In the 1981 classic, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones discovers that the Nazis are in search of the Ark of the Covenant, which Hitler believes holds powers that will make his army invincible. They eventually get ahold of it, and in the climactic scene when they finally open the Ark, a shimmering electric mist begins to slowly emanate from it. The specter gathers in force and aggression, and, as the Nazi leaders look on, transfixed… their faces melt off and their heads explode!
It’s Steven Spielberg at his campy, cinematic best.
But actually, Spielberg wasn’t too far off from the original descriptions of the dangerous power of the Ark. The Book of Numbers is essentially a story of the long journey through the desert, and so in its first parsha, we are given instructions on how the portable sanctuary is disassembled to be readied for travel. At the end of this careful account, we suddenly read this dire warning:
When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all of the sacred vessels at the breaking of camp, only then do the Sons of Kehat come and lift them, so that they do not come in contact with the sacred vessels and die. (Numbers 4:15)
וְכִלָּה אַהֲרֹן–וּבָנָיו לְכַסֹּת אֶת הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֶת–כָּל–כְּלֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ, בִּנְסֹעַ הַמַּחֲנֶה, וְאַחֲרֵי–כֵן יָבֹאוּ בְנֵי–קְהָת לָשֵׂאת, וְלֹא יִגְּעוּ אֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ וָמֵתוּ; אֵלֶּה מַשָּׂא בְנֵי–קְהָת, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.
Only the priestly family, then, can actually touch the Ark and the other holy vessels. Anyone else who comes into contact with these objects will die. This ominous threat is repeated two more times, as if to underscore its gravity. Death, death, death – to all who touch the Ark!
But what kind of death are we talking about? Are heads really going to explode? Well, not exactly. But the truth is, the one example we have in the Hebrew Bible of someone actually coming into physical contact with the Ark does result in instant death. In the Book of Samuel, when King David reclaims the Ark and brings it back to Jerusalem, there is this tragic episode along the way:
When they came to the threshing floor of Nachon, Uzzah reached out for the Ark of God and grasped it, for the oxen had stumbled. The anger of the Lord flared up at Uzzah, and God struck him down on the spot for his indiscretion, and he died there beside the Ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:6-7)
וַיָּבֹאוּ, עַד–גֹּרֶן נָכוֹן; וַיִּשְׁלַח עֻזָּה אֶל–אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹקים, וַיֹּאחֶז בּוֹ—כִּי שָׁמְטוּ, הַבָּקָר. וַיִּחַר–אַף ה בְּעֻזָּה, וַיַּכֵּהוּ שָׁם הָאֱלֹקים עַל–הַשַּׁל; וַיָּמָת שָׁם, עִם אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹקים.
Uzzah’s death seems to makes it clear that the Ark is just plain dangerous, like an electric fence, and that anyone who dares to touch it is going to get zapped. The inevitability of physical harm that will result from ark-touching is particularly emphasized by the fact that Uzzah’s attempt to grab the Ark was just an innocent instinct, motivated by a sincere attempt to keep it from falling, rather than any transgressive desire to touch the forbidden. But intent doesn’t seem to matter. Touch it and die – no exceptions. This isn’t so much about sin, then, as it is about the overwhelming metaphysical power pulsing within the thing itself.
Many of the commentators rush to downplay these almost paranormal implications by interpreting the original death warning in Numbers as referring, not to an immediate physical consequence, but a punishment that will be incurred. So Rashi, for example, writes:
If they touch it, they will be subject to the death penalty by the law of heaven.
שאם יגעו חייבין מיתה בידי שמים
The Ibn Ezra and the Abarbanel similarly try to wriggle out of explaining the death as a supernatural phenomenon, both emphasizing instead the official punishment that the toucher deserves. But the great Italian renaissance rabbi, Ovadia Seforno, takes a different approach to the purpose of the warning:
Do not allow the objects to be carried in such a way that whoever who rushes in first gets to hold them. For in this way, they begin shoving each other, and end up disgracing the sanctuary. And this will be cause to cut them off from the community. (As our sages tell us happened with the offering of the ashes.)
אל תניחו את המשאות באופן שיזכה בהם כל הקודם כי בזה האופן יקרה שידחפו זה את זה ויחללו את הקודש וזה יהיה סבה להכריתם כמו שספרו ז”ל (פרק ב‘ דיומא) שקרה בתרומת הדשן
The reason we do not let just anyone handle the sacred objects, according to Seforno, is to maintain order in the sanctuary. He is less concerned about contact with the Ark itself, and more worried about the potential for fights to break out in this holy space.
And he has good reason to be worried. The story he mentions briefly at the end of his remarks about the “offering of the ashes” is a reference to a ghastly episode recorded in the Talmud. The tale begins by recalling two priests who were so eager to do the honor of removing ashes from the altar that, as they ran up the ramp, one of them pushed the other, who fell and broke his leg. Ok, that’s not a pleasant scene, certainly beneath the dignity of the sanctuary. But then the rabbis say, “You think that’s bad? Listen to this:”
It once happened that two priests were neck and neck as they ran to ascend the ramp. When one of them managed to get within four cubits of the altar, the other took a knife and plunged it into his heart…(Talmud Yoma 23a)
מעשה בשני כהנים שהיו שניהן שוין ורצין ועולין בכבש קדם אחד מהן לתוך ארבע אמות של חבירו נטל סכין ותקע לו בלבו
Murder on the holy altar! Sacrilege! This is precisely what the Seforno feared. If there are no rules governing orderly conduct in the sanctuary, a place where people are full of religious zeal, things will quickly spin out of control.
Oh, but if that weren’t bad enough, the end of the story is even more disturbing:
Then the father of the young man came and found him still in convulsions. He said, “May [this boy] serve as an atonement for you all. My son is still in convulsions and the knife has not yet become unclean.”
This remark teaches you that the purity of their vessels was more important to them than even the spilling of blood.
בא אביו של תינוק ומצאו כשהוא מפרפר אמר הרי הוא כפרתכם ועדיין בני מפרפר ולא נטמאה סכין ללמדך שקשה עליהם טהרת כלים יותר משפיכות דמים
Here is a father coming to hold the body of his slain young son, covered in blood. It is a moment full of unimaginable horror and pain. But… what is he talking about, with the knife?
It turns out he’s making a technical point. According to ritual law, a corpse can transmit impurity. Since the young priest is still convulsing, he has not yet fully died, and so his body has not tainted the knife. So if it is removed, it will remain pure.
In other words, as the Talmud concludes, in the midst of the most harrowing loss of life, as a boy lays dead on the altar, even his own father is still obsessing over the purity of the holy objects in the sanctuary.
What kind of perverse religiosity is this? What has happened to us when the sacred vessels on the altar mean more to us than our own sons and daughters?
This is the danger of the Ark. The deadly power it contains is not in it, but in our relationship to it. We take the inanimate objects of our religion and we elevate their worth above human life. We would do anything to break through to the altar and make contact with the Divine – even kill those who stand in our way. Religious passion becomes a justification for murder.
And then we know that something has gone horribly wrong. We have turned the religion in on itself. For there in the very Ark we have been reaching for lie the Tablets of the Covenant. And upon them is engraved a solemn prohibition:
Thou Shalt Not Kill.
We thought the Ark and the other objects of the sanctuary were the sacred vessels. But we misunderstood. We were the sacred vessels.