Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Ark of the Covenant in Exile: 1 Samuel 5-6


1 Samuel 5-6 tell what happened to the ark, or rather how the ark happened to the Philistines who captured it, and how it came back to the Israelites.

If you remember, the background is that the Philistines captured the ark of the covenant and killed Eli’s two sons, which caused great distress among Israel and led to the further deaths of Eli and his daughter-in-law.

So now what happens?

Jehovah Versus Dagon in a Knock-down Fight

1 And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Eben-ezer unto Ashdod.
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.
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.
5 Therefore neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that come into Dagon’s house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day. (1 Samuel 5:1-5)

The first thing the Lord does is knock over the statue of Dagon before the ark.  By prostrating the idol, the Lord hoped to communicate a mild message – “Your god falls/bows before me and thus you should too.”  The Philistines just stood their god’s statue back up.

What did the Philistines think when they found Dagon had fallen down?  They probably thought some Israelites had snuck in during the night and pushed over the idol just to cause mischief.  The supernatural explanation that God or an angel had pushed over the idol does not seem to occur to them, or if it did, it was quickly squelched as unthinkable.  So they go with the natural explanation. 

The funny thing is, both explanations invalidate the power of their idol.  If it was Israel’s God or an angel, then Dagon didn’t have power to save itself, and if it was a mortal that pushed Dagon over, Dagon still didn’t have power to save himself from being tipped over OR to right himself back where he should be.  (This is in contrast with Jehovah, who does have that power.  We can see in the whole account of 1 Samuel 5-6 that God ultimately does have power to take the ark of the covenant back to Israel where it should be, even to the point of using transportation arranged by His enemies.  Pretty impressive, huh?  But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Next the Lord does something a little more pointed.  He knocks Dagon down again, this time in such a way as to break off Dagon’s head and hands.  What is the message here?  “Not only does your god fall before me, your god is powerless and dead, just as he has no hands or head.  You are worshipping the wrong god.”   I read somewhere that in ancient cultures that conquering nations would break off the heads and hands of statues of gods in the nations they conquered, so there is dramatic irony in the Lord breaking hands and head off Dagon in Dagon’s own temple.

I think the fact that Dagon falls twice is meant to show this wasn’t an accident.  It’s supposed to be two witnessing events.

How do the Philistines respond to this?   They totally ignore that big picture message and focus instead on the fact that Dagon’s head and hands fell on the temple’s threshold, and they start treating the threshold as if it is sacred by starting a tradition of not stepping on it!   (1 Sam. 5:4-5)  This seems really bizarre, but it may be they thought Dagon’s second fall meant Dagon wanted to break, and if so, then the place he fell was special for some reason.

We can see the Philistines were persistent in their beliefs.  They were not going to let themselves be swayed by signs that seemed to favor another God over their own, especially since they believed they had captured the Israelite God in battle.  Further, they wouldn’t allow themselves to be fooled by what they might have considered cheap tricks masquerading as signs.  They probably reasoned that if it could be done by human hands, then it probably was.

It might be helpful to consider if there was any better way the Lord could have communicated with the Philistines the mistake they were making worshipping Dagon instead of God.  The signs of having Dagon fall and having his head and hands cut off was simple and clear, but can we think of any better way?  Just for grins, I thought up some options.

·      What if the roof had fallen in on Dagon but not the ark?  It might be hard to see with the roof fallen in.
·      What if Dagon had just been broken into tiny pieces with the ark?  That might just look like Dagon had left, and it wouldn’t do the job of showing he had no power.
·      What if Dagon had been broken into larger pieces?  That still doesn’t give anything better than the simplicity of Dagon losing his head and hands.
·      What if Dagon had fallen by itself with the ark not there?  That wouldn’t communicate anything about the God of Israel having power over Dagon.  The presence of the ark and Dagon falling before it communicated God’s power had the ascendency, even though the Philistines thought Dagon had won the battle at the beginning.

I think those two signs were adequate for their purpose and couldn’t be improved upon.

But the Philistines didn’t listen, so now what?

The Plagues Begin

6 But the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with emerods, even Ashdod and the coasts thereof.
7 And when the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for his hand is sore upon us, and upon Dagon our god.
8 They sent therefore and gathered all the lords of the Philistines unto them, and said, What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel? And they answered, Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried about unto Gath. And they carried the ark of the God of Israel about thither.
9 And it was so, that, after they had carried it about, the hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction: and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts.
10 ¶Therefore they sent the ark of God to Ekron. And it came to pass, as the ark of God came to Ekron, that the Ekronites cried out, saying, They have brought about the ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay us and our people.
11 So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go again to his own place, that it slay us not, and our people: for there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there.
12 And the men that died not were smitten with the emerods: and the cry of the city went up to heaven. (1 Samuel 5:6-12)

Next the Lord sends plagues on the Philistines of emerods. The footnote says emerods could be hemorrhoids.   Also, according, to 1 Samuel 6:4-5, we might assume that mice were involved as well.  Some believe the mention of mice suggests that an outbreak of bubonic plague was included.

You’d think the Philistines would be wise enough to say, “Because the God of Israel’s hand is sore upon us and upon Dagon our god, and Dagon has not saved us, we must worship the God of Israel instead, for He has power over us as well as in His own land.”  But they don’t.  Instead they say, “The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us: for his hand is sore upon us, and upon Dagon our god.” (2 Sam 5:7)  (Does anyone else think it strange that they want to keep a worthless god and get rid of a powerful God?)

So they send the ark to Gath instead.  And the same plagues happen in Gath too.  And they try to send the ark to Ekron.

The plagues of emerods and mice were difficult to ignore, as disease, death of one’s loved ones, and destruction of crops usually is.  They seem to observe the plagues began in cities where the ark was, and this led them to conclude that the ark of the God of Israel was responsible.  Thus, Ekron, out of self-preservation starts to connect the dots and protest to save themselves from having to take in the ark.

Now, with our modern understanding of disease theory, we might wonder if the ark was a vector of disease and had some kind of germ on it that was spread by contact.  However, I think the mention of mice involvement in the plague suggests that mice were the vector, with their fleas that would bite humans and spread whatever nasty bug they had.   The Lord could bring plagues at will, as He did in Egypt when Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go.

Another thing I notice is that 1 Sam 6:4, 17 mentions that the trespass offering to appease God would be five golden emerods and five golden mice, one for each Philistine town and lord because “one plague was on you all, and on your lords” (1 Sam. 6:4).  This suggests that the plagues spread beyond the presence of the ark into all the other Philistine cities as well.  The text doesn’t put emphasis on this, and it is worth thinking about why that is.

I think the text wants us to have in our head the image that where the ark comes, the Philistines are plagued and die.  It’s an image that communicates if you come into the presence of God, you will die.  This suggests that we are to learn the principle that to have God come when we are not prepared to receive Him would be a curse to us, not a blessing.  It’s a statement not just about physical death, but spiritual death and being cast out of God’s presence, which leads us to better understand the need to be redeemed and purified.

What to do?

1 And the ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months.
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? (1 Samuel 6:1-6)

It is at this stage the Philistines decided to get rid of the ark, but they want to do it in such a way as to appease the Lord so the plagues will end.  So there is some discussion about how to do this.

Do they consider talking to the Israelites and asking about the Law of Moses and the rules for trespass offerings?  No.  They consult their diviners. 

There’s a nice little lesson here.  If you want to know how to repent, do you ask those who know about God—apostles and prophets and church leaders--or do you go to leaders of other religions?

The diviners really don’t know what’s going on either.  They say, “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.” (1 Sam. 6:3)  If you notice, they promise healing, but in case that doesn’t happen, they promise the people will know why they haven’t been healed.  They aren’t committing to a prediction because they are afraid they’ll be wrong, so they’re hedging their bets.

The diviners give directions according to the Philistine idol theology.  The trespass offering must be images of their plagues made out of gold.  To their mind, the emerods and mice have power, so that makes them gods, so they should make idol images and send them with the ark, thinking that the God of Israel will command those plaguey mini-gods to leave them alone.

The one useful thing the diviners say is this:

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? (1 Samuel 6:6)

The diviners remind the Philistines of the events of Exodus when the God of Israel plagued the Egyptians to get them to let the Israelites go.  The diviners and the people knew the stories, so they weren’t completely ignorant. 

I think the Lord knew the Philistines knew the story of Exodus, and used that to craft the message to the Philistines.   Just as the Egyptian magicians eventually had to acknowledge their powers (and the powers of the Egyptian gods) were inadequate in comparison to Jehovah, the destruction of the idol god Dagon demonstrated the same thing.   And just as the refusal to acknowledge the God of Israel led to plagues in Egypt, the refusal to acknowledge the God of Israel led to plagues in Philistine territory.

The Philistines were plagued far less than the Egyptians, and they could easily liken the Egyptian’s situation to themselves, which led to a determination of what they should do.  They probably used this reasoning-- “The Egyptians were plagued by Israel’s God for not letting Israel go.  We are plagued and Israel’s God’s ark is here.  We should let something go, but we don’t have Israelites here, just the ark.  Therefore, we should let the ark go.”  

However, they were still in doubt as to whether the God of Israel was really behind the plagues, because unlike in Exodus when Moses warned of the plagues beforehand, these plagues have no prophetic introduction that they can discern.  They just hit.  So the Philistines suspect the truth, but they are in doubt about it.  (They ignored the Dagon idol destruction, remember, and they were reluctant to accept the implications the story of Exodus had for their situation.  The diviners were right to ask them why they were hardening their hearts.)

Because they were still in doubt, the diviners recommend a test. 

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 Beth-shemesh, 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.
10 ¶And the men did so; and took two milch kine, and tied them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home:
11 And they laid the ark of the Lord upon the cart, and the coffer with the mice of gold and the images of their emerods.
12 And the kine took the straight way to the way of Beth-shemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left; and the lords of the Philistines went after them unto the border of Beth-shemesh.
13 And they of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley: and they lifted up their eyes, and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it.
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….
16 And when the five lords of the Philistines had seen it, they returned to Ekron the same day. (1 Sam. 6:7-14, 16)

The test was a rather ingenious one because it would fulfill two functions for the Philistines.  1) It was a way to wash their hands of the ark.  2) It could become a sign about whether the God of Israel really was behind the plagues they had suffered. 

Their test was simple—require the God of Israel to drive the cart holding the His ark in a specific way to a specific place.  And they make it as hard as possible for it to happen naturally.  It can’t be a coincidence.  It has to have divine intervention to get there.

Let’s see how they construct this test.

1. They put the ark on a new cart.  This could be to show honor to the God of Israel, but it is also an unproven piece of equipment.
2. They yoke two milch cows to the cart.  Milch cows are milk cows and they are not draft animals, so they aren’t trained to pull things.  They probably wouldn’t know how to respond to a yoke and they’d probably have a hard time working together.
3.  They take the calves away from the milk cows.  The cows aren’t going to want to leave their calves.  They’d also probably have discomfort if the milk pressure in their udder isn’t relieved when it should.
4.  The cows and the cart were to be let loose to see where it would go.  No one was to drive it.  It could theoretically go anywhere. 
5.  The Philistines declare that if the cows took the cart straight to Beth-shemesh in Israel, then they would know that Israel’s God was behind the plagues they had suffered.  If it went anywhere else, then they’d figure the plague was just by chance.

Well, the impossible happens; the Lord takes the ark straight back to Israel on the highway to the very town the Philistines named, so in all respects the impossible sign was fulfilled.  Five Philistine lords follow it the whole time, so there are five witnesses that the cart goes straight to Israel.  

Does this have any effect on the Philistines?  Not that we can tell from the text.

The fallen Dagon idol, the plagues of emerods and mice, the unmanned cow cart going straight to Israel could have led to conversion, but it didn’t.  The Philistines tried to resist for as long as possible the thought that Israel’s God was responsible for what was happening, and even when they were trying to figure out how to appease Israel’s God and stop the plague, they were still resisting God.   They would not submit.  Perhaps they saw submission as too costly to them personally and to their culture.  We see here that all the signs in the world can’t convince people who are determined to resist the Lord. 

The Philistines illustrate that the Lord can only do a limited amount with people who refuse to listen to Him. 
1)    He can warn them, to demonstrate His justice and mercy, whether or not they listen.
2)    He can wait, hoping they will repent.
3)    He can use them as instruments of wrath to chastise other wicked people with war.
4)    When something specific needs doing, He can plague them.
5)    He can take them from the earth.

But there’s a cool thing here too. What happened among the Philistines shows me that the Lord doesn’t just want to reveal Himself to Israel; He wants to reveal Himself to the world.  It is human stubbornness, pride, and incorrect traditions that prevent men from seeing the true meaning of the miracles and signs the Lord does. 

Looking at this story in another way, in the capture of the ark by the Philistines and its journey back to Israel, we see a type of Jesus Christ, who allowed himself to be put to death and then raised Himself from the dead, with none to help Him.  “O death, I will be thy plagues: O grave, I will be thy destruction” (Hosea 13:14).


Now, where do you suppose the Lord would take the ark when He’s taking it back to Israel?  Where is the best place in Beth-shemesh to leave it?  He takes it into a field belonging to a man named Joshua.  We don’t know much about Joshua and why he was chosen for this privilege, but note his name means “Jehovah saves.”  That’s an excellent final message, confirming Jehovah can save Israel and Jehovah can save His own holy things.  Jehovah certainly saved the ark.

Sadly, the people in that town didn’t have proper respect for the ark and they ended up plagued too.

Time to Sum Up

1 Samuel 5-6 is hard to apply to ourselves if we are determined to see it merely as an amusing story of the Philistines’ rebelliousness.  What we should be doing is looking for ways in our life that we make the mistakes the Philistines made and figuring out how to avoid those mistakes in the future.

Some Ways God Guides Us

To look at it in a positive way, these chapters tell us about a few of the different ways that the Lord might use to try to guide us back to him when we are way off track.  He may use signs that speak clearly and warn us of the errors we are in.  He may destroy our idols so that we see they don’t have power to save us.  He may allow disease and disaster to bring suffering in our lives in hopes it will motivate us to change as we search for relief and meaning in the experience.   (However, disease and disaster can happen to anybody, so it can’t be used to judge others.) He creates circumstances in our lives that recreate what we know of stories in the scriptures so that we can apply those stories to ourselves and make appropriate changes.  These seem to be for times when we are so hardened that nothing softer works.  (We don’t want to get to that point; it is far better to be quick to obey.)

The Philistines’ reaction demonstrates how efforts to reclaim us may cause us to react with unbelief and resentment.  Because the Philistines knew the story of Exodus and could apply that to themselves, they already knew what their problem was, but they didn’t like the implications.  They didn’t like the message of change that went with it that would require so much of them.  They didn’t want to see that God had a hand in their lives and they rejected that guidance.  So they kept looking for something else and that left them in doubt.  When their pain demanded an answer, they just wanted to know what caused it without letting that push them toward change.  

What would be a better way to react?

Just ask yourself--Who is better at following God’s guidance in this story, the Philistines or the cows that draw the cart with the ark in it?

Consider that even though the Philistines would not allow God to guide them and teach them, God could guide a pair of milk cows to 1) pull a cart with the ark 2) together 3) straight on the highway 4) straight to Beth-shemesh 5) even while every instinct those cows possessed screamed out that they needed to go find their missing calves.

What happened with those cows is encouraging because it shows me that if I am humble enough to listen and obey the Lord, He can guide me even if I am untrained for the task I’m given.  He can guide me to work with others.  His guidance can take me straight to the precise place He wants me to go, even if everything in me screams this was never supposed to happen.

Do you ever feel like those cows—set free in a wide open space with a burden to drag around and you could go anywhere and do anything, but you feel driven to do something specific and you don’t quite know why or where it’s going to take you?  I do, especially about writing for this blog. 

When we notice these things, I think we, like the cows, are meant to be a sign to others that God guides.  Maybe the glory of our lives is the direction we go.  Maybe that direction is obvious to everyone else, even while we ourselves wonder and struggle.  Maybe seeing us make our way slowly but surely in that direction strengthens others in their own faith journeys.

Also consider that just like the Lord guided those cows out of Philistine territory and straight to Israel, the Lord can guide each of us out of Satan’s territory and straight into the Lord’s kingdom.