Exegetical Exercise

Image Death of Uzza

Close proximity to holy things is dangerous.
“The Death of Uzza” by Giulio Quaglio the Younger [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

The “book of the month” is 1&2 Chronicles, or Chronicles. The top internet sources, and the study notes in the Study Tanakh, indicate that this frequently-ignored text is a distinctly complicated work – subject to questions about authorship, date, and purpose. Some readers, of course, are very confident in their readings. Others are more … open to questions.

The nine chapters of genealogies that begin the text are obviously important, but they don’t seem to provide much material for text-to-sermon practice … although there is an interesting article by Peter J. Leithart at First Things on the relationship of the musicians, the singers, to kings, priests, and prophets, and what that might mean for us.

What caught my attention was the narrative in chapter 13 about the first attempt to move the Ark of the Covenant from Kiriath-jearim to Jerusalem, and the fatal consequences this has for Uzza. Uzza is one of those walk-on, walk-off characters in Scripture, like characters that show up on long-running TV series, who are introduced and finished off in a single episode, like the long-suffering mother of the imprisoned American teenager who has to be rescued by diplomatic ingenuity, or the heroic intelligence operative who can negotiate with Boko Haram (and from this, dear reader, you can tell I’ve been watching all the old episodes of Madam Secretary lately).

There is a background to the event, which is the initial loss of the Ark to the Philistines back in 1 Samuel (1 Samuel 4 – 7), and an alternative description of the entire event in 2 Samuel (2 Samuel 6) which provides a slightly different perspective – what happens to Michal, in particular. And there’s deep background about the place the Ark has been residing, Kiriath-jearim – which is a city that is on the border of Judah, Benjamin, and Dan, and which doesn’t seem to have been associated in any way with the Levites or priests, who we would think ordinarily would have needed to have custody of the Ark (see Joshua 9:17; 15:60; 18:14-15, 28; 21:18).

The Philistines capture the Ark, and rue the day – they fall ill with tumors. So they consult their wise men, and come up with a plan; they make homeopathic tumors and mice out of gold, pack them up with the Ark, put the Ark in a cart pulled by two milk cows, and send it off to Israel. I think the putting of the Ark in a cart might be important here; the last time the Ark is transported, it’s on a cart. It arrives in Beth-shemesh, which IS a Levitical town; but it ends up in Kiriath-jearim, which does NOT seem to have been a Levitical town, for several decades – evidently, during the tenure of Samuel, the whole reign of Saul, and the civil war between Saul and David. So the identity of Abinadab, in whose house the Ark ends up and whose son Eleazar is “consecrated” to be in charge of it, seems to me a little questionable, although there are sources all over the internet that say he’s a Levite. (For instance, this one, but it seems to me that this explanation involves a conflation of historical time periods and it’s not at all clear that the Abinadab whose son Eleazar looks after the Ark is the same Abinadab who is Saul’s son. I don’t normally have a lot of patience with this kind of thing, but I have been curious, and also am avoiding grading what I know are going to be disappointing papers, judging from the tests I graded yesterday, so I’ve pursued it.) I myself haven’t tracked down where the text establishes Abinadab-Eleazar’s Levitical status anywhere.

It just seems to me that the text is presenting us with people who are dealing with a sacred object – one they seem to recognize AS sacred – who are also subject to FORGETTING. There seems to be an institutional memory problem in Israel. So that in 1 Chronicles 13, King-ed David consults everyone he thinks is relevant – “the commanders of the thousands and the hundreds, all the leaders” as well as “the whole assembly of Israel,” and establishes that everyone thinks it’s a good idea to move the Ark to Jerusalem. At this point, IF anyone asks “so, how do we move this thing?” – which it’s not clear anyone does ask – someone seems  likely to have said “Well, the last time it was moved it came by cart from the Philistines. Which isn’t to say that’s how we SHOULD move it, but, well, that’s how it was done the last time.” And there is no Samuel, or even Eli, to speak up and say “you know, there’s a proper procedure for this in the Book of Order …”

The text doesn’t say this either, of course. But if we read this narrative as an account of an actual human event, then on the basis of things that happen at church in analogous circumstances, that’s a pretty likely scenario.

This generation of Israelites could well have forgotten what happens to people who don’t follow proper procedures with these holy things, since the Ark has been sitting there gathering dust all this time and nothing bad has happened to the people living in Kiriath-jearim. (For instance, who in those days remembered Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10? Did they even have Leviticus 10?)

But my real question is: how did they get that Ark into that cart? How did the Ark-movers manage to survive THAT?

Because treating the telling of the story of the death of Uzza as the narrative of an actual human event presupposes that someone did just that, and presumably survived it, since no other deaths associated with the moving of the Ark are mentioned. Which leads me to part company with the people who are very certain about their readings of what is going on in this story, because it seems, frankly, less straightforward than we might think, or even wish.

There is a helpful map of the region including Kiriath-jearim at Bible History.com.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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