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We now can see the shape of an interesting storyline taking place. We see Israelites acting like faithless Gentiles, and Gentiles acting like faithful Israelites. In the pages to come, we are going to see quite a bit of this.
“And the ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 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 . . .” (1 Sam. 6:1-21).
Summary of the Text
The Philistines had the ark for seven months, meaning that they were plagued for about that time (v. 1). When they got to the end of their rope, they asked their holy men how to unload the ark (v. 2). They gave good advice— don’t send it off without a trespass or guilt offering (v. 3). What shall that offering be? The answer was that there should be five golden tumors, to match the number of the chief lords of the chief cities (v. 4). There were also mice, which may have represented the surrounding agrarian villages, which were apparently plagued by mice eating the grain. The mice “marred the land” (v. 5). All Philistia was afflicted. They were told to give glory to the God of Israel, and perhaps He will take His hand off them, their gods, and their land (v. 5). The priests of Philistia reminded the lords of the Philistines not to harden their hearts the way Pharaoh and the Egyptians had (v. 6). They were advised to take two milch cows, and to tie them to a new cart, and to take their calves away (v. 7). The ark is to be put on the cart, and the gold tumors and mice put in a box next to it, and the cart turned loose (v. 8). If the milch cows head (uphill) to Israel, then God is afflicting them, but if the milch cows go in search of their calves, then the plague was a coincidence (v. 9). So they followed the advice (vv. 10-11). The milch cows, lowing for their calves, made a beeline for Israel anyway, and the lords of the Philistines followed after, right up to the border (v. 12). The men of Bethshemesh were in the wheat harvest (May/June), and they were interrupted by the arrival of the cart (v. 13). The cart stopped by the house of a man named Joshua, and so they offered up the milch cows as a burnt offering (v. 14). They put the ark on a rock, and offered more burnt offerings (v. 15). The lords
of the Philistines, satisfied, returned home (v. 16). The gold tumors corresponded to the five great cities (v. 17). The mice represented all the villages (v. 18).
What could go wrong now? God smote the men of that city because they desecrated the ark by looking into it, and over 50,000 people died (v. 19)—worse than the casualties at the first battle of Ebenezer (v. 19). And the men of Bethshemesh said that they could not stand it (v. 20). And so they handed the ark off to the inhabitants of a place called Kirjathjearim (v. 21).
Keeping in mind that the ancient literary structure won’t necessarily match our chapters and verses (or sermon divisions), consider this chiastic structure.
a First Battle of Ebenezer (Philistine victory)—1 Sam. 4:1b-11
b Ark held by the Gentiles—1 Sam. 4:12-22
c Ark plagues the Philistines—1 Sam. 5: 1-12
d Return of the ark—1 Sam. 6: 1-18
c’ Ark plagues Bethshemesh—1 Sam. 6: 19-21
b’ Ark held by the Gentiles in Kirjathjearim—1 Sam. 7: 1-2
a’ Second Battle of Ebenezer (Israelite victory)—1 Sam. 7: 3-17
A Roundabout Transfer
A few generations later, Asaph tells the story of the Exodus in Psalm 78. But he includes this story near the end of that psalm, where the ark of the covenant went into exile and then returned (Ps. 78:58-72). This is a description of how God moved the ark of the covenant from Shiloh to Zion at Jerusalem, the place He had chosen for the sake of David. God judged His people first, and then rose up like a drunken warrior and smote the Philistines (Ps. 78: 65). This psalm tells us that this was all part of God’s plan to establish the throne in Judah.
What’s Wrong with This Picture?
Let’s consider a few geographical details. Ekron was near where the Sorek Valley opened up into the plain. Bethshemesh was part way up that valley, and was soon to be the site of many of Samson’s great deeds. Delilah was from that region (Judges 16:4). Bethshemesh was a Levitical city (Josh. 21:16). It was full of Levites, who ought to have known how to handle the ark. But the first thing they did was offer up two milch cows for a burnt offering —when the law required that such offerings be of males (Lev. 1:3). They set it up on a stone for people to gawk at, when the law required the ark to be covered (Num. 4:5). Then they looked into the ark, and so the Lord slew a bunch of them. The lesson is clear—these Levites are Philistines.
Instead of repenting, they seek to unload the ark. So they send the ark up to the road to Kirjathjearim. But this was predominantly a Gentile city (Josh. 9:17). Within the borders of Israel, this was nevertheless one of the towns of the Gibeonites who tricked Joshua. So the Levites hand the ark off to the Gibeonites.
From Top to Bottom
We have learned from Hannah that the Lord raises the lowly and topples the arrogant. But this is not something that happens to solitary individuals only—as when one president falls and is replaced with another one, but with the institution of the presidency itself still intact. No, when God mixes it up, the whole structure of society is involved. God is not playing patty-cake here. There are many moving parts, and the stakes are high. The run up to the second battle of Ebenezer includes the ark remaining peacefully at Kirjathjearim for 20 years (1 Sam. 7:2), and it also includes the time in which we see all the exploits of Samson. Just as Dagon fell before the ark, so the whole house of Dagon fell before (and upon) Samson. And it was right after that when Samuel decided to declare repentant war upon the Philistines.