King Uzziah, though he reigned for fifty-two years, is known best for becoming a leper.
2 Kings (which calls him Azariah) doesn’t say much about him.
He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, like most of his predecessors.
Like all the kings before Hezekiah, he did nothing about taking away the “high places”.
Oh yes, and the Lord smote him so that he became a leper, and he lived separate for the rest of his life.
If we want a fuller story, we must go to Chronicles, which sometimes quotes more of the detail found in the original records.
We learn about the towers and the cisterns that he built, and his military preparations and his war against the Philistines and the peoples on the
“And his fame spread far, for he was marvellously helped, until he was strong”.
More to the point, we get a full account of the episode which made him a leper (2 Chronicles ch27 vv16-21).
The starting-point is that once he became strong, he became proud.
Becoming proud, he became “false to the Lord his God”.
To be more specific, he entered the Temple with the intention of burning incense on the altar of incense.
The priests were quick to react. Azariah the priest bustled in after him, together with “eighty priests of the Lord who were men of valour”. It
almost sounds as though they were proposing to keep the king away from the altar by main force, if it came to the crunch.
For the moment, Azariah confined himself to verbal rebuke. The king should not be attempting to burn incense on the altar, a task which was reserved
for the priests. He instructed the king to get out of the sanctuary.
Then the king became angry. The story highlights the fact that he was carrying a censer in his hand at the time. That will be the point. The logic is
that he was carrying an unholy emotion (his anger) at the same time that he was carrying something holy (the censer), and bringing the two together
was bound to provoke a reaction from God.
Then leprosy broke out on his forehead.
The priests, gazing upon him, recognised the presence of the leprosy, and he was thrust out of the sanctuary to begin his life-long exile from the
We need to be conscious, though, of the natural bias in the composition of this account.
The Chronicles were evidently compiled in priestly circles.
Yes, the writers of Chronicles regard a challenge to the priestly monopoly as an example of being false to God.
But then (as Mandy Rice-Davis might have observed), “They would, wouldn’t they?”
Yet even the Protestant commentators accept their assessment at face-value, because it’s been incorporated into the text of the Bible.
I’m going to try a different approach.
I’ll be attempting to look past the priestly “spin” which governs this account, and to see if a different story can be discovered.
The starting-point is Uzziah’s decision to walk into the Temple with the obvious intention of burning incense on the altar.
What was his motive?
One possibility is that he was trying to claim a new privilege. This might have been inspired by the example of kings of other nations, who would not
necessarily have allowed priests to inhibit them from making their own sacrifices.
If this was the case, it can legitimately be called a symptom of pride.
I don’t think there is any suggestion that he was intending to offer incense to a different god.
“Being false to God” is just the priestly way of describing disobedience of the rules.
But there’s also another possibility.
He may have been trying to re-claim an old
The kings of the early kingdom offered sacrifice and incense.
“Three times a year Solomon used to offer up burnt offerings and peace offerings upon the altar which he built for the Lord, burning incense before
the Lord”- 1 Kings ch9 v25
Jeroboam offered sacrifice and burnt incense at his altar in Bethel. We don’t know, for certain, that the kings of the northern kingdom ever
When and why did the practice come to an end in Judah?
One plausible answer to both questions is the usurpation of Athaliah. Women were certainly never allowed to sacrifice, and she was in any case hostile
to the worship of the Lord.
She ruled the land for six years.
Meanwhile the child Joash, the future king, was being kept concealed within the Temple.
This would have been the perfect opportunity for the priests to perfect the doctrine of a priestly monopoly on sacrifice, and impress it upon their
He was only seven years old when he was placed on the throne. If his mentors were quietly depriving him of an ancient right, at the same time, what
would he know?
Uzziah was the grandson of Joash. If he discovered that kings had been sacrificing and burning incense up to his grandfather’s time, he might well
have thought that the practice should not have been abandoned.
If Uzziah was claiming a new privilege, then he was guilty of attempted encroachment.
But if he was re-claiming an old privilege, then the priests themselves were guilty of encroachment, in attempting to exclude him from the original
claims of his office.
It looks as though Uzziah was hoping to take the priests by surprise and achieve a sudden coup which would set a new precedent for the future.
The need for surprise might have prompted him to choose incense, which is easier to prepare in secret, instead of an animal sacrifice. He could move
on to animals later, once his point had been made.
There is no mention of bringing his bodyguard into the Temple, which would have been another cause of offence.
But if he came without a bodyguard, that left him vulnerable.
He would have had nothing but his anger to protect him from the danger of being frog-marched out of his own Temple by “eighty priests who were men
At this tense moment, the crisis was defused and a potential clash averted by the outbreak of leprosy.
Again, there are two different ways of looking at this.
The official understanding is that the sudden appearance of the leprosy, and its timing, is evidence of miraculous intervention.
What alternative can I offer?
I will begin by focussing on that moment when the priests were “gazing at” the angry Uzziah.
The laws in Leviticus give the priests the authority to look a man over, examining his symptoms, and declare whether he is, or is not, currently
suffering from leprosy.
I’m going to suggest, in this case, that the declaration came before the symptoms.
Once the priests had gazed at Uzziah and verbally identified him as a leper, then he was legally
There need not have been any visible symptoms or any symptoms at all. He could have been a perfectly healthy man.
Nevertheless, once the priests had given their verdict, there was no getting round it. No hope of an appeal, no chance of getting a “second
opinion”. Their judgement was final, and that was enough to condemn him to isolation.
In short, one of their traditional spiritual powers had suddenly become a devastating political weapon (as did excommunication in the Middle Ages).
According to the instructions in Leviticus, leprosy was capable of curing itself, so that a man could be inspected again and declared clean.
However, the priests were not going to do that for Uzziah, and he was disabled from the exercise of kingship for the rest of his life.
So Uzziah could have been a genuine leper.
On the other hand, he may have been a political martyr in the cause of lay resistance to the self-promotion of the priestly caste.
edit on 30-9-2016 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)