I Samuel 4

The Glory is Gone

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 2, 2008 

Introduction                Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this first Sunday in March. I hope it was a good week for and those closest to you. At the Div. School this week we have our Trible Lecture series. This year the focus is on feminism and inter-religious dialog. The lectures are free and open to the public. Our Adult Bible Class lesson this week has been pre-recorded because all of the adult Sunday School classes at Home Church are meeting together with Dr. Chris Thomforde, President of Moravian College and Theological Seminary. Dr. Thomforde will also be preaching this morning. We welcome him to Home Church.

The Ark Narrative     This week we are turning our attention to a special unit within I Samuel. Chapters 4-7 are a long narrative about the capture of the ark by the Philistines in the days of Eli. The evidence is pretty convincing that this was an old story that was incorporated into the story of the kings but was originally independent. It could have just as easily been included in the Book of Judges and may have been so originally. It even says that Eli judged Israel for 40 years instead of saying that he was a priest of the Lord. It is odd that Samuel is not mentioned in these chapters even though he was the focus of attention in the first three chapters. Clearly this was not originally part of the story of Samuel. Also, even though the sons of Eli die in this story there is no indication that this was because of their wickedness or that it was a fulfillment of prophecy. The story was probably included in I Samuel simply because it tells about the death of Eli and his sons. It is not integral to the book.

            The basic story in ch. 4-7 is that the ark of the Lord was captured by the Philistines, but when they place the ark in their Temple bad things happen. Finally they are forced to return the ark to the Israelites. For centuries biblical scholars thought this was a unique story about the power of God, but in the 20th century archaeologists found many ancient texts from other societies that tell similar stories. It was a common practice for a conquering army to take the idols of the gods of their enemies and bring them back as trophies of war. There is a famous arch in Rome that shows the Romans taking the Menorah out of the Temple. By taking the gods of the defeated nation, the victors demonstrated that their gods were superior. In most cases, the idols would eventually be returned, and there are texts that tell the story of the return of the idols from the perspective of the defeated people. They typically interpreted the return of their gods as a sign of the superiority of their gods. In other words, this story of the ark in I Samuel was not unusual, but it does have features that make it distinctive and informative for people of faith.

            It would be good to do the whole story at once, but it is a little too long for that, so we’ll take it in stages over the next three weeks. This week we’ll discuss the initial capture of the ark and its effect on the Israelites. I’ll read chapter 4.


The Philistines            The Philistines were the enemies of Israel in the days of the Judges. Students sometimes misunderstand teachers, and more than one student has had the mistaken impression that the Israelites were fighting with a woman named Phyllis Stein. The Philistines are portrayed in such bad terms in the Bible that the word Philistine in the English language came to mean a brutish, stupid, uneducated, knuckle-dragging, wife-beating, foul mouthed, lower-class bore. In other words, it is not a compliment to be called a Philistine, especially by someone with a Harvard accent at a New York art gallery. This is unfair to the Philistines who were more technologically and politically advanced than the Israelites. The image of the barbaric Philistine is based primarily on the figure of Goliath, the Philistine giant.

            It appears that the Philistines were one of the People of the Sea that attacked Egypt in ancient times. The Egyptians recorded their eventual victory over the Philistines and noted that they settled in the southern coastal plains of Canaan, which became known as Philistia. Eventually that whole area became known as Palestine, despite the fact much of the region became the kingdom of Israel. As you are well aware, in our day there is still a dispute over whether that region should be known as Israel or Palestine or by both names. Thus, the stories in I Samuel about the war with the Philistines continue to resonate in modern Israel.

            The Philistines were not as cultured or prosperous as the Phoenicians who lived in the north. Much of what we know about them comes from the Bible. The Philistines lived in five main cities, which they may have conquered about 1200 BC. They were named Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron. Their two most important gods were Dagon and Baalzebub, which became one of the names for Satan in Jewish tradition. Dagon figures in the story of the capture of the ark.

            In the time of the Judges, the Philistines had one great technological advantage over the Israelites. They could smelt iron and make iron tools and weapons. The Israelites were still living in the Bronze Age, but the Philistines were already in the Iron Age. I and II Samuel give us a unique look at the transition of a society from a Bronze Age culture to the Iron Age. This makes these stories particularly interesting to anthropologists. One thing we see is that Iron production goes along with the development of a government bureaucracy and standing army. Several times in the period of the Judges, most notably in the time of Samuel, the Philistines scored victories over some of the Israelite tribes and expanded their control over the region.

Defeat             In our lesson for today, the Israelites went to battle against the Philistines at Aphek and Ebenezer, which were several miles east of Shiloh. We are not told why the Israelites attacked the Philistines or what led up to this skirmish. We don’t even know which tribes were involved in the battle. All we know is that the Israelites were humiliated in battle. Most translations say that 4000 Israelites were killed that day, which would have been a major loss of life even in the American Civil War. Many scholars are convinced that the Hebrew word translated as “thousands” actually meant something like “company” or “military unit”. In other word, four companies of soldiers were killed, which was probably several hundred men.

            It was not a decisive victory since the survivors were able to return to their camp at Ebenezer. The big question the men had, though, was why had the LORD let them be defeated. If you have ever read the Iliad, you know that ancient peoples believed that their gods fought with them or sometimes against them. The gods gave heroes courage, tripped people as they ran, sent plagues, and did all sorts of tricks. The Israelites assumed that the same was true of their god, the LORD. Ancient soldiers did things to try to appease the gods before battles.

            The Israelite army assumed that the reason that the LORD had not brought them victory was because they had left his ark back in Shiloh. Rather than repenting of bad behavior or seeking peaceful ways to settle their conflict, the Israelites decided to bring God directly into the battle against the Philistines. They ordered that the Ark of the Covenant be carried from its resting place in Shiloh to Ebenezer.  

            As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, the Ark was a chest of wood that was covered in gold leaf. The top was like a seat decorated with cherubim whose wings touched. Two poles were used to carry the ark. There are number references to the ark in the Old Testament, but it goes by several names: Ark of YHWH, Ark of the Covenant, Ark of the Testament, etc. According to tradition, it was Moses who had the Ark built, and he placed the fragments of the original Ten Commandments in it. It was believed that the Ark functioned as the throne of God or his footstool, and sometimes the Ark was addressed as if it were God. Without a doubt, this was one of the most sacred relics of ancient Israel. From the days when Israel wandered in the wilderness, the ark was a visible symbol of the invisible God of Israel. God was never depicted in visible form, but they believed that the priests could encounter the invisible God who revealed his presence through the Ark.

            There were times when the ark was carried into battle. It is not clear if people believed that the ark itself was harming their enemies or if the ark was primarily a symbol that united the people and encouraged them in their fighting. The Ark was part of Joshua’s famous crossing of the Jordan River, and it may have figured in an annual event in which the leaders of the tribes gathered to express their mutual devotion to God and unity with each other.

            It is not clear how the ark came to rest in Shiloh or why the family of Eli wasselected to care for it. We’ve already meet Eli at the shrine in Shiloh. According to I Samuel, he was so old and blind that his sons had to accompany the ark to Ebenezer. There is nothing in this text to indicate that the boys were sinful or unworthy to do this task, but by adding the story about the sinfulness of the boys, the storyteller provided an explanation for the disaster to come. He turned it from a story of tragedy to a morality tale in which sin is punished.

Ark Brought into War                        When the sons of Eli brought the Ark into the Israelite camp, the Israelites let out a loud was cry that shook the ground the way the floor of Cameron stadium shakes during basketball games at Duke. This was more than taking a particular flag into battle. It was a symbol of God’s presence that united the Israelites and assured them that God was on their side. The flagging zeal of the Israelites was restored, and they rejoiced because they knew that God would bring them victory the next day. They went into battle confident they would win. Even in our day, politicians try to convince their soldiers and their nations that God is fighting for them.

            Fear is a major weapon in times of war. People do not fight well when they are frightened, especially if they are convinced they are going to die. That’s why athletes talk smack before a game, and why modern nations use political propaganda to try to convince the enemy that resistance is futile. When the Philistines heard the shouting of the Israelites they were afraid. “A God fights with them,” they cried because they knew the significance of the ark. They had heard the legends about the God of the Israelites sending plagues on the Egyptians. The Philistines heard the shouts and were afraid. It is interesting that the Philistine captains had to rally the troops with the warning that if they lost the battle, they would be subject to the Israelites. Apparently in the time of Samuel, the Israelites were strong enough to enslave Philistines. It does not appear that the Israelites were the only victims of oppression.

Defeat             Despite carrying the ark into battle, the Israelites were defeated. Thousands of men were dead, the army was scattered, and the Ark of the LORD was taken captive. This was a terrible blow to the Israelites. Some of you know what it was like when America had to admit that it could not win the Vietnam War. Our national mythology was that America always wins its wars, but there was no victory in Vietnam. The communists won that struggle, and Americans had to find some explanation for the defeat. Different answers were offered, none of them satisfying. The Israelites had lost a battle even though they carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle. God had promised never to desert the Israelites, but they had lost this great battle against the uncircumcised Philistines. Could it be that the Philistines and their gods were stronger than Yahweh? Or was there a deeper meaning? One explanation offered in I Samuel was that this had been predicted by God when he said he would destroy the house of Eli. The two boys died in the battle and could not be saved. Thus the defeat was interpreted as a punishment by God for the failure of the priests. This attitude would continue through the books of Samuel. God punishes sinners and rewards the righteousness. The death of the priests was symbolic of the subjugation of the whole nation.

Eli                    The news of the disaster was brought to Eli by a soldier who traveled nearly 20 miles in a day to bring the news of the defeat. When Eli heard that his sons were dead and the Ark was captured, it was more than he could bear. He had submitted to the prophecy of God stoically in the previous chapter, but this was even worse news than he had expected. Not only was his line ended in a single day, but the most sacred object in Israel had been captured by unclean men. The Ark that his ancestors had carried through the desert and into the promised land was gone. The Ark that he had tended day and night in the Temple was gone. The throne of the invisible god had been taken by the worst sort of infidel. Disaster upon disaster. How could he live? He had judged Israel for 40 years, but the end of his 98 years came suddenly.

Ichabod           Eli was not the only one affected by this news. His daughter-in-law was pregnant, and the news of these disasters upset her so much that she went into labor too early. Like many women before the invention of modern medicines, she suffered terribly in childbirth and died while giving life to a son. What should have been a sign of hope for the future merely added to her sense of defeat and despair. How could she bring a child into the world knowing that the God of Israel had been defeated? What joy is there in having a son who would be a slave to the Philistines rather than a priest of the LORD?

            As she was dying, she named her son Ichabod, which means the Glory is Gone or the Glory is in exile. She was using one of the names for the Ark, which was the Glory of God. The Ark was captured by the Gentiles, and so the glory of God had left Israel. It is not clear if she wanted her son to always remember this defeat so he could avenge it, or if the name was symbolic of her despair. Having a son could not erase the fact that God had gone. This is one of the saddest scenes in Scripture that contrasts dramatically with the birth of Samuel. Whenever you meet a character named Ichabod, you can expect the story to be tragic, like the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Ichabod – the glory is gone. It is a hard name for a child.

Conclusion                  We have to end with this image of despair. We know that the story turns out well, but it is going to take awhile. Before there is redemption, the Israelites have to face the silence of God. This story is a powerful reminder to all people of faith that God’s people are not always victorious. Many churches preach the message that if you have faith, you will always be victorious. The glory of God will shine on you and protect you, but that is not always the case. There are times when God is silent; when the glory is gone. Our religion does not provide us with magic amulets that bring good fortune regardless of our actions. Keep in mind that this is not just a story about the Ark. The author of I Samuel had experienced the destruction of Judah by the Babylonians and had probably been taken into exile. He understood the quiet despair that could overtake a people when God fails to protect them. This story was written to remind people that even when God appears silent, he is working out his plans.

            Next week we will see that Israel may have been defeated by the Philistines, but God had not been defeated. The Ark itself would have to defend itself. The glory had not truly gone out of Israel, but it sure looked that way.

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: