Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

The cart before the verse

NEXT TIME YOU think God needs a hand, think twice before you reach out and touch something. As Uzzah’s story illustrates, good intentions don’t override God’s instructions. Well-meaning isn’t enough.

Uzzah is surely a leading candidate for seemingly most-hard-done-to character in the Bible: one minute he’s at the center of a big celebration and, zap, the next he’s turned the party into a funeral.

You may recall how, after years in obscurity, the ark is finally on its way to Jerusalem, bound for its rightful place at the center of Israel’s worship. When the cart on which it is traveling wobbles, Uzzah reaches out to steady it. First Chronicles 13:10 records, “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark, and he died there before God.”

At first glance, this seems a rather draconian response. What happened to the God of love, mercy, and all that? But on closer study, it’s a story of how holiness—in which is to be found the purest expression of true love—can be corrupted by presumption, privilege, and pride.

The presumption. The ark should never have been on the cart in the first place. According to the directions Moses passed on, priests were to carry it on their shoulders, but “not touch the holy things, lest they die” (Num. 4:15). Why was this directive ignored? Did someone decide the trek from Kiriath-Jerim to Jerusalem was too far for the men? We don’t get to rewrite the rules just because something seems inconvenient or burdensome.

The privilege. We’re very aware these days of how someone’s position (think, especially, rich white men) can bestow blessings and benefits they end up taking for granted. They somehow see such good fortune as evidence in some way of their superiority. The ark had been in Uzzah’s home for 40 years; perhaps he came to assume a standing with God that simply wasn’t his. We all know what familiarity breeds.

The pride. A little speculation here, but maybe Uzzah got a bit carried away with his role. Being selected to drive the cart with the ark on it represented quite an honor; everyone would have been looking at him. The spotlight can make people say, Look at me! rather than, Look at God!

Uzzah’s story is a sobering reminder of how serious consequences can result from apparently minor deviations from God’s instructions. It’s like having your compass off-course by half a degree. When you start out, it doesn’t seem to matter much, but the further you go, the more you drift from the right path. If the ark had been carried on priests’ shoulders as intended, there would never have been that potential slip; they would have been able to keep the ark level and balanced better than on a cart with no suspension.

And there’s another cause for pause in this account. Until Uzzah dropped dead right in front of them, the Israelites were having a great time. They were in the midst of a big praise party: everyone was “celebrating before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets” (1 Chron. 13:8). So, we can be thanking God and thinking everything is cool when He is not happy (while God always loves us, He isn’t always happy with us).

Fortunately, until the lost ark is discovered, we’re not going to have to make sure we transport it just the way God instructed. But in the meantime, there are plenty of other things we have to handle the right way—from sexuality and money to criminal justice and caring for the needy.

Uzzah reminds us how easy it is for us to get into a mess by ignoring God’s clear directions and helping things along, just because it seems to make sense. Call it putting the cart before the verse.

Photo: Smithsonian

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