judah). It was only a few miles from Jerusalem, to be sure, but too far aptly to symbolize God right in the middle of the nation. David had a keen political sense in how he went about bringing up the ark too. He involved all the key men of the community, to the tune of thirty thousand people. It was a festive occasion, full of music and merrymaking. What a splendid way to consolidate the power one understood to have been given by God!
We must reverence what is sacred.
Then something went wronggratingly, dissonantly wrong. On a rough piece of road, the oxen pulling the cart that bore the ark stumbled. Uzzah, a son, or more likely, grandson, of Abinadab, naturally enough put out his hand to steady the ark, lest it fall. And God struck Uzzah dead.
Yes, indeed, there certainly was something uncanny about that ark. Uzzah had apparently forgotten that, if he ever knew it. Uzzah had apparently forgotten the terror of the tales of power for prosperity, and power for destruction, associated with that chest. Uzzah apparently had no deep awareness that this piece of furniture was different, absolutely, from every other piece of furniture, that this chest could not be treated simply as a valuable possession that one must protect. After all, he had lived with it all his life, grown up in its presence. As an object, it must have been familiar, ordinary, common to him. He had lost his sense of awe at the sacred object, lost his sense of its holiness, its otherness, its fundamental unapproachability. Only this sort of thoughtless familiarity could make reaching out to steady the ark automatic, rather than unimaginable. That was a part of the problem.
The problem went beyond that one thoughtless act, though. The ark should never have been loaded on a cart in the first place. Remember those carrying poles? God had made quite clear that the ark was to be moved by being borne on the shoulders of the Levites, and only Levites were authorized to touch it at all. Mere superstition? Mere ceremonial observance? Not just exactly.
We humans need concrete, physical ways to set apart those things that are holy.
We human beings, as physical creatures living in a concrete physical world, need concrete, physical ways to set apart those things that are holy. What we do with the things associated with God will influence how we feel about God and what we believe about him. A nameless instinct tells us that we must not use the sanctuary as a gymnasium, that we must not tread the Scriptures underfoot, that we must not play poker on the Communion table. A commandment of God tells us that we must not take God's name in vainmust not speak the words carelessly, profanely, emptily. The revulsion some of us, at least, feel at the idea of doing such things is not a mere rational calculation of appropriateness. It touches something deep and primitive within us. We respond to the suggestion that our scruples are absurd not with an argument but with a shudder. The holy must not be defiled. It must not be made ordinary. A certain reverent distance must be maintained.
If it is not, the sense of awe will be lost. And then how shall it be restored? How, indeed? How can what has become common be made holy once again? When the majesty and mystery of God have been violated, what recourse has he, or have we? No legislation, no sermon, no set of good intentions will suffice, for we have no absolute respect of what we have created. Our own productions have only a relative value. The sense of sacredness, of holiness, comes from beyond us or not at all.
That was what was really at stake when Uzzah reached out and touched the ark. Only something of seemingly shocking, disproportionate magnitude could be enough to communicate unequivocally that God and the things associated with God are not furniture, not possessions, not mere tools useful for consolidating a kingdom, not fundamentally in human control at all. To ask the merely rational, ethical question, thento ask how God could possibly invoke capital punishment against such a crime as Uzzah'sis to ask the altogether wrong question.
At issue was not a human judgment of propriety, but a divine judgment painting a graphic picture of the fact that God will not be domesticated. As one theologian puts it, "The very fact that the power so encountered is not intelligible, but is something totally different in kind that falls right outside the scope of our logical and moral categories, is essential if the divine reality is to be truly transcendent. A Christianity which had ceased to be aware of this ultimate fact of the opposition between God and his creatures would have lost that note of absolute urgency, without which the gospel entrusted to it can never be other than unthinking and superficial." The note of absolute urgencythat is what was at stake. A god who can provoke no sense of absolute urgency is no God at all. And in a setting of undue, casual familiarity, perhaps God's power must show itself as his wrath if people are to be shocked out of their insensibility. "The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah."
The wrath of God is a fearful thing that may, from our perspective, seem irrational.
The wrath of God is a fearful thing, a thing that from a human perspective may seem irrational, incalculable, and subjective, for persons may not be aware of the depth of their transgressions, and cannot, in the nature of the case, be made aware by measured, moderate means. The wrong we do may be a much greater offense to God than we know, and only God's response can make that fact clear.
Yet in the Old Testament, the divine anger is not merely negative, for it also indicates the unlimited greatness and sovereignty of God. And it indicates his personal nature, for it is no mechanical justice, but rather a sort of spontaneous feeling. God is not a God who remains coolly untouched by human behavior. God is not a God to whom what we do makes no difference. To what we do, sometimes wrath is the only appropriate response a holy God could make. Thus, even the terror we may feel in the face of God's anger does not have quite the character of panic or of servile anxiety. Instead, it carries with it a mysterious power of attraction that leads to wonder, obedience, , enthusiasm. In the face of God's anger we learn in a new way that God is God and not to be trifled with. Even the sternness of the lesson has its comforting aspects, for human beings need to know that there are boundaries that God simply will not allow them to cross. And if we learn the lesson aright we soon also learn that the anger is transient, while God's lovingkindness and righteousness are permanent.
It took David awhile to learn that latter lesson. His initial reaction to what God did to Uzzah was like most of ours: He didn't like it even a little bit. Further, God had rained on his merry parade, which was inconvenient for his political agenda. Yet further, God made the immediate impression of being simply too dangerous to have close at hand. So in an act of what seems likes petulant avoidance, David deposited the ark in the house of OEdom, whose reaction we are left to imagine for ourselves.
May I suggest that OEdom, at the very least, may be supposed to have treated that ark with all due respect. You know what happened: The household of OEdom prospered. The presence of God and of the things of God does bless. Primarily, fundamentally, overridingly, to be near to God is to know his gracious benefitsif, always if, one remembers that one is oneself a creature, and God is God; if one comes without presumption; if one acknowledges God's absolute right to declare what he wants of his people. Doing one's own thing in the worship and service of God will not fly. The time comes, and comes quickly, when we must simply obey.
David got the point, and decided to try it again, to do it right.
David got the point. Reports came to him of the sudden change in OEdom's fortunes. He decided to try again, to do it over and do it right. Somehow he knew that one cannot have, apart from God and while actively avoiding God, the blessings that come from being rightly related to him. One cannot park God at the neighbor's house for safety and convenience and still expect his help whenever needed. One must take the risk of bringing him right into the middle of one's own house, while remembering that that intimacy of relationship must not degenerate into casual, unthinking familiarity.
David went and got the ark. This time, persons carried it as it was supposed to be carried. This time, the dancing and music were uninterrupted, except after sacrifices made when six steps had been completed without incident. This time, the ark came safely all the way to Jerusalem. This time, the story had a happy ending.
But it is still a mysterious, strange, and unsettling story. We must not rob it of those elements, for they are at its heart. Our God, who is gracious and good and blesses his people beyond measure, is not tame and harmless like a circus elephant who does tricks on command, or a tiger with its teeth and claws pulled.
Caution! We must not let familiarity with holy things lead us to treat them disrespectfully.
Caution! We must not toy with God or with the things that pertain to God.
Caution! We must not casually suppose that our ways of doing things, even if carried out with impunity for generations, will be accepted forever if they are contrary to God's ways.
Caution! In our very proper emphasis on God's love, we must not forget his wrath. In our eagerness to know him as like us and close to us, we must not forget that he is also infinitely greater than we, surpassing all comprehension.
Caution! If we succumb to unmitigated fear of God, we must not suppose that we can simply avoid him.
Caution! When we maintain a proper awe of God, let us never forget that no matter what else happens, his revealed will is yet to save us and to bless us. Amen.
Marguerite Shuster is pastor of Knox Presbyterian Church in Pasadena, California.