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1 Samuel 4:1b-7:2 – The Adventures of the Ark

Summary

Embedded in this story about the fate of the ark of the covenant in Philistine hands is the story of the death of Eli and his wicked sons (4:11-18).

Analysis

The story concerning the ark falls into three sections that correspond closely to the three chapters in the biblical text: the loss of the ark (4:1b-22), the ark with the Philistines (5:1-6:1), and the ark returns to Israel (6:2-7:2).

In the first section, Israel's defeat at the hands of the Philistines is determined to be the result of their proceeding into battle without the ark, the symbol of God's presence, which housed the tablets of the covenant and was carried into battle ahead of the troops in the wilderness and during the conquest of Canaan (4:1-4). This plan, however, apparently treated the ark as an idol, because this time Israel experienced even greater casualties, Eli's sons died, and the ark was captured (vv. 10-11). News of the loss of the ark resulted in the death of Eli (vv. 12-18) as well his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas. The devastating news brought early labor upon Phinehas's pregnant wife, and the premature birth of the child resulted in her death. She named the child "Ichabod," meaning "No Glory?" (if it is derived from Hebrew) or "Where is the Glory?" (if it is derived from Ugaritic), that is, "The glory has departed from Israel" (vv. 19-22).

The middle section describes the fate of the ark among the Philistines, or better, the fate of the Philistines, since they experienced nothing but trouble after bringing their hard-won spoil to the temple in Ashdod (5:1-2). The next morning the Philistines found their god, Dagon, face down, "worshiping" before the ark (vv. 3-4). To make matters worse, plagues, mice, and tumors broke out among the people wherever the ark was moved throughout its seven-month sojourn among the Philistines (5:8-6:1).

The final section describes the return of the ark to Israel. The Philistines came up with an ingenious plan to rid themselves of the dangerous ark without admitting that their troubles were the result of God's judgment. They placed the ark and a guilt offering of golden tumors on a cart drawn by two milch cows and claimed that God's responsibility would be indicated only if these cows chose to return the ark to Israel (fat chance!) rather than return to their own calves (6:1-11). That God was, in fact, responsible is unambiguously indicated by the cows' unswerving march into Israelite territory, much to the joy of the residents of Beth-shemesh (vv. 12-18). When the otherwise unknown descendants of Jeconiah looked into (Hebrew; "greeted" in NRSV) the ark, seventy (50,000 in Hebrew) of them died (v. 19). The adventures of the ark come to a close with its transfer to Kiriath-jearim, where it remained for twenty years (6:20-7:2).

1 Samuel 4:1b-7:2

41And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.

The Ark of God Captured

In those days the Philistines mustered for war against Israel,* and Israel went out to battle against them;* they encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle was joined,* Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3When the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, ‘Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.’ 4So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

5 When the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6When the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, ‘What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?’ When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7the Philistines were afraid; for they said, ‘Gods have* come into the camp.’ They also said, ‘Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.’

10 So the Philistines fought; Israel was defeated, and they fled, everyone to his home. There was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot-soldiers. 11The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.

Death of Eli

12 A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line, and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with earth upon his head. 13When he arrived, Eli was sitting upon his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. When the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. 14When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, ‘What is this uproar?’ Then the man came quickly and told Eli. 15Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set, so that he could not see. 16The man said to Eli, ‘I have just come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.’ He said, ‘How did it go, my son?’ 17The messenger replied, ‘Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great slaughter among the troops; your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.’ 18When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli* fell over backwards from his seat by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and heavy. He had judged Israel for forty years.

19 Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. When she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth; for her labour pains overwhelmed her. 20As she was about to die, the women attending her said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.’ But she did not answer or give heed. 21She named the child Ichabod, meaning, ‘The glory has departed from Israel’, because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22She said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.’

The Philistines and the Ark

5When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod; 2then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and placed it beside Dagon. 3When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4But when they rose early on the next morning, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off upon the threshold; only the trunk of* Dagon was left to him. 5This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not step on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.

6 The hand of the Lord was heavy upon the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and struck them with tumours, both in Ashdod and in its territory. 7And when the inhabitants of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, ‘The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us; for his hand is heavy on us and on our god Dagon.’ 8So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, ‘What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?’ The inhabitants of Gath replied, ‘Let the ark of God be moved on to us.’* So they moved the ark of the God of Israel to Gath.* 9But after they had brought it to Gath,* the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic; he struck the inhabitants of the city, both young and old, so that tumours broke out on them. 10So they sent the ark of the God of Israel* to Ekron. But when the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, ‘Why* have they brought across to us* the ark of the God of Israel to kill us* and our* people?’ 11They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, ‘Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.’ For there was a deathly panic* throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there; 12those who did not die were stricken with tumours, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.

The Ark Returned to Israel

6The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines for seven months. 2Then the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, ‘What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us what we should send with it to its place.’ 3They said, ‘If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt-offering. Then you will be healed and will be ransomed;* will not his hand then turn from you?’ 4And they said, ‘What is the guilt-offering that we should return to him?’ They answered, ‘Five gold tumours and five gold mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines; for the same plague was upon all of you and upon your lords. 5So you must make images of your tumours and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps he will lighten his hand on you and your gods and your land. 6Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had made fools of them, did they not let the people go, and they departed? 7Now then, get ready a new cart and two milch-cows that have never borne a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. 8Take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart, and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt-offering. Then send it off, and let it go on its way. 9And watch; if it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm; but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance.’

10 The men did so; they took two milch-cows and yoked them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. 11They put the ark of the Lord on the cart, and the box with the gold mice and the images of their tumours. 12The cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went; they turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.

13 Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. When they looked up and saw the ark, they went with rejoicing to meet it.* 14The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh, and stopped there. A large stone was there; so they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt-offering to the Lord. 15The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the gold objects, and set them upon the large stone. Then the people of Beth-shemesh offered burnt-offerings and presented sacrifices on that day to the Lord. 16When the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron.

17 These are the gold tumours, which the Philistines returned as a guilt-offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron; 18also the gold mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages. The great stone, beside which they set down the ark of the Lord, is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.

The Ark at Kiriath-jearim

19 The descendants of Jeconiah did not rejoice with the people of Beth-shemesh when they greeted* the ark of the Lord; and he killed seventy men of them.* The people mourned because the Lord had made a great slaughter among the people. 20Then the people of Beth-shemesh said, ‘Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? To whom shall he go so that we may be rid of him?’ 21So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, ‘The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to you.’ 71And the people of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord, and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. They consecrated his son, Eleazar, to have charge of the ark of the Lord.

2 From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented* after the Lord.

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10 February 2011

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