“And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God.”
Lego depictions aside, the story of Uzzah isn’t a particularly funny one. If you just drop in on the story in 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah’s death seems pretty radically unfair. Here he is helping escort the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem, he reaches out to steady the ark when the ox pulling it trips, and — BAM! — God strikes him dead. Sure, you’re not supposed to touch holy things like the ark… But isn’t death a rather harsh punishment for trying to keep the thing from falling into the dirt?
As David so clearly pointed out in his sermon yesterday, Uzzah’s error was greater than this short passage immediately makes clear. No matter how split-second a decision it may have been, Uzzah did choose to set his hand the ark rather than let it fall to the ground. And at some fundamental level, that choice reveals that Uzzah thought he knew better than God did what the best thing for the ark would be. Pretty big error.
More significantly, that ark should never have been on that cart in the first place. As God makes abundantly clear in Exodus 25, the ark was supposed to be carried by priests using the two gold-covered poles that fit through the gold rings on each of the four corners of the ark. We don’t know for sure why the Israelites decided to transport the ark up to Jerusalem using a cart — but evidently they didn’t care much for following the rules that God had set.
So this has me thinking… While the error of touching the ark was clearly Uzzah’s own, he wasn’t the only one who’d had a hand in the whose situation. There were any number of other people involved in deciding to use the cart to transport the ark. Sure, Uzzah could have — and perhaps should have — objected… but so could — or should — have all the others. Whether they knew the instructions for how the ark was to be carried and simply ignored them, or whether they’d never been taught them in the first place, the community around Uzzah bore some responsibility for the situation which ultimately resulted in Uzzah’s death.
The implications for us are a little uncomfortable. As a church, we are a community. And while each of us bears the responsibility for and the results of our own sin, we seldom commit those sins in total isolation from our community. Whether by failing to share with others in the community the instructions that God has given us for faithful and righteous living, or by participating in creating situations or decisions that set others up for temptation or bad choices, we often bear some responsibility for each others’ errors.
I say this not to suggest that we should take on more responsibility for others’ sins than is really ours. After all, Uzzah was the one who died for his error — not the whole crowd of 30,000 merry-makers. Nor should we go indiscriminately prying into each others’ lives for the sake of uncovering some sin-in-the-making. But I do think this passage should raise some questions for us, questions about how well we do understand the ways in which our actions and our choices are bound up in others’ actions and choices, how well our lives reflect the fact that faithful, righteous living is a community matter as much as it is an individual one.
This is one of the reasons I’m so grateful for Restoration’s small groups. These little communities are places where we learn from and teach each other the truths that God has given us about the kind of disciples he wants us to be. They’re the places where we can offer support where others are weak, humble challenge where others might be in error, and heartfelt celebration where others experience the joy of God’s healing work in their lives. These little communities are some of the best examples I know of the way that our relationships with God are deeply personal but never private.
If Uzzah had been a part of that kind of community, I wonder how his story might have been different. Could a small group have saved Uzzah’s life?