Let us pray:
Guide us in our worship, O Lord. Show us who we worship and how to worship; give us hearts willing to hear your words today. And may the words of my mouth and the meditation on all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
We’re continuing with our uncomfortable Bible stories this week, where we’re looking at this story in 2 Samuel about King David and the ark of the covenant. He gathers his men and goes up to Baale-judah, to get the ark from where it has been, for he wants to bring it to Jerusalem. There is great celebration as it travels, with music and dancing and a new cart made specially for this occasion. There are priests to care for the ark and soldiers to guard the procession.
You may have heard this story before. It’s in the lectionary, actually, minus the uncomfortable bit, the disaster that strikes as this procession is on the way to Jerusalem: for one of the priests who is traveling with the ark, named Uzzah, is traveling beside the ark. Somewhere on the rough road, the ark seems to wobble, be in danger of falling off its cart, and Uzzah reaches out to keep it from falling.
And for that bit of attempted kindness he is struck dead by God.
No one wants to talk about God as a God who strikes people down, especially for doing something as innocuous-seeming, even decent, as keeping something from falling. To us, it seems like the lector catching a Bible they’ve knocked down and being struck dead by it. It seems like me organizing things for communion and being killed by God for doing it wrong. Right? It paints God as capricious and violent and all these things that we’re otherwise taught God is not.
That’s what it seems like to us. But to the Israelites, this would have made perfect sense. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t upsetting to them; King David, after all, is so frightened by what happens that he abandons the ark rather than bring it to Jerusalem. But it would have made sense.
The temple, and the ark of the covenant that sat inside it, were considered the place where God was especially present in the world. The ark was seen as God’s throne: God sat there, enthroned between the two cherubim that were crafted on top of it. The ark was then placed in the temple, where it could be cared for properly. And, frankly, be kept away from people, too, for Uzzah is not the only person to be killed around the ark of the covenant. Some of Aaron’s sons were killed for offering incorrect sacrifices, for instance.
It’s more than that, though. God’s holiness was present around the ark, and that holiness was dangerous. Humans couldn’t approach it safely, which is why the temple was built, and designed the way it was: there were all these spaces where one could get closer and closer to the ark the more worthy one was: the first court was for non-Jews who wanted to worship God. Within that was the court for Jewish women, then Jewish men, then priests, and finally there was the inner sanctum, the holy of holies, that was entered only once a year by a priest who was specially prepared and cleansed to be so close to God’s dangerous holiness.
If that seems like a strange concept to you, a strange way to think about the world–I mean, yes it is very different from how we think of God today. We have no one place where we believe God’s presence is the most concentrated, and we all approach God. So I would invite you to think instead of something modern, something we’re all familiar with: radioactivity.
Bear with me, okay? We all know how dangerous radioactivity is, even if we don’t know why and can’t explain the science. We all know that radioactive symbol, even if we understand absolutely nothing about what it actually means. Those who do understand it go through years of training to understand it thoroughly and handle it safely. It’s kept in special, secure places, where it can only be approached by a few people who have been thoroughly vetted and prepared. The actual act of approaching radioactive materials is something that’s done carefully, in special clothing. There is a process, one that has been worked out to be safest for everyone. When something does go wrong, we all know it could get really bad really fast. I don’t know if it reached this far east, but I was in Arizona when the nuclear reactor in Fukushima melted down in 2011, and there was some serious low-level panic going on at the possibility of fall-out reaching us on the winds across the Pacific. And that–that level of care, that sense of danger compounded by how far beyond most of our understanding it is–that is how the Israelites saw holiness. It was something to be approached only by the chosen few for the safety of everyone.
And, like radioactivity, this isn’t something that was malicious–God didn’t strike people down because of a bad day, just as radioactivity itself is dangerous only as a side-effect of the breaking down of atoms–it just was, a constant in the universe borne out of the difference between human and divine. Pure God, the essence of God that was purest at the ark, was just too pure and concentrated for humans to bear. This is why God is always saying that anyone who sees God’s face will die. This is why there was such ceremony around the Temple. This is why people die in the Temple.
They forget that God’s holiness is not something to approach casually, not something for human use or consumption but only for worship. This is where my radioactivity metaphor breaks down, for we use radioactivity all the time, in medical procedures and to create electricity and in weapons, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Any attempt to harness God’s holiness can result only in death–Indiana Jones was right about that.
And that is why Uzzah died. Not because of God’s malice, but because no one could come into contact with God’s pure holiness, because God’s holiness is not something to be approached casually.
I don’t know if that makes anyone feel better, to be fair. There was still a death. I used the radioactivity metaphor to show that, for the Israelites, this wasn’t a capricious act of God but just how things were. But what does that mean for us, today, we who don’t have that idea of God anymore?
I take two things away from this story. Feel free to disagree with me; it’s okay to wrestle with this story, with this idea of God and how it’s different from ours. You’re getting me after my wrestling, and if this story is really troubling for you and you’re still in the midst of your wrestling, that’s fine. But here they are:
The first is the reminder that we don’t think of God this way anymore. And I deeply appreciate the language of God as friend, and the reminders of how very much God wants to be with us and have a relationship with us, but I also find that I appreciate this reminder of God’s holiness and fundamental otherness from us. The Israelites were right: God is not human; God is far more than we can imagine or understand.
The second is the reminder of why we don’t think of God this way anymore, because it isn’t that it’s untrue: God is still holy, still beyond our understanding, but between King David’s time and ours stands Jesus, who came to earth and became human, who stands between us and God and makes it possible for us to approach God in a way the Israelites could not. Christ makes us holy enough to approach God, not just a chosen few priests but all of us, in a way that purification rites and preparation and sacrifices could never do. It isn’t our own holiness, our own preparation or enough-ness that makes us able to stand before God; it is Christ. Jesus makes it possible for us to stand before God and not be separated from God by walls and priests and unbridgeable distances. Through Jesus, we now can touch God, can take communion and touch God in ways that would have been unimaginable and impossible before Him.
And so we’re left with God’s holiness and how Christ makes it possible for us to approach that holiness, and I am grateful that Jesus took away those barriers, made it possible for us to come close to God in new ways. May we all know both God’s holiness and God’s presence.