In this article, I reflect on the Ark of the Covenant and what happens when you touch it. And what that means.
I can’t remember if I’ve seen the Mona Lisa or not. I don’t think I have. I did spend a long weekend in Paris in 2004 for my first wedding anniversary. My wife and I walked passed The Louvre. Maybe we went in.
Is it surprising that I don’t remember seeing the most valuable, celebrated and famous painting in the world?
Seeing the Mona Lisa appears to be a truly forgettable experience. Gazing upon this beautiful piece of art is virtually impossible. Thousands of tourists are thronging past every hour, jostling you along, nudging you out the way to have a look.
But do they want to look at the Mona Lisa, to stand and see and appreciate this astonishing work by Leonardo da Vinci?
Been there. Done that.
Observe the behaviour of the visitors and you’ll see that what they really want is a picture of the Mona Lisa on their phone, to be able to say they have seen the Mona Lisa. And they want a picture of themselves with the Mona Lisa. On Instagram. So that even more people can fail to appreciate the masterpiece.
I didn’t have a smart phone in 2004. And Instagram didn’t exist, so I guess I’ll never be able to confirm whether or not I’ve seen the Mona Lisa.
Da Vinci’s famous work is the platinum-plated gold standard of artistic perfection. But you will never be able to appreciate this work of art in the flesh. Only the curator and a chosen few are permitted private viewings, given access out of hours, allowing them to stand and stare for more than a few moments. Even then the view is obscured by the bullet proof glass.
If you get close enough to actually see the painting, don’t reach out. Don’t even point (to quote Nigel Tufnell in This is Spinal Tap). Touch the Mona Lisa, and very bad things will happen very quickly. There will be loud noises, armed guards and soon you will be thrown to the floor with a knee firmly pinning you to the ground.
During the interrogation, heads of security and police officers will ask you the same questions again and again. They are reasonable questions. What were you thinking? Why did you reach out? You could have touched it! Why would you risk that? Don’t you know what this painting is? How could you not know? This is the Mona Lisa! Don’t touch. Ever. For any reason. Is that really so hard to understand?
You might not even make it to the interrogation room. An armed guard might gun you down. Try grabbing The Starry Night by Van Gogh at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and see how far you get. The only thing that might stay the hand of the guard is concern for the painting. The painting is sacred and irreplaceable. They don’t want mess that up.
In 1 Chronicles 13, Uzzah touches the Ark of the Covenant. And he died instantly. It’s a big shock, as everyone was having such a nice time:
And they carried the ark of God on a new cart, from the house of Abinadab, and Uzzah and Ahio were driving the cart. And David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, with song and lyres and harps and tambourines and cymbals and trumpets.
Look at the happy procession. This is what BBC journalists always call a ‘carnival atmosphere’, before explaining how the scene turned very ugly. Here’s what happens:
And when they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to take hold of the ark, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark, and he died there before God.
Uzzah touched the ark and is struck dead. We instinctively think God is a monster for doing this. Why shouldn’t he touch God’s precious ark? He was only trying to help. It’s not his fault the ox stumbled.
Insert your protest of choice here.
You’re in good company. In fact:
And David was angry because the LORD had broken out against Uzzah.
But King David’s anger turns to fear, to the point where it appears that David’s initial anger at God was projection. He wasn’t angry at God, but himself. God had called David on his irreverence for the sacred object, and he didn’t like it.
Is Nothing Sacred?
Now we might say that we don’t believe in sacred objects. We might be atheist materialists or even Zwinglian1 cessationists.
But we do. The Mona Lisa is sacred. Touch it at your peril. Act like Nicholas Cage’s character in National Treasure and steal the Declaration of Independence in order to have a look at a secret treasure map on the back. See what happens to you. You might be joining the Starry Night when the security guard is done with you. These objects, like the Crown Jewels, are not just valuable but sacred. It is, in fact, us who have imbued them with that significance.
Low church evangelicals like me don’t think God does that with objects. It sounds a bit Harry Potter (or Dungeons and Dragons, if you’re my age), with magic items which work when you say the words of the spell or activate the magic in some way. We don’t get that in the Bible, do we?
So why does God block Adam’s way back to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden? In Genesis 3:22 we read:
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
So, if Adam had snuck past the flaming sword of the cherubim and eaten from the Tree of Life, would he have not tasted death lived in sin forever? Clearly something would have happened that needed to be prevented. Something bad for God, man and the universe.
It’s interesting to find cherubim guarding the Tree of Life. They’re not mentioned much in the Bible. 57 times in my ESV, and a few more of just ‘cherub’. But less is more. They’re rare and important, showing up in some key passages that tend to connect up.
There are two cherubim statues on the mercy seat, which is the lid of the ark of the covenant. The ark was to be placed in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle, God’s special dwelling place.
We find out about all this in books of the Bible that we rarely bother to read, in chapters we, at best, skim. Too many details. Too many names. Too many families trees. Blah blah blah…
And this shows us our problem. We have Uzzah-like tendencies.
Low church evangelicals like me pride ourselves on taking the Bible seriously. And reverently. We say it’s inerrant. (I say that, although ‘What is inerrant?’ Discuss2). But if it’s the inerrant revelation from God, albeit via human authors, wouldn’t you think we’d take the trouble to read it? All of it? Quite a lot? We spend HOURS on social media, daily, scrolling scrolling scrolling. Why not read The Scrolls of the Old Testament?
We would feel proud of ourselves if we spent twenty minutes reading the Bible and considering what it says. What’s twenty minutes? Long enough to clean your teeth, make tea, check the weather and delete junk emails?
So after reading this article, go and look up Numbers 4 in an actual Bible and read what is written about these holy things and what happens when you touch them. In fact, I’m not even going to give you a hyperlink to it. Read it on paper in a Bible.
On the Wagon
Flick over to Numbers 7 (obviously skipping Numbers 5 and 6 as it’s probably not important…) and see what happens when Moses took wagons and gave them to the Levites. He didn’t give wagons to the sons of Kohath who were the Levites charged with service of the holy things. (Hint: They were NOT to be put on a wagon. Even a nice new one like David did.)
Those outside of the Christian faith might find God’s action against Uzzah troubling. I understand that. What’s more troubling is the slapdash Christian attitude towards God and his word. It’s the same attitude that puts God’s holy golden ark, topped with cherubim, on a cart - despite clear instructions it should be carried - and assume everything will be okay.
It was not okay. Not for Uzzah. That’s on you, David. And this is why David’s anger turns to fear. But that’s healthy. Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.
Jesus Meek and Mild
It’s always tempting to assume that Jesus isn’t like the God of the Old Testament, painting a very different divine picture. No. Jesus is totally consistent with the God who struck down Uzzah.
In the New Testament, outsiders who seek Jesus with fear and reverence - like the woman with internal bleeding (Matthew 9:20-22) - are treated with kindness and gentleness.
Those who should know better and wander into his presence, trying to trip Jesus up with questions are given short shrift. Read any gospel and one word that surely describes Jesus is ‘dangerous’.
We see this early in John’s gospel. After Jesus turns water into wine in Chapter 2, he goes to the Temple, makes a whip and drives out the animals and the money changers. And when challenged, Jesus escalates it further.
“What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:18-19)
Here’s what Jesus is saying: “You want a sign I have authority to cleanse the temple? How about I PULL THE WHOLE TEMPLE DOWN? How about that?” It puts me in mind of Dirty Harry. “Do you feel lucky?”
John goes on to explain that Jesus…
…was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.
Jesus’s body was the Temple. But he pulled down and tore apart the Temple with his body, when the curtain was torn in two. God was no longer contained in the Holy of Holies. That’s the moment to run for cover. Fortunately, Jesus’s deathwish was for our salvation.
Okay, now go and grab a bible read Numbers 4. Do it. I dare you.
The Bible looks strange to those not familiar with the tropes and conventions and the imagery. But our culture has accepted some far weirder stories. The story of Peter Pan by JM Barrie is told every year in pantomimes, and was a classic Disney, but on close inspection it’s a really odd, and disturbing story (like the one with Uzzah). Reformed mythologist, Nate Morgan Locke, and I talk about it on the latest episode of Popcorn Parenting, where I also explain why my kids didn’t like the movie of Swallows and Amazons.
Zwingli (1484–1531) taught that Holy Communion was purely commemorative, pointing to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper where this meal is instituted: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. Martin Luther, however, was more persuaded by Jesus other words ‘This is my body’ without going the whole Roman Catholic transubstantiation route where the bread and wine literally become the body and the blood of Christ, and He is essentially re-sacrificed. Luther was clear that that could not be the case. When a big conference was held for Luther and Zwingli to discuss and find middle ground at Marburg in 1529, Luther took chalk and scrawled those words in Latin (Hoc est corpus meum), as if to say nothing else needs to be said. It’s a chalk-drop moment. Anglicans like me, as you’d expect, are somewhere between Zwingli and Luther on this, and mutter stuff about Real Presence. But that’s one for another time.
Actually, don’t. Another one for another time.