Tragedy struck when King David finally had the opportunity to give the Ark of the Covenant, Israel’s most holy relic and the very symbol of God’s presence, a permanent residence in his capital city (II Samuel 6:1-11; I Chronicles 13:5-14). The procession from Kiriath-jearim to Jerusalem was an event with great fanfare that included music and 30,000 witnesses (II Samuel 6:1; I Chronicles 13:8). The Ark had been stored at Abinadab’s house and a new cart driven by Abinadad’s sons, Uzzah and Ahio, was enlisted to transport the sacred ark (II Samuel 6:3; I Chronicles 13:7). The cavalcade ran smoothly until the oxen stumbled at Nacon’s threshing floor and Uzzah instinctively acted to steady the cart, touching the holy vessel and dying on impact (II Samuel 6:6-7; I Chronicles 13:9-10). The procession stopped dead in its tracks with Uzzah. Stunned and angered, David stored the ark with Obed-Edom the Gittite and the project was shelved for three months (II Samuel 6:10-11; I Chronicles 13:13-14).
It appears the ox stumbling was not an accident as the misstep came on a threshing floor. A threshing floor is a region of hard packed soil used to separate grain from the chaff. By definition a threshing floor is hard and level. The oxen stumbled on nothing. This is further evidenced by the fact that the ambiguous Hebrew could just easily read that the oxen shook as if the animals sensed that it was wrong for them to carry the ark. The text suggests that God stopped the procession.
The festivities’ sudden turn from triumph to tragedy and the finality of God’s action take the reader by surprise and many are left with the same reaction as David - becoming shocked, disturbed and even angry (II Samuel 6:8; I Chronicles 13:11). Was Uzzah killed for a reflexive reaction trying to protect God’s own treasure? What did Uzzah do to deserve death? What should Uzzah have done? Should he have allowed the sacred object to fall from the cart to be covered in filth or potentially shattered?
When the ark of the covenant was built, God designed very specific rules as to its transportation David must not have read the directions as none were followed on the day in question. Two significant breaches of protocol occurred in transporting the ark. First, the ark was carried by an ox cart. The ark was to be covered (Numbers 4:5-6, 15), carried only by members of a branch of Levites known as the Kohathites (Numbers 3:30-31, 4:15, 7:9), and even then only on their shoulders (Numbers 7:9) and only using poles (Exodus 25:13-16, 37:5). In fact, the Kohathites were the only chapter of Levites not to be bequeathed with carts (Numbers 7:9). Secondly, Uzzah touched the Ark, a violation punishable by death (Numbers 4:15).
Though the parallel account in II Samuel does not explain the incident, I Chronicles reports that David realized that he had not followed proper protocol (I Chronicles 15:12-15). He admits “we did not seek Him [God] according to the ordinance (I Chronicles 15:13, NASB).” Decorum seems to be a factor as when etiquette was followed, the ark was moved safely to Jerusalem without incident (II Samuel 6:13-16; I Chronicles 15:25-26).
The alternative plan David utilized appears to have been copied from the last time the ark was moved, by the Philistines. They had captured the ark in battle and after it had caused them no small trouble, returned it via cart (I Samuel 6:1-12). Like the Philistines, David employed a new cart (I Samuel 6:7; II Samuel 6:3; I Chronicles 13:7). It had been over 400 years since the law had been written. Whether David was ignorant of the law or he noticed that this method worked for his rivals and saw it as an improvement over the prescribed mode is unknown. What is clear is that David ignored God’s instructions and transported the ark in a manner that seemed right to him without seeking God’s approval. The party was for God but David did not consult God first and God crashed the party.
Many have viewed this passage as indicative that divine judgment is executed even against technical violations and that God engages in ritualistic perfectionism. The rules are nonnegotiable. The underlying assumption to this interpretation is that Uzzah’s intentions are pure.
The charge against Uzzah is “irreverence” (II Samuel 6:7 NASB). Since the ark had been housed at his home for twenty years (I Samuel 7:2; II Samuel 6:3) many believe that an over familiarity with the ark precipitated the incident. He may have become accustomed to its presence leading to an attitude of casualness that minimized its sanctity in his own mind.
Whether this is accurate or not, Uzzah instinctively touched the ark. Uzzah felt it was his responsibility to save the integrity of God and he assumed he was qualified to do so. The purpose of the laws regarding the ark were not to protect it from contact with mud but rather to insulate it from contact with sinful human hands. It was not the filth of the ground that would defile the ark but the contamination of human sin. In short, Uzzah thought that his fingers were cleaner than the dirt the ark might fall into. His misjudgement demonstrates that he either held a high view of himself or a low view of God’s holiness.
At a conference in 2007, R.C. Sproul (b. 1939) summarized, “Uzzah believed that mud would desecrate the ark, but mud is just dirt and water obeying God. Mud is not evil. God’s law was not meant to keep the ark pure from the earth, but from the dirty touch of a human hand. Uzzah presumed his hands were cleaner than the dirt. God said no.”
The tragedy did served to re-instill the fear (or holy awe) of God in King David (II Samuel 6:9; I Chronicles 13:12).
Have you become so familiar with God that you have little to no fear of the divine?