2 Samuel 6:1-19
The lectionary reading for this week actually leaves out the verses which describe God striking down Uzzah for touching the ark. I don't think this is accidental. It's pretty tempting to want to skip over the parts of scripture that are offensive to us. Who would want to believe in a God who would behave like this? After all, Uzzah was trying to do the right thing to save the ark from falling off the cart. Even David expresses his anger at God for behaving in this way. It's a fascinating passage when you consider it.
One way of handling this would be to simply bow to the text, suggest that God's ways are beyond our understanding and ultimately God's holiness and justice are beyond the grasp of humans. Perhaps Uzzah should have showed more faith, perhaps he should have known better than to touch the ark even with the best of intentions?
Another path would be to suggest that Uzzah realised his mistake and his own subsequent anxiety caused him to have a heart attack. There really was no divine intervention here and the story itself is illustrative of ancient people's lack of understanding of scientific and medical knowledge, which are routinely credited to the gods.
The thing that strikes me as most authentic in this story is David's anger at God. This is something that I can recognise from my own experience. I've seen it many times in people who are grieving a tragic loss and who are looking for something or someone to blame. It's only fair when we attribute the giving of life and the power of healing to God, for us also to let God take the blame when these things fail.
I can't claim to know for sure whether any actual historical event was the inspiration for this story. I do however, completely reject the image of a God that would murder someone for touching a wooden box.
The ark is a symbol of the presence of God amongst the people. It's a valid representation of an important reality but nothing more than that. For Christians, the equivalent symbol is the incarnation - God in human form, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Now we tend to think of this more as the Spirit, though understandings of what God's spirit is and how it works vary dramatically. Nevertheless, it appears we continually need to be reminded that God is 'down here', not just 'up there'.
The images of sacrifice here don't appeal to me at all, but the picture of a great banquet in which all people share is one that I do find deeply inspiring. The inclusiveness involved is incredible and continues to be a challenge to us. Somehow all societies end up drawing lines between people, whether based on race, culture, gender, or other apparently random criteria. Religious expression that manages to share generously across these lines instead of accentuating them is the kind of worship I can happily be a part of.