Rembrandt, King Uzziah Stricken with Leprosy (aka Man in Oriental Costume), c.1640, in the public domain.

Uzziah was the tenth king of Judah. He is known in the Book of Kings as עֲזַרְיָה Azariah, while in Chronicles and in four prophetic books as עֻזִּיָּהוּ Uzziah. While the difference between the names in English is significant, in Hebrew there is a difference of only one consonant, the letter ר, which could either be the result of a shortening of his name (akin to Steve/Stephen) or a simple copyist’s error. A more substantial difference between the Kings and Chronicles accounts of his reign is the way the books tell his story.

Uzziah was undoubtedly one of the most successful of the kings of Judah in terms of his military victories and his diplomatic and building achievements, while also overseeing a period of considerable prosperity (and the archaeological evidence supports the biblical material). He was also one of the longest reigning kings – 52 years. Despite this, the book of Kings restricts his achievements to one line – “He rebuilt Elath and restored it to Judah” (2 Kings 14:22) – a phrase which is ambiguous and could also refer to his father. However, in its typically Deuteronomistic style, Kings ignores all his achievements and sums up his reign critically:

He did what was right in the sight of the LORD, just as his father Amaziah had done. Nevertheless the high places were not taken away; the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. The LORD struck the king, so that he was leprous to the day of his death, and lived in a separate house.

2 Kings 15:3-5

As I’ve noted before, the writer(s) of Kings didn’t like kings and the intention was always to criticise the monarchy as an institution. It didn’t matter how good he was, how well he reigned, or what he achieved, his 52 years on the throne could be summed up with the criticism that he didn’t eradicate “the high places.” There isn’t even a suggestion that these “high places” were places for worshipping idols; we know from elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible that if they weren’t specifically designated as places of idol-worship, shrines for worshipping foreign or Canaanite gods, they were almost certainly places for worshipping the God of Israel. The problem, at least for the Deuteronomistic editor of Kings, was that God should be worshipped in only one place: the Temple in Jerusalem. So the problem with Uzziah is not that he departed from the monotheistic worship of One God, but that he allowed people to worship that One God and to carry out rituals such as offering sacrifices and burning incense in shrines which were closer to home. At least the Deuteronomistic editor of Kings and the author of Chronicles were agreed on one thing: worship should be centralised, and Jerusalem was the only designated and approved place for it.

Chronicles, however, provides more details of Uzziah’s reign, and it is from this account that we learn about his military achievements and substantial building projects. We also get new information about the king’s leprosy and how it began:

But when he had become strong he grew proud, to his destruction. For he was false to the LORD his God, and entered the temple of the LORD to make offering on the altar of incense. 17 But the priest Azariah went in after him, with eighty priests of the LORD who were men of valor; 18 they withstood King Uzziah, and said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to make offering to the LORD, but for the priests the descendants of Aaron, who are consecrated to make offering. Go out of the sanctuary; for you have done wrong, and it will bring you no honor from the LORD God.” 19 Then Uzziah was angry. Now he had a censer in his hand to make offering, and when he became angry with the priests a leprous disease broke out on his forehead, in the presence of the priests in the house of the LORD, by the altar of incense. 20 When the chief priest Azariah, and all the priests, looked at him, he was leprous in his forehead. They hurried him out, and he himself hurried to get out, because the LORD had struck him. 21 King Uzziah was leprous to the day of his death, and being leprous lived in a separate house, for he was excluded from the house of the LORD. 

2 Chronicles 26:16-21

On a minor point we should note that in this additional story the chief priest is named as Azariah, the same as Uzziah’s name in Kings, and I wonder if the shorter form of Uzziah’s name was chosen by the Chronicler to avoid the confusion of having two Azariah’s in his story, or if it was some kind of wordplay with two competing characters having almost identical names. Another possibility is that the writer(s) of Kings made an error arising out of confusion between the two characters and mixed up their names (although Kings doesn’t mention the chief priest). The major point of the story though is that Uzziah crossed a line by offering on the altar of incense which was within the Temple. This violated priestly rules and led to a confrontation with the priests. From the priests’ perspective only descendants of Aaron were authorised to enter the Temple and offer incense on the altar of incense. The king, despite being king, was not authorised to perform this function. The moral of the story, from the Chronicler’s perspective, is that whenever there is a conflict between the king and the priests then the priests will always win because God is on their side! On the one hand their authority was supported by the monarchy, but on the other hand, they believed it ultimately derived from God and therefore was superior to the monarch. The king’s authority also derived from God, but he was anointed by a priest, so the priest was superior.

The writer(s) of Kings either didn’t know this story about Uzziah/Azariah offering incense in the Temple, or it wasn’t relevant to their account because they had no interest in defending the priestly claim to exclusivity when it came to performing religious rites. However, there is a huge problem with this story for the Chronicler. While they condemn Uzziah for offering incense in the Temple, the book of Kings notes that Solomon did the same thing! “Three times a year Solomon used to offer up burnt offerings and sacrifices of well-being on the altar that he built for the LORD, offering incense before the LORD” (1 Kings 9:25). Chronicles asserts that offering incense on the altar was a function of the Aaronic priesthood (1 Chron. 6:49) from which the Zadokite priests claimed descent, and therefore condemned Uzziah for breaching this protocol. Kings, however, asserts that Solomon did the same thing. It is possible that the writer of Chronicles was aware of this and chose to ignore it because it didn’t fit with their agenda. It is equally possible that an editor of Kings added this information to the book after Chronicles was written in order to highlight the inconsistency (and hypocrisy) of the Zadokite position. Either way, it demonstrates the rivalry between the writers of the two books and how they recorded, or altered, history for their own purposes.

So, is burning incense a bad thing? According to the priests who wrote Chronicles it is if you’re not a priest. But according to Kings it isn’t, unless you do it in some place other than Jerusalem. Poor old Uzziah, despite his enormous achievements, and despite the fact that “he did what was right in the sight of the LORD,” was condemned by the writers of both books (for different reasons), because he didn’t support their ambitions for power.