Let me start out by saying I’m a big, big fan of obedience. And I also see many instances where the scriptures teach we should not criticize our leaders. I’ve got no problem with that – IMHO our leaders deserve all the support we can give them.
However, I think that we have been badly misinterpreting a story that is commonly used to support these concepts. The traditional Mormon interpretation of the story of Uzzah and the ark in 2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chr 13 is familiar to most of us: Uzzah reaches out to steady the ark during its transport and is killed for touching it. The modern-day interpretation for us has been that we should not correct Church leaders or Church policy, for despite our good intentions, the leaders of the Church are in charge and it is not our place to correct them. To quote from the D&C Student Manual for Religion 324/325, p188:
“’Uzzah was therefore a type of all who with good intentions, humanly speaking, yet with unsanctified minds, interfere in the affairs of the kingdom of God, from the notion that they are in danger, and with the hope of saving them.’…In modern revelation the Lord referred to this incident to teach the principle that the Lord does not need the help of men to defend his kingdom (see D&C 85:8). Yet even today there are those who fear the ark is tottering and presume to steady its course. There are those who are sure that women are not being treated fairly in the Church, those who would extend some unauthorized blessing, or those who would change the established doctrines of the Church. These are ark-steadiers. The best intentions do not justify such interference with the Lord’s plan.”
Or, in the shorter Seminary version (p97 of the Seminary D&C study guide),
“The phrase ‘steady the ark’ has come to refer to those who lack faith in the Lord and His servants and instead do things based on their own wisdom.”
However, a close reading of the text supports just the opposite: Uzzah was likely killed for NOT correcting his priesthood leaders, who themselves were not following the scriptures. This conclusion is based on three items in the text:
1. King David, not Uzzah, was the responsible party, was in error, and later admits it.
2. Uzzah’s did what his leaders asked him to do, rather than what the scriptures said he should do, both in moving the ark, and in keeping it from falling. Thus, Uzzah’s core error was following his priesthood/political leaders rather than the scriptures.
3. Underlings were often killed for a king’s misbehavior, further supporting the idea that David, not Uzzah, was at fault; the Lord’s actions were meant primarily as a lesson for David.
Let’s look at the specifics that support this.
First, David is the one at fault. He takes 30,000 soldiers (or more, per the Chronicler) and decides to move the ark to his own city. However, instead of following the prescribed way of moving the ark, that is, by using Levites to carry it on their shoulders (Ex 25:12-14; Num 4:5-6, 15), David follows the example of the Philistines in using a cart to move the ark. He admits his error later, as documented in 1 Chronicles 15 (especially v 13), and when he decides a second time to move the ark, he is careful to follow the prescribed formula. (So, by the way, is Solomon when he moves the ark even later in 1 Kings 8.) David’s expression of fear right after Uzzah’s death and unwillingness to move the ark is further evidence that he knows that his own actions were not right: had this been only Uzzah’s sin, David would have had nothing to fear. I’ve been told that the writer of Chronicles typically works hard to make David look good; the presence of this admission of guilt in Chronicles therefore further attests to its importance and veracity.
Recognizing that the ark was not to be moved on a cart a la Philistins but by Levites on their shoulders then logically leads to the second point: Uzzah, whose family had been ‘sanctified’ (1 Sam 7:1, meaning consecrated) to take care of the ark 20 years earlier, should have been and almost certainly was familiar with rules concerning the ark and its movement. But when his political and priesthood leader asks him to do something, rather than correct David by pointing out relevant scriptures, he acquiesces to David’s wishes. This prioritization of human command over scriptural command was Uzzah’s first error.
Furthermore, some interpreters point out that when the oxen stumbled and the ark tipped, this was not an accident but might well have been a sign that the Lord was NOT happy with the move: remember how earlier cattle knew exactly where the Lord wanted the ark moved back in 1 Sam 6:7-12. The cattle may have been trying to get the ark to stop moving. Since the 1 Sam 6 story describes how the ark ended up at Uzzah’s home, Uzzah could hardly have been ignorant that story or therefore of how when cattle move the ark, the cattle might be under divine influence. So his second error is, possibly, missing the hand of the Lord.
Instead of listening to the scriptures and to this perhaps indirect voice of the Lord, Uzzah seeks to carry out the will of his leader, that is, to keep the ark moving to its new home, despite the incorrect nature of the transport. To meet this leader-imposed (not self-imposed) goal, he naturally reaches out to keep the ark from resting or falling. Touching the ark was prohibited by anyone but Levites, on pain of death (Num 4:15). Perhaps Uzzah did not know this; more likely he did know it but felt that following the commandment of his king was more important at the time. At Uzzah’s touching the sacred ark, the Lord’s anger bursts out against the touching, and possibly the moving process, and Uzzah is killed. (Perez-uzzah means “the outburst against Uzzah”.) This was a surprise to David, who did not previously understand that such an action was worthy of death, and so the move is halted.
David’s surprise, anger, and fear — and later admission of error and change of behavior — provide strong evidence that the Lord’s outburst was not just against Uzzah but against David as well. Importantly, the idea that Uzzah was being punished for David’s guilt is supported by the story told in 2 Sam 24, where 70,000 innocent people die because of David’s sinful decision to conduct a census. Many times in the Old Testament, kings are held responsible for leading their people astray into sin, and in 2 Sam 24 the sins of a king are directly the cause of the death of many people, by the hand of the Lord. Uzzah’s death may be one more example of this principle: David, after all, is the responsible adult here, not Uzzah, but 2 Sam 24 shows that David’s culpability doesn’t necessarily mean David directly suffers for his sins. By the converse, Uzzah’s death doesn’t mean he is the only one at fault, or even the principal one at fault.
The message, then, is that if we blindly follow our priesthood leaders rather than being aware of God’s word and following it, we could be struck with death.
To go back to the quote from the BYU D&C guide, if we see that the scriptures indicate that a current practice of the Church is contrary to scripture, perhaps such as unfair treatment of women, then we risk the Lord’s wrath if we blindly follow our leaders in following such a practice. Leaders, even prophet-kings, can make mistakes, and if we follow them in those mistakes, we cannot hide by saying we were just doing as we were told.
The D&C 85:8-9 verses are also misinterpreted by the D&C manual writer(s) as suggesting lay members should not criticize leaders. The key verse reads,
While that man, who was called of God and appointed, that putteth forth his hand to steady the ark of God, shall fall by the shaft of death, like as a tree that is smitten by the vivid shaft of lightning.
The description of the ark-steadier who is smitten here is not the lay member, but the priesthood leader: a man “called of God and appointed” – clear priesthood language. This suggests that priesthood leaders are particularly vulnerable to forgetting the scriptures.
Let me close by saying again that I am not at all advocating that we begin criticizing our leaders or finding fault with them or Church policy. I reiterate that there are numerous instances in the scriptures discouraging such behavior, which I support (and try to comply with). And I think I/we need more obedience, not less. But, my point is that the story of Uzzah cannot and should not be used to justify a stance of discouragement of feedback and questions or offers of assistance from the lay membership; a true reading of the story strongly suggests just the opposite.