Thursday, November 29, 2007

Cultic holiness

2 Samuel 6:6-7

6 When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 7 The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore God struck him down and he died there beside the ark of God.

1 Chronicles 13:9-10

9 When they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark, because the oxen stumbled. 10 The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. So he died there before God.


This is a passage that commentators tend to stumble over. On the face of it, the punishment seems excessive. If anything, Uzzah meant well. How do we explain it?

In this passage we’re dealing with the ceremonial law. And, to a great extent, the ceremonial law is concerned with sacred time and sacred space, ritual purity and impurity.

There was an elaborate ritual for transporting the ark. The ark was a ritually holy object, and only a ritually holy person could touch a ritually holy object (Num 4:1-15).

An infraction of the moral law often involves degrees of guilt. There can be aggravating, attenuating, or even exculpatory circumstances.

By contrast, cultic holiness or ritual purity merely signifies actual holiness or actual purity, just as cultic desecration or ritual impurity merely signifies actual unholiness or actual impurity.

You can see this in the very notion of holiness as a property of inanimate objects. For inanimate objects have no innate moral properties. Only personal agents have innate moral properties.

So the ceremonial law is a means to an end (a sign of the moral law) rather than an end in itself—unlike the moral law, which is an end in itself.

The somewhat ironic result is that penalties for infractions of the ceremonial law are, in principle, quite inflexible—whereas penalties for infractions of the moral law are potentially flexible—up to a certain point. That’s why many OT crimes could be commuted.

There’s no gray area in the ceremonial law, for the symbolism is conventional and, in that sense, arbitrary from start to finish. Either something is assigned cultic holiness or it isn’t.

In that event, nothing can mitigate a ritual infraction, since that forensic category, unlike the moral law, isn’t concerned with motives or circumstances. The legal symbolism is everything.

In that respect, Uzzah didn’t necessarily do anything wrong—morally speaking. Of course, to knowingly violate the ceremonial law would be sinful.

But it really doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point of the ceremonial law. The ark was an emblem of divine holiness, so Uzzah’s action was emblematic of sacrilege. And it was punished accordingly.

In practice, God didn’t have to punish a ritual offender. Since, by the same token, we’re dealing with a ritual offense rather than a moral offense, justice doesn’t demand punitive action. David taking the Showbread is a case in point. But to routinely remit or commute ritual infractions would destroy the value of the symbolism.

So was the punishment fair? Two things to keep in mind:

i) Capital punishment isn’t synonymous with damnation.

ii) The simple fact that we’re sinners leaves us liable to divine punishment. Our life is forfeit. We live under sentence of death. We’re living on borrowed time. It’s only the atonement of Christ that stays our execution, transfers us from death row, and issues a plenary pardon. Otherwise, capital punishment would, indeed, be synonymous with damnation.


  1. This reminds me of a MacArthur sermon (it was from several decades ago, I believe - I can't recall the date off the top of my head). In it he said God's wrath was in a certain sense mechanistic, like the law of gravity. This seems a similar case - almost as if God temporarily introduced an extra (miraculaous) property into matter, that worked in a similarly mechanistic way.
    So it would be as absurd to complain about the fairness of this punishment as it would be to complain about, oh, I dunno, that we weren't born with wings, since an innocent person might fall off a cliff and die.

  2. I once heard someone--think it was R. C. Sproul or Sinclair Ferguson--observe that Uzzah incorrectly presumed that it would be a sacrilege for the ark to fall to the ground. But the ground, although cursed for Adam's sake, is not itself sinful. It is not corrupt in the way the hand of man is. So Uzzah's well-intended effort to preserve the ark from supposed defilement ended up causing a greater defilement. And for that he was punished.

  3. This reminds me of the way that Catholic, Orthodox and High Anglican priests will go to (by Protestant standards) extreme lengths to prevent the Eucharistic elements being defiled by falling to the ground: eg, making sure every last skerrick (if not every molecule) of the communion bread and non-alcoholic grape juice are scoured from their respective cups. One of my friends once saw an Orthodox priest accidentally bump the cup and spill some wine. He knelt to the floor and licked it up, like a dog.

    (I once read a High Anglican priest baiting a very high-church Lutheran over "How can you truly believe in the Real Presence if you allow crumbs of Christ's own body to be thrown out in the trashcan?" Of course, Lutherans are Protestants although [Lutherans would say "because"] they believe in the Real Presence: belief in Sola Fide counterweights the tendency to make cultic sacramentalism into yet another good work to earn merit.)

    This makes sense if, and only if, you view a breach of the ceremonial law as something akin to a radiation leak. Doesn't matter if the leak was caused by a pure accident (eg, tectonic shift, meteor strike) - it's every bit as dangerous as if it were caused by Homer Simpson-like culpable stupidity. This, I think, perhaps flows from the extreme anti-nominalism of the traditionalist churches. "God doesn't just make up these rules to test our obedience, just as he doesn't arbitrarily declare the ungodly to be justified. Instead, these things are woven into the very fabric of His very being and creation." (C/f CS Lewis' "sinners wouldn't be happy in Heaven anyway" and GK Chesterton's "The Catholic Church alone affirms that God is bound by reason" - echoed by Pope Benedict.

    Ironically, Divine Command ethics is much more merciful than this form of Uber-natural law. When God sets rules to test our obedience, it follows that those who break the rules unknowingly are beaten with fewer stripes.

  4. There is, indeed, an analogy between the OT ceremonial law and the high-church tradition. The high-church tradition retains the categories of sacred time and sacred space which, in turn, commits it to notions of ritual purity and defilement.

    Of course, the ceremonial law was fulfilled in Christ, and the high-church tradition substitutes all manner of man-made distinctions between sacred and profane.

  5. As my lecturer in Pentateuchal studies, theorised last semester, OT cultic rituals, especially in the age of the Temple, but also n the wandering s in the desert, are akin to a kind of "decontamination" rite via blood. That is, ancient Hebrews would understand "sin" to be closer to have what we would understand to be the properties of "radiation" rather than a moral flaw.

    Hence the sacrifces and sprinkling with blood as the antidote to the poison of sin, the waiting times outside the camp for the sin to wear off, etc, and the fact that it went on day in and day out, year in and year out, to continually ward off the radioactive cloud of sin encroaching onto God's holy seat in the Holy of Holies.

    God is a consuming fire who cannot be approached by a "sinful" (read "radioactively contaminated") humanity. We must be cleansed before we can draw near to the divine, and those more thoroughly cleansed (reading from outermost to inner most) - Jews / Males / Levites / High Priests / Special Day - have been the most purified ("decontaminated") in preparation for this meeting.

  6. Stephen said:
    As my lecturer in Pentateuchal studies, theorised last semester, OT cultic rituals, especially in the age of the Temple, but also n the wandering s in the desert, are akin to a kind of "decontamination" rite via blood. That is, ancient Hebrews would understand "sin" to be closer to have what we would understand to be the properties of "radiation" rather than a moral flaw.


    I disagree. The moral law isn't reducible to the ceremonial law. Sin is personal. It's a personal offense against another person.

    Radiation is impersonal and therefore indiscriminate. Sin is not akin to a radioactive isotope. It's a property of moral agents.

    Things can't be in the right or wrong. Things can't do right or wrong. These are personal properties.