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.