Uzzah Killed For Blind Obedience

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.

20 Replies to “Uzzah Killed For Blind Obedience”

  1. Well done, secco. this is really good work.

    The juxtaposition of excerpts from the institute manual with your analysis throws your point into sharp relief and makes me either want to laugh or cry, I’m not sure which. I’m curious to know how the institute manual handles the topic of wresting the scriptures.

  2. Secco, I agree with the abundant praise for this interpretation, and I think probably most biblical scholars have missed this possibility. As a biblical scholar who missed this possibility, let me play devil’s advocate for a minute and ask you how you’d wrestle with a couple of issues.

    1) If this is in fact the way the story was intended to be read, how has it not been read this way for so long? Would we expect an author to make it clearer, or are the cues sufficient for the audience to understand?

    2) A lot of your interpretation hinges on Uzzah’s knowledge of Exodus and Numbers. The most conservative scholars don’t put the writing of the Priestly Source until at least the 8th century, long after David. Is it possible that the manner of transportation of the ark wasn’t a big deal until a later time? And even if Numbers did go back to the 10th century, how do we know it was normative? How do we know it was Scripture, and that this story implies a comment about adherence to Scripture, if we’re not sure that there was even such a thing as Scripture at this point in history?

    Again, this should not diminish your excellent and cogent work, especially since I think a major lesson to be learned from this is that we and our leaders often (always?) put scriptural stories to strong political uses. But I’m curious to know how you think on these two issues, which are likely culprits preventing this interpretation from being more well known.

  3. #14 – Just a simple point:

    Often, codified canon / scripture was taken from long-existent tradition, custom, policy, etc. that long preceded the actual recording of it. Knowing whether or not it was normative is one thing; reading the account and seeing where it *appears* to have been normative based on the overall context is quite another – and usually all we have.

    I’m sure you know all of that, which is why it is just a simple point, but sometimes we forget the simple in our search for the profound.

  4. So, first, thanks everyone for the many nice comments. I fear that my one good idea has set the expectation bar too high…

    Jupiter, you make some excellent points, and so let me try and respond.

    The idea that David recognizes his fault is not mine. The NIV Study Bible notes make this point, as do many other commentaries. I don’t think the point that Uzzah might have been punished for David’s sin is necessarily my idea either, I can’t recall. But I think it is safe to say that other interpreters have suggested that Uzzah is not solely to blame. So I think the story very well might have been in part at least intended to be read not just as a warning about how powerful the ark is, but also about how following your leaders doesn’t protect you from their mistakes.

    As for why more people haven’t read it this way, I think it is because we LDS interpret this story very differently than others.

    In looking at commentaries as I was thinking about this post over the past week or two, I noticed how uncommon the Mormon interpretation of Uzzah’s death is. Almost no one seems to take Uzzah’s death as a suggestion that feedback should not be made to church leaders – no one, that is, but Mormons. The typical interpretation outside LDS circles seems to be, don’t mess with the ark, don’t treat lightly holy things, that holy really does mean something, and that intentions aren’t enough to comply with the law. The fact that Uzzah was smitten is certainly a message to David, one that David clearly and immediately gets. So, perhaps the question is not, why does no one else read it the way this post suggests, but rather, how did Mormons come to see this passage, or even D&C 85:8, as suggesting that feedback from the lay membership is unwelcome or sinful and even dangerous, or that attempts to help are always misguided?

    It would be great if someone could look into the history of LDS interpretation of Uzzah and D&C 85:8 and see when this notion first crept in to our thinking. I wonder how it got there, since the face value of D&C 85:8 or of 2 Sam 6 doesn’t seem to support such a reading.

    As for your second point: yeah, I thought about this quite a bit as I was composing the post. I too agree it’s unlikely Uzzah had access to Numbers and Exodus, at least not as we have access to them, or that the concept of Scripture was like ours. But I do think he had access to the underlying information because of the following reasons. First, David figures it out pretty quickly and changes his behavior the next time around, and Solomon does too, suggesting the information was available. Second, there were a lot of questions about how to move the ark in that period of time, and it seems likely that Uzzah’s household would have had plenty of motivation to learn and remember the answers to those questions. It’s definitely true that there is no clear indication that Uzzah was willfully disobedient to scripture. That he disobeyed known scripture in order to obey his right-in-his-face very powerful king is conjecture on my part. But I think (in agreement with #15) Uzzah almost certainly would have been very familiar with the unusual circumstances of the appearance of the ark at his house and therefore there would have been a high probability that he knew about special handling rules at some level.

    Your third point is one I’d like to see more exploration of. I find myself quoting to myself, “it is the nature and disposition of almost all men…” and telling myself that unrighteous dominion is an unfortunate yet expected part of our religious life. But identifying specific examples of how that has crept into my own thought and perhaps even my own orthodoxy is something I haven’t done enough of. (White shirts for passing the sacrament, anyone?) It’s very easy for me to imagine how the interpretation of this story was latched onto by leaders looking for justification to argue for less scrutiny of their behavior. Certainly #12’s point about correcting in private is very appropriate, but in all areas of human behavior, scrutiny is usually a Good Thing.

    So let me repeat the query: anyone know how it was we ended up with this interpretation? The D&C student manual (page 188 ) quotes John Taylor as linking ark-steadying with insubordination, but again he is talking quite specifically to ill-informed priesthood leaders, it seems, not lay members.

  5. Ray, I take your point, though I had this very much in mind as I was writing. My devil’s advocating was more an attempt to raise the issue and bring to consciousness how confident we can be in these connections. I agree with you that these oral-traditional materials were likely in use, but it’s vital to be circumspect about it. That is, one can make a claim that Uzzah would have known a tradition similar to those of Exodus and Numbers, but must acknowledge that this claim rests on totally unknown data. Once one does this, one might then spell out reasons to hypothesize such a tradition known to Uzzah/David, such as the way Secco (16) cites the change in procedure after this event. Otherwise, recourse to oral tradition will remain a pis aller.

    Secco, excellent points. I’m very interested in the uniqueness of the LDS interpretive proclivity. So this event normally would fit into episodes like Nadav and Avihu’s bringing of “strange fire” and being burned up for it (Lev 10). Encountering god (and his symbols) is a dangerous thing. It is passing strange that we, who are likely not the most hierarchical Christian religious organization out there, have latched onto this in order to promote top-down obedience while others apparently haven’t.

  6. I’ve long been of the opinion that current Mormon use of the term “ark steadying” has become the nuclear option in conversations over controversial topics. Rather than continue to engage one party will accuse the other of the sin of “ark steadying” and declare victory and righteousness. It also implies that the other party should be struck dead, which, in my opinion, is unkind.

    As such, I welcome this reading of the story, which completely undermines the Mormon use of the term and instead encourages us to become more familiar with the scriptures and ask well intentioned questions of our leaders if we have concerns.

    Once the ark was falling over, what options did Uzzah have? If he had let it fall and possible spill its contents or become damaged would he have been allowed to live? At that point he was between a rock and a hard place and was likely to soon be dead either way.

    Finally, the Mormon interpretation of this story takes a very specific prohibition with a specific punishment and uses it to make a very vague point. How on earth does the command to not touch the ark get equated with anything and everything your leaders might say? Is it simply the fact that Uzzah had good intentions that makes this applicable? If so, I think it is pretty manipulative to imply that the penalty for acting on your own conscience is death.

    In any case Secco, I am a fan of your work on this and hope that your interpretation takes root in Mormonism, however unlikely that may be.

  7. Interesting thoughts, but I am unconvinced (yet intrigued).
    No where in the OT is there a command to keep the Ark from touching the ground. This was Uzzah’s personal folklore tradition that he let trump the commands of the Torah. Even if David was wrong in many of S’s points, Uzzah was only killed because of “his error” (as the OT says). One should also remember that the Torah detailed carrying the Ark within wooden poles, so that it wouldn’t be touched. It’s about holiness. It’s about not overstepping one’s bounds. It’s about learning one’s place. Those who do not do so need to reread “Beware of Pride” by President Benson.

  8. Thank you for this post. I have long believed this is the case. I came upon this interpretation while reading the First Chronicle’s account of the same incident. It wasn’t as much a question of keeping the ark out of the mud as it was transporting the ark in the fashion prescribed by the Lord. It just so happens that the accepted manner was probably more secure than carrying it on an ox cart. David had erred in not taking the time to find out what the proper method of moving the ark was. That would seem to suggest that the procedure was not common knowledge among the priests because the ark had not been moved since the time of Samuel.

    It is my opinion that the steadying the ark metaphor used so liberally among church members is not valid. I don’t know when it was first used, but I suspect it came along about the same time as all the follow the brethren speeches did. Their purpose being to strengthen the hierarchy against would be reformers and dissenters. That is something I can live with as long as overzealous persons not of the hierarchy don’t use it to quell any kind of fruitful discussion.

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