by Thandazani Mhlanga | 8 November 2022 |
At midnight on November 14, 1960, Robert Raymond Cook made the fateful trip to the gallows from his cell in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta—the last man to be hanged in the province of Alberta. Because of how the trial seemed to have been argued on circumstantial evidence, much of it playing out in the media, his guilt has been debated in articles, books and even some stage plays.
Cook insisted to the end that he was innocent. Shortly before his death Cook gave his attorney, David MacNaughton, a poem he’d written that contained these lines:
So I ask you, is it strange that I’m sentenced to the noose
While my family’s killer is on the loose…
So you people of the world, take note,
It’s murder when the innocent die at the end of the rope.
As for death sentences, I find the story of Uzzah in 1 Chronicles 13:1-11 and 2 Samuel 6:1-8 still as puzzling and perplexing as it was the first day I heard it. The poignant lines from Cook’s poem capture the difficulty of “meaning-making” in the Uzzah story. Is it not murder when the innocent die at the hands of an inconsiderate God? After all, if it weren’t for Uzzah, the ark might have fallen off the cart, which would have been embarrassing, not to mention disrespectful—and perhaps we would now be complaining about his carelessness in not saving the ark!
Maybe this explains why I have never heard a homily on Uzzah. How does one wrap one’s mind around a God of seemingly inexplicable contradictions? In the New Testament, He invites you to partner with Him in sharing the good news; yet in the Old Testament, it seems He doesn’t need your help. Uzzah is a case in point: give God a hand, and He might take your life.
How does the jury of religious public opinion resolve the case of Uzzah? What do the various interpretations say about God’s character? In other words, what are the theological ramifications of this story?
Bible commentators have taken many different positions on this story. One commentary opted to blame no one, but to credit this event to the unquestionable will of God. The said commentary argues:
The severity of Uzzah’s fate may seem, to us, too great for the nature and degree of the offense. But it does not become us to sit in judgment on the dispensations of God; and, besides, it is apparent that the divine purpose was to inspire awe of His majesty, a submission to His law, and a profound veneration for the symbols and ordinances of His worship.
But is it as “apparent” as the commentators claim? If so, then we have to be comfortable with the idea that God killed Uzzah for pedagogical reasons. This ideology is prominent within Christianity: we often try to credit God with all the good and the bad events in our lives. “God has a lesson to teach you,” Christians will say to someone in crisis.
While God makes all things work together for good (Romans 8:28), bad things happen. Jesus argued this very point when some people questioned Him about the Galileans that Pilate murdered (Luke 13:1-5).
Yet a God whose modus operandi is to leave children orphaned so He can display His holiness is terrifying. I, as a father of three, would rather avoid such a dangerous God.
Scholars behind the translation of the ESV, among other Bible translations, blame Uzzah for his own demise. Thus the phrase: “God struck him down there because of his error” is often found in the translation of 2 Samuel 6:7. The basic premise of all these arguments is that Uzzah was to blame. His negligence—perhaps his disobedience, because he knew better than to touch the ark—cost him his life.
Some Talmudic scholars, drawing from study of Torah, and uncomfortable with blaming God, have agreed with the implication in the text that the fault was Uzzah’s. Rabbi Rashi, commenting on the crossing of the Jordan (Joshua 4:18), focused on the line saying, “the soles of the feet of the priests were lifted onto the dry ground.” Rashi took this to mean that the Ark was what carried them safely across the Jordan. Therefore, “It was regarding this that Uzzah was punished when he took hold of the Ark; for if the Ark carried its carriers, it certainly was able to carry itself (Rashi on Joshua 4:18).”
So Uzzah ought to have known better, because the ark was floating along quite well without his help.
Another Talmudic scholar argues: “God smote him because he lifted the edges of his garment in front of the Ark and relieved himself in its presence (Sotah 35a 17).” The text, of course, says nothing about this: it is a made-up backstory to explain a result that apparently seemed unfair to the commentator, too.
Some have blamed David for this unfortunate incident. Along with several other scholars, Maimonides argued:
When the Ark is transported from place to place, it should not be transported on an animal or wagon. Instead, it is a mitzvah for it to be carried on one’s shoulders. Since David forgot and had it transported on a wagon, there was an outbreak [of Divine anger] against Uzzah.
This argument implies that David’s poor planning cost Uzzah his life. The religious implications of this idea are immense. Is it true that shoddy church leadership can cost someone their life? Does God punish the followers to correct the leaders? Is this a case of God punishing the leaders by punishing their followers, as in the Egyptian plagues (Exodus 7-11:32)?
The Levites’ fault
After Uzzah’s death, the ark was unloaded in the living room of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months. When David decided to complete its trip to Jerusalem, he harkened back to Uzzah’s death with these words:
It was because you, the Levites, did not bring it up the first time that the Lord our God broke out in anger against us (1 Chronicles 15:13).
Though he adds, “We did not inquire of him about how to do it in the prescribed way,” his first person plural doesn’t take away the implied sting of blame against the Levites for not doing what they were supposed to—though 1 Chronicles 13 says clearly that it was David who made the final decision to bring the ark to Jerusalem on a new ox cart.
Uzzah the martyr
Some scholars have even sought to resolve Uzzah’s perplexing case by transforming him into a saint-like figure, counting him with the likes of Enoch and Elijah. Rabbi Yochanan argued that
Uzzah entered the World-to-Come, as it is stated: ‘With the Ark of God.’ Just as the Ark exists forever, so too, Uzzah entered the World-to-Come (Sotah 35a 18).
Uzzah died, according to this interpretation, as a holy martyr to the ark of the covenant.
Of memory and rationalization
None of the solutions discussed above have been entirely satisfactory for me. As a subscriber to the idea that “all truth is God’s truth,” I wonder if the field of psychology might offer insightful contributions. Perhaps what we have here is a failure of memory in storytelling.
Researcher Frederic Bartlett gave his subjects a text to read and then asked them to write out a “reproduction” of it at different periods ranging from fifteen minutes to several years later. In comparing the multiple reproductions, Bartlett recognized consistent trends: the radical abbreviation of the story, the replacement of less familiar terms by more familiar ones, and the rationalization of supernatural and other unfamiliar parts of the story.
The biblical narrative has an undeniable oral tradition; unfortunately, as psychologists point out, human memory is notoriously unreliable. Unlike Greek narratives and many modern-day novels that will spend a page or two describing the setting, it is the norm in Old Testament narratives to hold back on detail. This narrative style is so prominent that when the narrator finally gives you a few background details, you know it is essential to the interpretation of the story.
In agreement with Bartlett’s findings, students of the Hebrew Bible can attest to how stingy the Hebrew narrative is with details. This could be the result of the Hebrew Bible’s long transmission history. (This, I should add, does not diminish God’s power; instead, it affirms it: God was able consistently to communicate with humankind notwithstanding our deficiencies in retelling the stories.)
I would suggest that Uzzah’s story displays the downsides of human memory. Over time and in all the retellings, some details in the story were naturally lost. The final product affirms Bartlett’s finding that rationalization takes place in memory: perhaps, thought the writer as he remembered the story, someone needs to be blamed, a moral lesson extracted—and since can’t be God’s fault, he blamed Uzzah. So even if Uzzah had a bad heart that suffered infarction at the moment he looked up to see a sacred artifact toppling over on him, it must be that God executed him for his supposed bad judgment.
I would rather defend the character of God than the text of the story. So you might find me, too, guilty of some rationalization when I say that I believe, along with 1 Corinthians 15:26 that God and death are not partners; on the contrary, they are enemies. God doesn’t collaborate with death; He is at war with death.
I am curious: how do you resolve this story?
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is currently studying ancient Near Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto. Pastor Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have three girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.