Chapter four of 1 Samuel begins with an account of a war between Israel and the Philistines. Based apparently on Samuel’s word, Israel went to war against the Philistines (4:1b), but when the forces engaged, Israel was defeated decisively, losing 4,000 men (v. 2). That defeat caused the elders of Israel to go into council. They immediately came to a correct conclusion; namely, that the Lord was not with them during the battle. However, instead of searching for the reason why the Lord was displeased with them, and repenting for it, they decided to rely on the presence of the Ark of the Covenant as their means of victory (v. 3).
So the people went to Shiloh and brought the ark to the battlefield, along with the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas (v.4). The presence of the ark did encourage Israel’s troops; and it temporarily discouraged the Philistines. But the Philistines screwed up their courage; and when the battle took place, the Philistines won big time. They slaughtered 30,000 of Israel’s men, captured the Ark of God, and killed the sons of Eli (vv. 5-11). That resulted in the death of Eli when he heard the results of the battle (vv. 12-18). Eli’s pregnant daughter-in-law was so upset by the news that she went into labor and died in childbirth (vv. 19-22).
In chapter five we see that the Philistine’s possession of the ark of God brought them immediate problems. They carried it to Ashdod and placed it in the temple of their god, Dagon (vv. 1-2). The idea apparently was to offer the ark to Dagon as a dedicatory offering. But the next morning the image of Dagon was prostrate on its face before the ark (v. 3). The image of Dagon, by the way, had a head and trunk of a man, with arms. But instead of legs it had a fish tail.
The Philistines put the image of Dagon back on its pedestal, assuming I suppose that it fell by accident (v. 3). But the next morning it was prostrate before the ark again. This time, the head and hands were broken off and lying on the threshold of the temple (vv. 4-5). This proved, whether the Philistines realized it or not, that the Lord was working miraculously in the situation, and that Dagon was helpless before the Lord.
In verses 6-12 we see that the Lord was involved not just at the temple. The people of Ashdod were stricken with “boils,” or “tumors,” as the NRSV translates the word (v. 6). Of course the people of Ashdod wanted rid of the plague, so it was decided to take the ark to the city of Gath (vv. 7-8). But the same plague of boils broke out among the people of Gath (v. 9). Therefore the ark was sent on to Ekron. But Ekron didn’t want the ark. They were afraid that they would be struck with the plague as the other two cities had been (v. 10). And it was (v. 12). In fact, it seems from the description that Ekron was stricken more severely than the others.
That makes sense, if we think about it. The longer the Philistines delayed in responding to the Lord’s chastening plagues, the more harsh the plagues became in order to force the Philistines to give up the ark. The suffering at Ekron made it clear to the Philistines that something had to be done about the ark.
At the beginning of chapter six we see that the period of time that the Philistines had the ark was seven months (v. 1). When they finally decided to do something about the ark, they didn’t just assume that the plagues had come from the Lord, even though they were rather certain about that. They decided on a plan that would cover two possibilities. On the one hand, in the case that the Lord was behind the plagues, they decided not to send the ark back alone. They placed the ark on a new cart (v. 7); and then they put a small chest on the cart with the ark that contained a guilt offering to compensate for the theft of the ark (v. 3). The offering consisted of five gold replicas of the boils that had come upon the Philistines, and gold replicas of the mice (NIV “rats”) that plagued the Philistines’ fields (vv. 4-5).
Interestingly, this is the first we have heard about the mice. Apparently the author did not choose to tell us everything earlier in regard to the plagues. And one plague he didn’t tell us about was a plague of mice that ravaged the Philistines’ fields.
On the other hand, on the possibility that the Lord was not behind the plagues, the Philistines did something quite interesting. They chose to make it difficult for the ark to be returned. That is, they arranged the situation to be such that the Lord would have to involve himself for the ark to be returned.
They used two milk cows with calves to pull the cart. After yoking up the cows, they took away the calves to their stalls and set the cows without a driver free to pull the cart toward Israel, if they chose to do it. Of course the normal expectation for cows in this situation would be to go to their calves rather than away from them. The Philistines, knowing this, said to themselves that if the cows went against their nature and pulled the cart to the Israelite town of Beth-shemesh instead of turning toward where their calves were housed, it would prove once for all that the Lord was responsible for the plagues. And as we have seen, when the cows were set loose, they immediately set out for Beth-shemesh (vv. 7-12).
The people of Beth-shemesh were working in their wheat fields when the cart with the ark was spotted coming up the road. They rejoiced over the return of the ark; unloaded it and the chest with the gold offering from the cart onto a large stone; cut up the cart for a fire; and offered sacrifices to the Lord (vv. 14-15).
Notice that the Philistines had placed more gold mice in the chest than the priests had recommended back in verse four. The priests had recommended only five, the same number as the golden boils. But they actually placed a golden mouse in the chest for every city and town in Philistia (v. 18).
In 1998, on a visit to Israel, we stopped at Beth-shemesh, which today is not inhabited. It is a rather large tell, or hill; but not much excavation has been done. So there was little to see. There was not even a visible “great stone” that could have been the one on which they placed the ark. But the view from the tell was fabulous; and one could easily visualize in one’s imagination the ark coming up the road from Ekron.
In 6:19-7:2 we see what Israel did with the Ark of the Covenant after the Philistines returned it. Verse 19 tells us that some of the people of Beth-shemesh looked into the ark, which was forbidden. Indeed only priests should have touched it. And it should not have been a problem to find priests to handle it, because Beth-shemesh was one of the towns set aside as a Levite town (Josh. 21:16). At any rate, the Beth-shemeshites did not pay the ark proper respect; and 70 of them died as a result.
A decision was then made to move the ark to Kiriath-jearim, a town located about 15 miles east-north-east of Beth-shemesh near the borders of the tribes of Judah, Dan and Benjamin. There it was placed in private home of a man named Abinadab, who apparently was a Levite. And his son Eleazar was consecrated to care for the ark. It is unknown why the ark was not returned to the tabernacle at Shiloh. It remained at Kiriath-jearim until David moved it to Jerusalem 20 years later (2 Sam. 6).
Turning to application, it seems to me that the outstanding thing to note here is the necessity of respect for the Lord. He is God; and he is Lord of all, whether or not he is acknowledged as such. Of course things were different under the Old Covenant from the way they presently are under the New Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, the Lord demanded respect from everyone, including the people of Israel. The Mosaic Law was the means of judgment. If it was necessary to coerce respect, the Lord did that. He ordinarily doesn’t do that under the New Covenant. In this particular passage we have a clear example of the Lord’s coercion of both the Philistines and Israel.
He coerced the Philistines by miraculously destroying the image of Dagon and by sending plagues on the Philistine people. And he coerced the people of Beth-shemesh by killing those who profaned the ark. Although God ordinarily does not coerce us to respect him under the New Covenant, we nevertheless are required to respect the Lord.