Why did God kill people who touched or looked into the Ark?

1 Samuel 6:19

But God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the Lord. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the Lord had dealt them.

2 Samuel 6:2-7 (also 1 Chr 13:7-10)

He and all his men set out from Baalah of Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim that are on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and the whole house of Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord , with songs and with harps, lyres, tambourines, sistrums and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. 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.

The Ark of the Covenant was an embodiment of God's presence with the Israelites. The atonement cover (or "mercy seat") that covered the ark was God's throne (2 Sam 6:2) and God's presence was above it (Lev 16:2); it was also the place where God met Moses and gave him commands (Ex 25:22). If someone approached the ark, they would effectively be in God's presence - a sinner standing before a holy God who does not tolerate evil (Ps 5:4-6) - and would die as a result of their sins. For this reason, God had given the Israelites many rules concerning the Ark of the Covenant. It was to be kept in the Most Holy Place in the temple, hidden from view by a curtain (Ex 26:33). Only the high priest could enter the Most Holy Place, and then only after he had undergone ceremonial cleansing, made sacrifices to atone for his sins and the nation's sins, and burned incense to conceal the atonement cover (Lev 16). When the ark was moved, it was covered with at least 3 layers of cloth by the priests to protect others from seeing it (Num 4:5-6, 15, 18-20); the priests/Levites carried it and everyone else had to stay about a thousand yards away (Josh 3:4). These laws enforced the concept of God's holiness: sinful people couldn't be in his presence, not even the high priest.

Hence, when Uzzah touched the ark, he was profaning it and disobeying God; he should have grabbed the poles used for carrying the ark instead, for that was their purpose (Ex 25:14-15). And as Glenn Miller points out in his response, the ark shouldn't have been on a cart anyway, but should have been carried on people's shoulders (1 Chr 15:15).

The Israelites who looked in the ark were actually violating several laws: they came near to the ark (a violation if they weren't Levites), they looked at the ark, they touched the ark and they moved the atonement cover, which was God's symbolic throne. Since God's presence was on/over the ark, they were actually coming into the presence of God - and without the least sense of reverence towards him, since they decided to poke around and play with his throne! Is it any wonder they died?

Why did so many die at Beth Shemesh? My Bible says 50,070 died!

Some translations, including the NKJV, have the number of deaths as 50,070, and a footnote in the NIV says that most Hebrew manuscripts have 50,070 instead of 70. The NIV Study Bible explains their translation decision: "The additional 50,000 in most Hebrew manuscripts is apparently a copyist's mistake because it is added in an ungrammatical way (no conjunction)." The NKJV itself has a footnote stating that the verse could also be translated "He struck seventy men of the people and fifty oxen of a man." It is therefore rather doubtful that the actual number of deaths was 50,070.

Even given that the number of deaths was seventy, that's still a large number, and all those people couldn't have been looking into a roughly 2-feet-by-4-feet container at the same time. However, one can picture a large group of people crowding around as someone moved the cover of the ark, and people passing by stopping to stare curiously. All of those people knew what the ark was and symbolized (1 Sam 6:13-15) - hence their great curiosity - and therefore they knew that approaching the ark and looking inside it was wrong. The onlookers could see what was going on and should have called out and warned or rebuked those trying to look inside, rather than participating by trying to look at the ark themselves.

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