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Philistines discover the God of the Ark of the Covenant!
I Samuel, Chapter 5, tells how the Ark of God was taken from the battle site at Ebenezer to Ashdod (the Septuagint uses the name "Azotus," which is mentioned in Acts 8:40), which was located about thirty miles west of Jerusalem near the Mediterranean sea, and was one of the five cities of the Philistines.8 In true henotheistic fashion they set up the Ark in the house of their god Dagon because, to them, the Ark was the God of the Israelites and they would worship it along with their god, Dagon. But God demonstrated very dramatically that He was not just another idol for, when the Philistines entered their temple the next morning, they found that Dagon had fallen on his face. They may have presumed that an earth tremor, or some other "natural" incident, had upended their God, so they simply set him up again. However, the next morning he had fallen on his face again and this time his head and the palms of his hands were cut off - it would be very difficult to explain these humiliating "mutilations" away and we learn (v54) that "neither the priests of Dagon nor all who enter Dagon's house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day." The Hebrew language emphasizes a vivid progressive action in these verses so that it is made clear to the reader that it was as if the false god, Dagon, was caught in the process of bowing down before the ark! Following this dramatic display of His superiority over the lifeless demonic god, "the hand of the Lord was heavy against the Ashdodites (Philistines) and He ravaged and smote them with tumours, both Ashdod and its territories," (v61).
Thus they discovered that the ark was not a mere trophy of victory, it was the symbol of the presence of the true God who is sovereign over all and the "hand of the Lord" shows that it is God Himself who is responsible for this punitive action. He destroyed them by afflicting them "with plagues" (emerods; Hebrew opel). The word is used for boils, abscesses, or swellings, and the Septuagint makes it clearer that it was an infection of boils or swellings in, or near, the belly, akin to the bubonic plague, with an outbreak of mice or rats associated with the bubonic plague (cf. 5:9; 6:1).9 After the incidents with the ark in the temple of Dagon, and now the plague, they could not fail to realise that the hand of the Lord was punishing them until, finally, they took counsel and said (v111): "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."
The decision of the council of the Lords of the Philistines was that the ark should be "carried about unto Gath," another of the Philistine cities. However, when the ark came to Gath so did the punishing presence of God, and "the hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction" and "tumors broke out upon them" (v9). When they determined to send the ark on to the third Philistine city, Ekron (v10-11), the Ekronites, having heard of the horrors associated with the ark, tried to send it back to its own place even before it arrived. Nevertheless, many died in Ekron as well, for the plague followed the ark.
In 1 Samuel 6:1-16 we read that the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners (Hebrew qasam), who had a great deal of influence in all ancient cultures. We can presume that, like the magicians in the court of Pharaoh (Exodus 8:18-19), they knew enough of the power of the One True God when they saw it, and their advice was to send the ark out with a trespass offering (Hebrew asham). This is the word used for sin offering in the Old Testament, but it is closely related to the whole idea of ransom money or the process of redemption, for it was the belief in most ancient religions that money could be paid to avoid divine punishment. The same Hebrew word is used in Isaiah 53:10 for the offering of the life of the Servant of God who would give His life to redeem His people, and Jesus quoted the passage (Mark 10:45) using the corresponding Greek word for ransom (lutron) to refer to the giving of His own life for us as a sin offering.9 The Philistines offering was to be five golden emerods, or tumors, and five golden mice, images which were symbolic of the plague and which represented the five cities and they therefore offered them with the clear idea that God would know what the ransom money was for and would heal them of the plague.
We know from the statement in 1 Samuel 6v5-64 that the priests and diviners of the Philistines were aware of the power of the Israelite God they had offended, for they stated:
5 "So you shall make likenesses of your tumors and likenesses of your mice that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will ease His hand from you, your gods, and your land. 6 "Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He had severely dealt with them, did they not allow the people to go, and they departed?
Although they were superstitious followers of demons, they were not ignorant people and verses 5 and 6 show that they demonstrated a knowledge of the history of Israel, and a knowledge of theology as well as the power of the Hebrew God who was revealing Himself to the Philistines and others outside of Israel. They hitched two milch cows to the cart carrying the Ark and the box containing the golden mice and the likenesses of the tumors, and tested the effectiveness of their actions by shutting the calves up at home. Natural instinct would cause the cows to follow their calves which were to be led back to the farm just as the cows were turned loose. If the cows went on toward Bethshemesh, the nearest Israelite town, contrary to their natural instincts to follow their calves, then the Philistines reasoned that they could be sure that God had brought the plague upon them. Otherwise they would consider it was chance and a coincidental catastrophe. We read that their query to the Living God was answered, for the cows went straight to Beth-shemesh "lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right or to the left."
When the cart came into the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite there was a large stone there and they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. Although we read that the people of Beth-shemesh were glad to see the ark (1 Samuel 6v13), this did not stop some foolhardy inhabitants looking into it and being struck down:
"And He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh because they had looked into the ark of the Lord. He struck down of all the people, 50,070 men, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great slaughter. And the men of Beth-shemesh said, "Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall He go up from us?" (v19-204).
They learnt the hard lesson that the ark was to impress the people with the holiness of God and looking at it, or into it, out of mere curiosity or irreverently was not permitted. The lesson of Numbers 4:20 was thus made crystal clear to the people of the city as they began to make the decision as to where the ark is to be taken. They finally decided upon the town of Kirjath-jearim, whose ancient name was Baale of Judah (II Samuel 6:2) and which was located ten miles west of Jerusalem on the road to Lydda, according to Eusebius, and near the modern village of Abu Ghosh.8,10
Thus the Philistines would be left in no doubt that the God of Israel had demonstrated His power over them by deliberately surrendering his Ark into their hands by His own choice, and now He had chosen to remove it from their presence. The whole point of this early part of Samuel is to show God judging His people and leading them back to Himself, and these final sacrifices and the coming of the Levites to perform this sacred task are the beginning of the restoration of order after the calamity of defeat and the destruction of Shiloh as a worship centre. The destruction of Shiloh by the Philistines is also testified to by the archaeological evidence which indicates that it was completely destroyed in the mid-eleventh century.11 Almost five hundred years later the prophet Jeremiah warned the people of Jerusalem not to think of the temple as a magical charm, reminding them of what Yahweh had done long before when their ancestors had made this same mistake (Jeremiah 7v12-141):
12 But go ye now unto my place which was in Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel. 13 And now, because ye have done all these works, saith the LORD, and I spake unto you, rising up early and speaking, but ye heard not; and I called you, but ye answered not; 14 Therefore will I do unto this house, which is called by my name, wherein ye trust, and unto the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh.
The Lord did not allow the Philistines to completely subjugate all of Israel, but virtually everything west of the Jordan from the southern Desert and much of Galilee was under their control10 and Israel was held in a stranglehold by a hand of iron (cf. I Samuel 13:19-221):
19 Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel: for the Philistines said, Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears: 20 But all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his (plough)share, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock. 21 Yet they had a file for the mattocks, and for the coulters, and for the forks, and for the axes, and to sharpen the goads. [Note - verse 21 of the NASB4 reads: "And the charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares, the mattocks, the forks, and the axes, and to fix the hoes] 22 So it came to pass in the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people that were with Saul and Jonathan: but with Saul and with Jonathan his son was there found.
Israel was now seemingly toothless and, although the plague forced the Philistines to return the ark, her government and her centre of worship were seemingly obliterated. Human reasoning would expect that her religion was also gone, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob already had in place a faithful servant called Samuel who would bring a kind of revival.
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