"The glory has departed from Israel for the ark of God has been captured."
–1 Samuel 4:22
It has been almost four hundred years since the Israelites left Egypt. They have had front-row seats to God's greatest miracles and despite this, they continue to suffer due to their own lack of faith. They have taken possession of Canaan. God had promised this to Abraham, but because of Israel's refusal to obey God's law, God had given them over to the Canaanites. Existence is brutal, but from time to time, the Israelites will repent and call out to God for help. When they this happens, God has faithfully raised up a Judge from among them to knock down the alters they've built to foriegn gods, to bring a military victory against their oppressors, and give them guidance and leadership according to the Law.
Once the Judge dies, however, the Israelites return to their sin. God has sent them a final Judge: Samuel. Samuel is a life-long Nazirite priest. He will transition Israel from a theocracy to a monarchy.
Last week, we ended as Samuel was called by God and God pronounced judgement against the house of Eli, the priest. There is corruption in the Tabernacle as Eli's sons, Hophni and Phinehas (also priests) exhibit little concern for God or the Law and tax the Israelite sacrifices for their own gain. God is angry with Eli for his failure to control his sons.
Chapters four and five of first Samuel recounts a period of time when the Philistines acquire the Ark of the Covenant. In Judges, Samson is credited with killing thousands of Philistines. Despite this, they were still a formidable adversary for the Israelites. In one battle, the Philistines killed four thousand Israelites and afterward the elders of Israel made the decision to bring the Ark of the Covenant from Shiloh to the battlefield thinking that it would ensure a victory. It didn't work.
This decision underlies the problem with the Israelites not understanding their relationship with God. They are still worshiping Canaanite gods (which we will see later) and not keeping God's Law. Here we see them treating the ark as a good luck charm. They carry the ark into battle like it is a weapon, but they will quickly find that presence of the ark does not equal presence of God.
Eli's sons, Hophni and Phinehas accompany the ark and they are welcomed with cheers when the ark arrive in the camp at Ebenezer. The Philistines are camped in Aphek, about two miles to the west, and when they learn that the ark has been brought for battle, they are terrified because "A god has come into the camp". They steel themselved for battle but the victory would be theirs. The Philistines slaughtered thirty thousand Israeli foot soldiers killing Hophni and Phinehas and they captured the Ark of the Covenant.
A Benjamite, who had escaped the battle, ran back to Shiloh to report the defeat. Eli, now blind and fat, was sitting on a chair by the side of the road waiting for news. The Benjamite informs Eli of the defeat, the death of Hophni and Phinehas, and the capture of the ark. When Eli hears of the ark, he falls off of his chair and breaks his neck and dies. He was ninety-eight years old. Eli's daughter-in-law, Phinehas' wife, was pregnant an near delivery. When she hears the news, she goes into labor and dies shortly after giving birth to a son. She names him Ichabod because "the glory has now departed from Israel". Ichabod means no glory.
The death of Eli marks the end of the time of the Judges even though he is not the last judge. Eli had judged Israel for forty years. Context indicates that he had been an effective leader at one time despite his innability to control Israel or his sons in his old age. The story shows that his concern for the Ark of the Covenant was greater than his concern for his sons.
Review: The Philistines had five major cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron. Gaza, Ashkelon, and Ashdod were beach resorts, Gath and Ekron were a little more inland. The cities were adjacent to Judah's land and Ekron was just inside of Dan's land. Each of these cities had it's own ruler. (Delilah had been bribed by all five. They would pay her eleven hundred shekels of silver each –140 pounds altogether– to rat out Samson.) The main Philistine god is Dagon. He is depicted as a kind of merman. Samson, in his dying act, destroyed the Dagon temple in Gaza. Okay, that's enough review.
The Philistines took the Ark of the Covenant as a prize of war and put it in the Dagon temple in Ashdod. They set it next to the statue of Dagon and when they checked on it the next day, the statue had fallen on it's face. They set it back up and the next morning the statue had fallen over again, but the head and hands of the statue had broken off and were setting on the threshold of the temple.* Then bad things started to happen.
1 Samuel 5:6 6The Lord's hand was heavy upon the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation upon them and afflicted them with tumors.
Reminiscent of Egypt, God is bringing the plague; and maybe literally. Older texts such as the Vulgate and Septuagint say, "tumors. And rats appeared in their land, and death and destruction were throughout the city." This is a footnote in NIV and not part of the text, but it does explain the guilt offering that the Philistines prepare. FYI - My Jewish bible says they were inflicted with "hemorrhoids". KJV says "emerods". None of this is cool...
Some started to realize that this affliction began with the introduction of the ark so they moved the ark to Gath. Soon, the people of Gath, "both young and old", started developing tumors. (Here the Septuagint has, "tumors in the groin".) The Philistines then moved the ark to Ekron. By this time, Ekron knew enough to fear it, but that didn't stop them from coming down with tumors. Three Philistine cities came down with tumors within seven months. The Philistines sent for religious experts and asked them how to return the ark to the Israelites.
The "priests and diviners" knew something of the history of Israel, their time in Egypt and their law. They instructed the Philistines to return the ark with a guilt offering of five gold tumors and five gold rats placed in a chest beside the ark. They took a new cart pulled by two cows that had calved and never been yoked. They put the ark on the cart along with the chest with the gold rats and tumors. The point of this is that the two cows had not been trained to pull a cart nor would they be inclined to leave their calves. The Philistines were still not completely certain their affliction was by God's hand; this would be a test. If the cows walked straight back to Israel in Beth Shemesh (about halfway between Ekron and Jerusalem) then they would know the disaster came from God. Any other action would indicate the tumors were just bad luck.
The cows walked straight to Beth Shemesh.
Joshua 21:13-16 13. So to the descendants of Aaron the priest they gave Hebron (a city of refuge for one accused of murder), Libnah, 14. Jattir, Eshtemoa, 15. Holon, Debir, 16. Ain, Juttah and Beth Shemesh, together with their pasturelands-nine towns from these two tribes.
There is a significance to the trip ending in Beth Shemesh in that it is one of the towns given to the Levites. The Israelites in Beth Shemesh were harvesting wheat when the cart arrived so it would have been springtime. They recognized its cargo and they rejoiced at the sight. They chopped up the carts for wood and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. The Levites took the ark and the chest with the gold tumors and placed them on "the large rock". This rock became something of a monument for the Israelites. The Philistine rulers watched these events from a distance and then went back home to Ekron.
It is interesting to me that the Philistines knew enough to place their guilt offering in a separate chest on the cart. It's even more telling that the Israelites didn't understand this. In Beth Shemesh, during the festivities, some of the Israelites looked inside the ark and were "struck down" by God. The bible says seventy were put to death because they looked in the ark. The people mourned their losses and sent word to Kiriath Jearim that the ark had been recovered and asked the men there to come and get it. They did and took it to Abinadab's house where it would stay until David retrieved it some forty years later.
I thought this was interesting. It's one of those things you might gloss over and just not notice but when the Philistines put the ark beside the statue of Dagon and the next morning the statue is toppled and the hands and feet are setting on the threshold of the temple, there is a addendum:
1 Samuel 5:4-5 4. But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord ! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained. 5. That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon's temple at Ashdod step on the threshold.
It's just a small bit explaining the odd behavior of the Dagon priests. No big deal, right? Well apparently it is, because about five hundred years later, the word of the Lord came to Zephaniah:
Zephaniah 1:9 9. On that day I will punish all who avoid stepping on the threshold, who fill the temple of their gods with violence and deceit.
This is not explicitly pronounced against Philistine priests, but there seemed to be a general superstition that the spirit of the "gods" resided at the threshold of their temple. I just found this interesting.