Monday, 29 April 2013


… 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 smote him there because he put forth his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God. 2 Samuel 6 vv6 and 7(cf. 1 Chronicles 13 vv9 and 10)

Poor old Uzzah: his one appearance in the bible is in this account of his unfortunate death while helping to transport the Ark of the God of Israel on an ox cart. It’s not clear from the account what we’d have seen if we’d been there; no doubt there was some kind of accident that left Uzzah dead. What’s very clear from the account however is that this accident was not regarded as such by the author, who seems to have lacked the concept of ‘accident’. For him, if something happened that had no obvious human cause, it happened because it had been caused by God for some reason of his own. In the case of something unpleasant happening to an Israelite, that reason was punishment; so Uzzah was obviously being punished, but for what offence? He had dared to imagine that the God of Israel could not take care of his own Ark when the oxen stumbled and had dared to try to steady it; he was punished for lèse majesté. This isn’t a miracle story, not because it’s about something bad happening, but because this event is not seen as a rare exception to the rule; for the author and his contemporaries, it was quite usual to think of God being involved in ordinary life events in this way. We don’t see things in that way, and one important reason why we don’t is that our tradition has learnt from Jesus of Nazareth that this view embodies a serious misunderstanding.
                In this as in so much else Jesus was on the side of a revolutionary new way of thinking, and it’s because Uzzah’s story illustrates so much of what Jesus is getting away from that it’s worth thinking about. In the first place, the god in the story is seen as a despot, very much like contemporary kings and emperors; this is not the father-like god of whom Jesus speaks. In the second place, this despot-god is a ‘jealous’ god, as the Ten Commandments describe him, and what he’s jealous for is his honour; Uzzah’s death is seen by the author as an entirely justifiable honour killing. This is clearly not a loving god, concerned for human well-being, and perhaps especially protective of people who like Uzzah are trying to do the right thing. In the third place, whereas the 2 Samuel author sees what happened to Uzzah as a punishment not an accident, Jesus is very clear that when, in his example, a tower collapses and kills people, that is an accident not a punishment. And it’s important to understand that Jesus knew that what he was saying was revolutionary to people steeped in Old Testament ideas: he explicitly told them that what their ancestors had been told was different from what he was now saying.
                He also said that this revolutionary new way of thinking could not be reconciled with the old ideas, any more than new wine could be put into old wine skins; the old wine skins were useless and needed to be chucked out. For ‘old wine skins’ read ‘traditional Jewish religious concepts’ and you can see why the guardians of the Jewish national religious tradition decided he had to be silenced by execution – as if new and better ideas can be killed off like people. They can’t of course, but it’s also true that old and outdated ideas seem curiously resistant to being displaced by new and better ones. Somehow, a great many of those who have read Jesus’s sayings over the last two thousand years, and indeed have worshipped him as God or in the case of Muslims have respected him as a prophet, have nevertheless been quite unable to abandon the way of thinking that has Uzzah being killed as a punishment by a despot-god jealous for his honour.
                Partly this is about continuity. Jesus undoubtedly stands in the Jewish tradition, even if he is a revolutionary within it and is in large part responsible through Paul for splitting a new Christian branch off from that tradition. One rather primitive notion of continuity is that it involves always building on the past and never really abandoning anything, even if that requires some pretty inelegant sophistry to explain how incompatible ideas can be reconciled. You can see how primitive this is by comparing it with the way chemists, in seeking to understand fire, proposed the phlogiston theory but completely abandoned it when oxygen was discovered. Phlogiston of course was an explanatory model, not a being; you didn’t need to explain what had happened to phlogiston when you found oxygen. The continuity in the chemists’ case was their quest for a more effective, more powerful explanatory model. It is perhaps only when we dare to begin to think about ‘God’ in a similar way that we can confidently abandon the God of Israel without wondering where he’s gone or asking whether he’s the same out-there being as the God of Jesus.
But it’s also partly about a real difficulty some of us have in getting away from the old ways of thinking; we sometimes actually seem to want to believe in the kind of divinity that would kill Uzzah to defend his honour. It’s worth thinking about why this might be so. I’m inclined to think that a major attraction of belief in an Uzzah-killing god is that it makes it easier for us to justify some killing of our own, and if not killing at least adopting a comfortably divisive view of humanity into ‘Fors’ and ‘Againsts’, Faithful and Infidel, Us and Them. That the ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’ version of this divisive view was profoundly mistaken was a central theme in the teaching both of Jesus and, with some lingering sense that it may not have been altogether mistaken in the past, of St Paul. That makes it all the more regrettable that their followers have too often lapsed into believing in the kind of god whose despotism, jealously and rage could be thought of as having killed Uzzah.  

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