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My grasp of Scripture is poor, but the only thing I can recall in the Bible along these lines is Uzzah being struck down because he TOUCHED the Ark. How did Indy know that they should close their eyes and escape being fried by the Ark?

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He read the script :) – Jeff Dec 18 '11 at 0:47
See also How did Indy know not to look into the Ark? – Shokhet Feb 2 '15 at 18:07
@Shokhet - Ooh. A deleted scene. – Valorum Aug 2 '15 at 21:05
up vote 33 down vote accepted

Cross-referenced from that initial link is 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. ..

See also 1 Samuel 6:19 in the King James Bible.

And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.

Those versions are pretty much in agreement, though the number jumped from 70 to over 50 thousand.

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+1 for scripture that is pretty explicit and doesn't require handwaving. Indy studied the history and scripture regarding the ark and would know this, even if he didn't 100% believe it. – ghoppe Dec 16 '11 at 14:49
For further details re. deleted scene, see How did Indy know not to look into the Ark? – Andrew Thompson Sep 10 '12 at 19:11
All 70,000 men of Bethshemesh looked into the Ark at the same time? Or did they take turns and drop dead as soon as they had peeked in? – RobertF Jul 13 at 18:57
@RobertF Just then a policeman stepped up to me and asked us said, "Please, hey, would we care to all get in line, Get in line." – Andrew Thompson Jul 13 at 19:40

It wasn't so much the Ark he wasn't looking at, but the everything. The Ark, the angels, and the whole thing.

I remember seeing a special on TV, a "Making of" type show, and they had a shot of Spielberg working with Harrison Ford and Karen Allen and he said something to the effect of, "And, according to the Gospel of Lucas, Indy and Marion are spared because of their goodness." I thought that was interesting because his comment, as the director, indicated that in his mind it wasn't so much whether they looked at the Ark and angels (were they ark-angels?), but that the angels actually distinguished between good people and bad people.

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Consider the shut eyes a sign of their piety. Like the lambs blood that protected the homes of the Hebrews in Egypt during the slaying of the first born. Possibly God would have passed over those homes anyway, but it stands as an outward sign of their respect. – DampeS8N Dec 15 '11 at 19:59
"Oh, we are not worthy to look upon such goodness!" – Arkive Dec 15 '11 at 20:58
+1 for the pun. – Kevin Dec 16 '11 at 2:37
The angels on top are called Cherubim. – geoffc Dec 16 '11 at 4:04
@geoffc: Archangels (I spelled it ark-angels). – Tango Dec 16 '11 at 13:44

This is a common idea in Judaism. To paraphrase:

It is impossible for a human to behold God, because He is too mind-boggling for a mortal to comprehend. If you see God, you die.

This is what my Hebrew instructor taught me.

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Moses is given special permission to glance at the back of God after he has passed by, and it's clearly stated that for most people even that would bring death. – DJClayworth Dec 16 '11 at 14:52

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