What Uzzah can teach us about religious exclusivism

One of the most important mindsets we can cultivate as Christians is the ability to see the full picture. The world loves to highlight some little part of what the Bible teaches and shout, “Hey, this is wrong and ugly!” Sometimes it even looks like they’re right, but that’s because we aren’t seeing the whole picture. If I tell you that a man hit a little kid, that sounds cruel and wicked–unless you know the child was choking and the man was pounding her back to clear an airway. It is easy to misunderstand a little snippet of a larger scene, and it is especially easy to do that with the Bible, because it is a huge book that is full of stories and teachings which sometimes make no sense until we step back and look at the full picture.

Today I want to consider two things the Bible tells us which look unpleasant by themselves but which make much more sense, and even combine into something beautiful, when we view them together.

The first piece is the strange story of Uzzah and the ark of the covenant. When King David was bringing the ark back to Jerusalem, II Samuel 6 records,

And David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. 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. And David was angry because the Lord had broken out against Uzzah. And that place is called Perez-uzzah to this day. And David was afraid of the Lord that day, and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” So David was not willing to take the ark of the Lord into the city of David. But David took it aside to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. And the ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite three months, and the Lord blessed Obed-edom and all his household.

It is not hard to understand why David reacted with anger and fear. At first glance, Uzzah’s fate seems unnecessary, even cruel, doesn’t it? But this is the sort of story where we need to pause, back up, and look for the larger picture.

When Uzzah grabbed the ark to steady it, he was breaking God’s command in Numbers 4:15, “And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the sons of Kohath [Levites] shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die.” The law was clear: touch the ark and you die. But why would God make such a rule?

The ark of the covenant resided in the most sacred part of the tabernacle and uniquely and specially represented God’s holy presence with the people of Israel. When God gave the Jews complicated and painstaking instructions for how they must deal with the ark, he was teaching them something very important about what it means for people to encounter raw holiness. It is, quite simply, dangerous. As Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” For sinful humans, the holiness of God makes a unshielded nuclear reactor seem safe. It is the nature of holiness to hate and destroy sin, and we are sinful.

From our perspective, it sometimes seems like God overreacts to sin. That certainly appears to have been what David thought as he looked down at Uzzah’s body, and haven’t we all felt the same way, at one time or another? We think about some little “white” sin we or someone else has committed, and we look at the Bible’s uncompromising warnings, and we wonder why God can’t just let this one slide. Is it really all that bad, after all?

Our problem is that we are sinful. Even after we are saved, we are sinners surrounded by sinners. We’re used to it, so we find it hard to take sin seriously, or at least seriously enough. (I imagine that dung beetles cannot understand why some people find sewage so distasteful.) You might wonder which perspective on sin is correct–ours or God’s–but doesn’t that question answer itself? If God tells us our sin is cancerous evil, and if he died because there was no easier way to set things right, shouldn’t we take his warning seriously? It’s not as if God is sitting on the sidelines theorizing about how bad our sin is. When the one who warns that sin is a matter of life and death follows that logic all the way to a Roman cross, it adds a certain credibility to the argument.

Of course, knowing how we should feel about sin is different from actually feeling that way, but it is helpful to start by considering our feelings when we see certain types of sins. When I hear on the news about ISIS burning captives alive or selling captured women as sex-slaves, I feel a bitter, burning anger. Bluntly, I want them to die, and not a peaceful death either. And then I remember that Jesus said despising your brother in your heart is the same sort of evil as killing him, and that lusting after a woman is not much different from committing adultery with her, and I realize that if I did not live in a moral dung heap I would see that my own sin is as twisted and evil as anything I hear on the news.

Step back from the particulars of this sin or that sin and picture all the suffering, pain, and death in the world. Now, consider the fact that every pain of body or soul, every tear ever shed, only ever existed because of a pile of human sins that started with Adam and Eve in the Garden and onto which you have been casually chucking your own contributions, and perhaps you can catch just a hint of how holiness feels about sin.

The problem of holiness working out a way to love sinful humans is the defining drama of history. God is holy (and we only have to imagine a world in which the bloody gods of the Carthaginians or Aztecs really existed to realize how grateful we should be that our God is holy). But human beings aren’t, and we haven’t been since the Garden of Eden. When Adam disregarded God’s command and took a bite of that forbidden fruit, he planted in himself and his descendants a rebellious sinfulness which God’s holiness could not abide. It was a sinfulness which immediately–before God even uttered a word of judgment–brought a barrier crashing down between man and God. “But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself'” (Genesis 3:10).

So God “drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life” (Genesis 3:24). That deadly angel and his flaming sword tell us the exact same lesson that Uzzah’s death teaches: That there is no safe way for sinful humanity to come into the presence of God.

But God is not only holy. As I John 4:8 reminds us, “God is love.” So, from the very moment that human sin brought a protective barrier crashing down between mankind and his holiness, God set about blazing a new way from us to come into his presence.

And this brings us to the second of the biblical truths which can look ugly in isolation. Today, it’s often called “religious exclusivism,” and it is discouraged in polite conversation. It is the idea that there is only one way to be saved; only one religion which is actually true. If we picture God blocking off all other paths and arbitrarily insisting that we come to him through faith in one particular man who lived two thousand years ago in a backwater Roman province, the demand has an ugly ring to it. But we can only see Christianity in those terms if we forget what Uzzah’s story teaches us.

When Jesus cried out, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), he was not arbitrarily insisting on one path among many. Rather, he was pointing us toward a new, safe path where none had existed at all. When the thick veil which had concealed the ark of the covenant in the Holy of Holies tore apart as Jesus’ heart stopped beating two thousand years ago, God was triumphantly announcing a way for a people made up of Adams and Uzzahs to safely come into the presence of true and glorious holiness, covered in the blood which washes away our sins.

P.S. Lest our interest in the meaning of his story make us forget about Uzzah as a real person, it is worth pointing out that II Samuel does not tell us anything about his eternal fate. If Uzzah had saving faith, we can expect to meet him in glory along with everyone else whose sins were atoned for by Christ’s sacrifice. 

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