Saturday, August 9, 2014

Israelites Are Smitten When the Ark Returns

Once the ark of the covenant was back in Israel, you’d think everything would be just dandy, right?  Well, not so much. 

14 And the cart came into the field of Joshua, a Beth-shemite, and stood there, where there was a great stone: and they clave the wood of the cart, and offered the kine a burnt offering unto the Lord.
15 And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord, and the coffer that was with it, wherein the jewels of gold were, and put them on the great stone: and the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices the same day unto the Lord….
19 ¶And he [the Lord] smote the men of Beth-shemesh, 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.
20 And the men of Beth-shemesh said, Who is able to stand before this holy Lord God? and to whom shall he go up from us?
21 ¶And they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjath-jearim, saying, The Philistines have brought again the ark of the Lord; come ye down, and fetch it up to you.
1 And the men of Kirjath-jearim came, and fetched up the ark of the Lord, and brought it into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the Lord.
2 And it came to pass, while the ark abode in Kirjath-jearim, that the time was long; for it was twenty years: and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.
3 ¶And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines. (1 Sam. 6:14-15, 19-20; 7:1-3)

When the ark first got to Beth-shemesh, which happened to be a Levitical city, the Levites were the ones that got the ark off the cart, following the guide in the Law of Moses, but later individuals were presumptuous and looked inside the ark, which was prohibited.

If we think about it, we can kind of understand how this came about.  Firstly, before all this happened, the ark had always been inside the tabernacle and under the supervision of the priests and Levites or in rare occasions it had been carried in battle by the priests.  There was no established protocol for where it should be kept or how to approach it outside of those situations.  When the rules are ambiguous and no one knows what to do, all kinds of mistakes are made.

Second, the guide in the Law of Moses stipulated that the Levites who carried the holy things (and we assume the ark was included in that) were not supposed to see them being covered before they came to carry them, lest they die (Numbers 4:20), but scads of people had seen the ark coming in the cart, so it may have seemed like this prohibition didn’t even mean anything.   Add to this that the power of the ark would seem discredited after it failed to save the Israelites in battle seven months previous, and you have a high likelihood that the ark would be treated with less care and deference.  It might have seemed like its virtue had left.

Considering these things helps us understand why the Lord chose to plague the people at Beth-shemesh for their disrespect to the ark in looking inside it.  They needed a modern lesson in the danger of treating holy things with disrespect.  They may have grown up hearing the story of the priests in Aaron’s day who offered strange fire and died, but they needed to see that God was just as concerned in their day that holy things not be defiled.  It also rehabilitated the ark’s reputation as a thing of power.  It wasn’t to be considered a magical panacea, but it wasn’t to be treated as common.

The text says that 50,070 men were killed by the plague.  That’s a big too many for a small town.  Maybe lots of other people came to see from elsewhere in Israel, or maybe there was a scribal error in the numbers.  Some point to the Septuagint that says 70 men instead.  Regardless of what the real number was, they saw it was a plague from the Lord.

The Lord dealt more strictly with the Israelites for touching the ark than He did with the Philistines.  Israelites had the Law of Moses, so they should have known what they should and shouldn’t do, especially concerning who can touch the ark.  Where much is given, much is required.

The men of Beth-shemesh say, “Who can stand before this holy LORD God?”  It seems like they think the Lord is too strict and they are okay, rather than realizing that the Lord is just right and they are sinful.  It’s yet another reminder that only Christ was perfect and we all need to be redeemed.  

And yet, they are still a little more spiritually receptive than the Philistines were.  Although both the Israelites and the Philistines wanted to send the ark elsewhere, the Philistines had to be convinced by further signs that the plague they suffered was from God, while the plagued Israelites in Beth-shemesh saw the plague was from God and searched their souls to figure out what they had done wrong, and they remembered they had looked in the ark when they weren’t supposed to.

Well, they got the men from Kirjath-jearim to come and get the ark.  We have no idea why they called them, but they were happy to take charge of the ark.  The men of Kirjath-jearim picked Abinadab to store the ark and “sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark.”  It is probable that Eleazar was a priest, but here he was set apart specifically to keep the ark safe. 

I find that very interesting.  Abinadab’s house was considered worthy enough to be a substitute tabernacle or temple for the ark of the covenant and his family fit caretakers.  This gives us a nice little lesson.  Do we try to make our homes places of holiness comparable to the temple?  Would our children make good caretakers of sacred things?  Imagine the appropriate way to act if you and your family were keeping the ark of the covenant in a guest bedroom.  That’s like having the throne of God there..and his presence as well.  But then, don’t we also have the gift of the Holy Ghost, the chance to have a member of the Godhead with us constantly?

It is interesting to me that it says that for 20 years all Israel lamented after the Lord.  What were they lamenting about?   It’s possible that the sanctuary at Shiloh was no longer functioning and so there was no official religious center to come to anymore.  (Imagine if Salt Lake were destroyed and there was no church headquarters or conference center to meet in anymore.)  This would be the time when they lament about what they had lost and they wonder if they would ever get it back.  (It could be considered a mini version of the Babylonian captivity, only they never left their land.) 

While the Israelites lament, Samuel was trying to be part of the solution. 

And Samuel spake unto all the house of Israel, saying, If ye do return unto the Lord with all your hearts, then put away the strange gods and Ashtaroth from among you, and prepare your hearts unto the Lord, and serve him only: and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines. (1 Sam 7:3)

The text gives Samuel’s message in an incredibly simple and short form, but it shouldn’t be ignored.  (I bet somewhere there are lost records that give particulars of his preaching in detail like that of Alma in the Book of Mormon.)  However, from what little there is, we can see it exemplifies prophetic ministry: 1) The call to forsake evil, 2) the call to turn to the Lord and serve Him only, and 3) the promise of the blessings of deliverance that would follow, conditional upon fulfilling the previous conditions.   Along with the promise of deliverance, I suspect that there was an expectation that all their nation’s religious blessings could be restored. 

Since there was not the modern means of communication, this message had to be carried to everyone on foot.  It had to be repeated over and over.  It seems to have taken a long time for them to soften their hearts enough to listen and decide to obey.  They really did have to prepare their hearts.

This story reminds me of the importance of being spiritual prepared to receive holy things, to go to the temple, to take the sacrament, and so on.