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The Execution of Uzzah (September 2003)

A few years ago I decided to read the bible from cover to cover. I'd like to claim intellectual curiosity, but in truth my primary motive was sheer annoyance. I had begun listening to Dr. Laura Schlessinger's radio program and she kept flatly insisting that religious precepts were essential to morality. It had always seemed to me that "sacred" guidelines like the Ten Commandments fell into one of two categories. They were either purely religious but morally irrelevant, or morally useful but not intrinsically religious at all.

So I resolved to learn first-hand what the bible actually says. What I found will be no surprise to readers of Freethought Today. The Old Testament is crammed with gratuitous violence and moral nonsequiturs, often perpetrated or instigated by Jehovah himself. The New Testament has a much gentler tone overall, but a careful reading shows that Jesus is not quite the paragon of virtue legend holds him to be. For instance, he repeatedly advocates total allegiance to the Old Testament regime and all its injustices.

One small but telling incident stands out in my mind as epitomizing the confused view of right and wrong that permeates the bible. It occurs while King David is returning the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:6,7). The Ark has been taken from the home of Abinadab and placed on an ox-drawn cart which Abinadab's sons, Ahio and Uzzah, are responsible for guiding. When the party arrives at the threshing floor of Nacon, the oxen momentarily stumble and Uzzah instinctively reaches out to steady the cart. As his hand approaches the Ark, Jehovah instantly strikes him dead.

The reaction of many people to this would be, "So what? It was common knowledge that the Ark was dangerous and never to be touched, so Uzzah should have known better." To me the message is very different. Here is a chance for Jehovah to demonstrate some understanding in a one-on-one interaction with a faithful follower. After all, he is supposed to have designed and created every detail of the human brain, so he knows perfectly well that Uzzah's reaction was reflexive and aimed only at protecting the Ark. Yet Jehovah chooses cruelty rather than compassion.

Actions like the murder of Uzzah are frequently defended with the supreme authority argument. The gist of this rationalization is that Jehovah has a master plan and knows more than we could possibly comprehend about human destiny, so it is arrogant of us to question him in any way.

But a more thoughtful approach supports almost the opposite conclusion. If Jehovah is as wise as advertised, he is not less accountable for his behavior than ordinary mortals, but more so. Both the original no-touch rule and the wanton destruction of Uzzah (who only wanted to help) are characteristic of the kind of small-mindedness we ordinarily hold in contempt. I see no reason to make an exception for someone who, above all, should know better.

The terminally abusive treatment of Uzzah is just one of many instances enabling a perceptive reader to see that Jehovah's conduct falls far short of justifying the stream of uncritical praise constantly heaped on him. On a more general level, the sum of such failures damages his moral credibility beyond repair and adds to a much larger body of evidence which tends to reveal him, in the end, as nothing more than a rather unpleasant fictional character.