Bible Study on Life and Times of Samuel: Israel’s “Good Luck Charm” & the Philistines “Bad Luck Charm”

The Ark of the Covenant Brought into the Temple
From Henry Davenport Northrop’s Treasures of the Bible, 1894

We now continue in the era of the judges looking at Samuel’s life and the surrounding events of his day.  Last time, we looked at “Bible Study on Life and Times of Samuel: God Judges the Priesthood”.  We saw how Eli and his sons were judged by God for their actions (or in the case of Eli, lack of action), and I pointed out his lack of discernment and favoritism towards his sons has a direct parallel in the Church’s modern past.  What happened to Eli and his sons should be a warning to any minister, elder or deacon.

We also saw how Elkanah and Hanna continued doing what they were supposed to be doing.  These lowly lay people were deemed worthy enough to be parents to a prophet who would be dedicated (and perhaps a Nazarite) from birth.  I asked if we would do the same even when it seems that evil is prevailing, the church we belong to fails us and we ourselves seem to be cursed.

What is our view of God, anyhow?  The world views God, if they believe in Him at all, as just another thing.  They keep Him up on a shelf, not wanting Him to dictate anything in their lives or requiring them to change anything, until some disaster strikes.  Those who don’t believe in Him will pull Him off the shelf and ask how can a compassionate loving God allow such travesties.  Those who do will pull Him off the shelf, dust Him off, sing “God Bless America”, move their lips a lot and then place Him back upon the shelf so He cannot interfere with their shallow lives.

Is there a warning in the life and times of Samuel for the lay people as well?  There must be, when you consider the main message of all of the books put together.  Israel did not just fail.  Israel utterly failed.  The army failed.  The government failed, except for a few courageous judges that God raised up.  Society and the constraints upon lawbreakers failed.  The people failed, and the priesthood failed.  These last two are both very evident in the life of Samuel, and of only third importance is the failure of government.  The clamoring for a king had much more to do with the people than the corrupt judges the king was supposed to replace.

4 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Ebenezer: and the Philistines pitched in Aphek.

2 And the Philistines put themselves in array against Israel: and when they joined battle, Israel was smitten before the Philistines: and they slew of the army in the field about four thousand men.

3 And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it cometh among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.

~ 1Sa 4:1-3

So, let’s follow this.  We already know that the word of God was scarce in those days.  We know the priesthood is corrupt.  We previously saw how God said He would use war in order to teach Israel the consequences of disobedience (Jdg 2:20-3:4).  Therefore, it is safe to assume that this episode with the Philistines was another instance of the consequences of following God wholeheartedly.

I mean, is there another reasonable explanation?  If so, I want to see Scripture references to back it up.

So, instead of changing their hearts, fasting or sacrificing to God, they decide take God down off the shelf, in this case inside of the Ark of the Covenant, dust Him off and carry Him off with them to war like a talisman.  In their hearts and minds, they reduced God to a lucky rabbit’s foot.

What we see afterwards is tragic, funny, ironic and a whole host of other emotionally evoking responses by the players involved.

5 And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again.

6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, What meaneth the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews? And they understood that the ark of the LORD was come into the camp.

7 And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp. And they said, Woe unto us! for there hath not been such a thing heretofore.

By “God”, they probably were saying “gods”, as they were a very polytheistic bunch.  Case in point, the next verse:

8 Woe unto us! who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty Gods? these are the Gods that smote the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness.

Even after all this time, which was at least 350 years after Israel left Egypt, they recalled the plagues of Egypt!  That’s just how much impact the Exodus had on the nations in that region.

9 Be strong and quit yourselves like men, O ye Philistines, that ye be not servants unto the Hebrews, as they have been to you: quit yourselves like men, and fight.

IOW, they feared losing and being treated the same way they treated Israel.  They had incentive to not lose!

10 And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen.

11 And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were slain.

We covered the deaths of Eli and his sons already, so I want to focus upon the ark, which now becomes the central character in this story.  It was a symbol of God’s presence.  It wasn’t His presence, however, and it was too easy to assume that it was like any other idol.  The ark itself was just a physical object.  However, it was an important symbol, and therefore deserved a degree of respect.  Instead, Israel treated it like a good luck charm.  However, the Philistines won’t fare any better, it turns out.

2 When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.

3 And when they of Ashdod arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the Lord. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again.

~ 1Sa 5:2-3

God here shows His power by making Dagon bow to Him!  It is significant that Dagon was “upon his face” in submission to the real God.

4 And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him.

God ratchets up the symbolism by breaking up the statue.  If people don’t listen the first time, it often becomes the case that the heat gets turned up in order to get their attention.

The longer the Philistines hang onto the ark, the more they are smitten by plagues.  It says they were smitten with “emerods”.  Apparently, these were some type of tumor, and some interpret this as “hemorrhoids”.  According to Gesenius’s Lexicon, this is caused by tenesmus.

Tenesmus is the feeling of constantly needing to pass stools (or, in the less common sense, urine), even if the bowels (or bladder) are already empty. It can involve pain, straining, and cramping.

~ “Tenesmus”, Wikipedia

This is, I should point out, still speculation.  We later see them making images of emords and rats to accompany the ark back to Israel.  I don’t know about you, but the idea of making an image of a hemorrhoid seems a little bit odd to me.  Therefore, I am not convinced we really know what they were, and we aren’t even told how the rats tie into all of this.

At any rate, it gets to the point where no city wants the ark any longer, so they want to return it to Israel.

2 And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, What shall we do to the ark of the Lord? tell us wherewith we shall send it to his place.

3 And they said, If ye send away the ark of the God of Israel, send it not empty; but in any wise return him a trespass offering: then ye shall be healed, and it shall be known to you why his hand is not removed from you.

4 Then said they, What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him? They answered, Five golden emerods, and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines: for one plague was on you all, and on your lords.

5 Wherefore ye shall make images of your emerods, and images of your mice that mar the land; and ye shall give glory unto the God of Israel: peradventure he will lighten his hand from off you, and from off your gods, and from off your land.

6 Wherefore then do ye harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? when he had wrought wonderfully among them, did they not let the people go, and they departed?

~ 1Sa 6:2-6

Once again, we see that the Exodus from Egypt is brought up.  This is an ongoing theme through much of the OT, in fact.

7 Now therefore make a new cart, and take two milch kine, on which there hath come no yoke, and tie the kine to the cart, and bring their calves home from them:

8 And take the ark of the Lord, and lay it upon the cart; and put the jewels of gold, which ye return him for a trespass offering, in a coffer by the side thereof; and send it away, that it may go.

9 And see, if it goeth up by the way of his own coast to Bethshemesh, then he hath done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us: it was a chance that happened to us.

They get two milk cows, take their calves from them, hook them up to a cart and let them go.  Most likely, these cows could have found their way home, and taking their calves away from them would have induced them to do so, but we see that they take the ark back anyhow, albeit lowing for their missing calves the whole way.

This is a test of sorts.  If the cart goes back, then it is going against nature, and then they will know that God’s hand was upon them.  Otherwise, it is a coincidence.

It is interesting that later on David chose a cart to carry the ark to Jerusalem on his first attempt to do so.  He followed the example of how pagans treated the ark rather than following God’s commandments.  The result was the death of Uzzah, who tried to steady the ark when the cart became unsteady.  Yet, how many today claim to be following Christ but instead of doing what He said are following pagan traditions in worship?

It is worthwhile to note that the Philistines were not part of Israel, and they were not under the covenant God made with Israel.  However:

  1. They were not judged by how the ark was transported back.  They were never expected to know this.
  2. They were still punished for treating God’s ark lightly, however.

Put these together, they were judged for their attitude, not for their ignorance.  Isn’t that how God often works?

47 And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.

48 But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.

~ Lk 12:47-48

God is willing to overlook a certain amount of ignorance, but that does not mean we will totally escape the consequences of our sins.

In the end, the Philistines and Israel alike did not have that much of a different view of the ark.  They both regarded it like any other idol.  They both thought God could be put upon a shelf and ignored.  The unbelievers would bring Him down for display to criticize God, while the believers would bring Him down in times of trouble like some good luck charm.

This becomes crystal clear in the narrative about the ark’s return.  The people of Bethshemesh were in the middle of harvest when the ark showed up.  They kindled a fire with the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows in celebration.  However, they soon show they too do not know how to respect God properly.

19 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.

It isn’t clear why, but they call the inhabitants of Kirjathjearim to get the ark.  Speculation exists that it was because it was a stronghold in Israel, but that’s not provable.

The point that should be noticed, however, is that they too wanted rid of the ark just as the Philistines did!  It is far easier to distance one’s self from God than to change, it would seem.  What makes this particularly bad, however, is that these people were, or should have been, “God’s chosen people”!

Thus, we come full circle.  It was not just the corrupt judges, or the fatigued army, or the failure of the government or the failure of the Church.  The people failed as well!  The era of the judges more pointedly than any other time shows the complete and utter failure of God’s chosen people to follow His will.

So, are we doing any better?  If not, then what godly action can we take to change what is under our direct control and authority?  Will we be like Samuel, Elkanah and Hannah, or will we be like Eli, Hophni, Phinehas and the rest of Israel?

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