I Samuel 5-6: The Ark Returns


The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 9, 2008 

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it has been a good week for you and those closest to you. I’m afraid I’ve been seeing various doctors about problems in my right shoulder. It looks like surgery in the near future. I’ve found that pain and lack of sleep has diminished my sense of humor a bit. I tried, but I couldn’t think of a single funny story to tell this morning, even though it is daylight savings day. It is a busy time of year in the Atwood household because we have lots of birthdays in the spring. Yesterday was my daughter Allyson’s 25th birthday. She was born the year I graduated from Carolina. Speaking of UNC, our thoughts and prayers go out to the family, friends, and classmates of Eve Marie Carson who was murdered this week. Her death reminds us that every murder is tragic, but this one was doubly so because Ms. Carson had the potential to save countless lives through medicine. She was one of the many people whose lives are ended by guns each year in our country.   

The Ark in Philistia                This morning we are continuing our discussion of the Ark narrative in I Samuel. We’ll try to cover chapters 5 and 6 today, but I will not read every verse on the air. You will remember from last week that the Philistines defeated the Israelites in battle and captured the ark of the covenant. Based on archaeology findings some biblical scholars assert that Shiloh was probably destroyed at the same time. What is interesting about this is that the Bible does not tell us about the destruction of one of the most important shrines of old Israel. What was important to the biblical storyteller is God, not the war with the Philistines. The focus of this story is on the ark, not Israelite politics or even their army. The ark was captured and the glory was gone from Israel. We saw last week that this was a devastating crisis of faith for the Israelites. The first child born after the defeat was named Ichabod – the glory is gone.

            The ark narrative tells us that God is not a slave to humankind; nor is he bound to human expectations. Eli and the army assumed that since they controlled the ark, they controlled God. They confused the symbol of God’s presence with God himself, and they assumed that when they manipulated sacred symbols, they were manipulating God. They hoped to bless their war against the Philistines by invoking the name of God, just like people do today. Just because you call on Allah or sing God Bless America before killing innocent people, it does not mean that God approves of your violence. God taught an important message by remaining silent and letting his ark be taken into Philistia. In today’s lesson we learn that God can work even when there are no priests and generals to do his will.


Dagon goes down       I remember being fascinated by this story as a boy in Sunday School because it is such a spooky tale. It begins with the ark being placed as a trophy of war in the Temple of Dagon in Ashdod. The name Dagon is associated with grain, and he was a fertility god. We don’t know for sure what he looked like, but a misunderstanding of Hebrew led to the widespread belief that he was a fish-god. In the 20th century, the science fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft made Dagon the fish-god a monster, but his vision of Dagon has nothing to do with our story for today. Sorry to disappoint the Lovecraft fans in the audience.

            The ark was placed before the idol, but the next day the priests of Dagon found their god on the ground paying homage to the ark. That must have been quite a surprise, but they did what any government bureaucrat would do. They set Dagon upright and pretended that nothing had happened. No doubt they had to suppress rumors that there had been an incident in the Temple and resisted calls for an official inquiry into the falling of Dagon. Their attempt to pretend that all was normal was doomed to fail, though. Things just got worse.

            The next day when they went into the temple, they probably brought along ropes and pulleys just in case he had fallen again, but this time they found that Dagon’s head and hands had been removed from his body. This was a dramatic statement of anti-Dagonism. By removing the hands and head of the idol, the perpetrator had made the statement that the idol could neither act nor think. Dagon, the lord of the harvest and fruitfulness in Philistia was nothing more than a statue made by human beings. This is very similar to the story of Samson who was captured by the Philistines and still managed to bring down the temple. We should not miss the humor in either story. We tend to read with deep and pious voices, like James Earl Jones, but the original storyteller probably used a voice more like Robin Williams or Ellen Degeneres. I can picture generations of Israelites laughing when Dagon lost his head over the ark. Even when you think you’ve beaten the Israelites, they beat you!

The Plague     What comes next is clearly identified as the work of a God who was angry that his ark was being kept in a pagan temple. The hand of the Lord was heavy on the Philistines, and plague stalked the land. Along with the plague there may have been an infestation of rats that ravaged the crops. Dagon, the Lord of the harvest was powerless to stop the rats. He had no hands or head. There are some variations in copies of the Hebrew text, and it is not clear exactly what kind of plague struck the Philistines. The people had tumors or boils of some type. Some versions of the story specify that the boils were in a particularly painful and embarrassing area of the body, which one translator rendered as the “hinder parts.”

            Many historians suspect that the plague was actually the bubonic plague. The fact that the plague was accompanied by an infestation of rats supports that theory. Also, the statement that the plague spread from Philistine city to city from the coast to the inland as the ark was relocated is consistent with bubonic plague. All types of plague are terrible, but the bubonic plague is one of the worst. Called the Black Death in the Middle Ages, it wiped out nearly 1/3 of the population of Europe in just two years (1348-1350). Throughout history it has ravaged cities along trading routes, often in the midst of great prosperity. Plague was this mysterious force that struck like the Grim Reaper, cutting down rich and poor, good and evil without pity. It was only in modern times that scientists identified that the plague was spread by the fleas on the rats, and that it is caused by a microcosmic organism.

            The Philistines called together the best minds in the country to deal with this health-care crisis. Drawing upon the best medical knowledge of the day, the Philistine brain trust determined that the proper cure for the malady was to quarantine the victims, kill the rats, improve public hygiene, and develop antibiotics. No, wait. That comes later in history. The priest figured that since the problem started when the ark had been captured and Dagon had been decapitated, it made sense that the ark was the cause of the plague. By taking the ark into their temple, they had opened themselves up to the power of a god they did not worship or serve. Instead of being blessed by this symbol of God, they were cursed by it. There is a warning here for all people who call invoke the name of God and symbols of religion. Do not expect a blessing from a God you do not worship and obey.

            The priests advised that the best remedy would be to make five golden “tumors” and several golden rats, and put them in the ark. The golden tumors must have looked very odd, but this is what we called sympathetic magic. By making an image of something, you can control it. Making an image of the illness allows you to remove it. This appears to be a universal human phenomena and is still sometimes used in psychological therapy, but in this story it highlights a important theological point. What the Philistines were doing with their gold was what the Israelites had done with the golden ark. They had tried to control God, but had failed to do so. As the children learned in the Chronicles of Narnia, God is not a tame lion. He is untamed but good.

Returning the Ark                  It a way, the story of the ark’s return is a micro-version of the story of the Exodus. God sends a plague and the enemies of Israel are forced to let the ark return to Canaan. The Israelites did not send in an assault time to bring the ark out of Ekron nor did they keep killing civilians until the Philistines relented. It was God who acted, and the Philistines wisely consented. The Philistines in I Samuel make a connection between their plague and the story of the Exodus. It is not clear how they would have known that the LORD God had sent ten plagues on Egypt, but the Philistine priests told the rulers that they should learn from history. Don’t harden your hearts they way Pharaoh did. Don’t play around with fire. Give the ark back as fast as you can, but they were not going to call the Israelites to come get their ark because that would be admitting defeat.

            Like modern businesses, they had to find a way to manage the crisis without admitting that their leaders had made an error in judgment. With great caution and limited fanfare, the ark is prepared for the return to Israel. New milk cows would return the ark for them. The tension in the story involves what the cows will do. The cows had just calved. If they turned back to their calves, then the ark was not the problem. If they went straight down the road, then the ark was the cause of the plague. This adds to the supernatural aspect of the story. Unguided, the cows unnaturally turn away from their mooing calves and journeyed down the road out of Philistia all the way to Bethshemesh.

Sacrifice          The people of Bethshemesh were harvesting their crops when the ark appeared. This was a subtle reminder that Dagon was not really the Lord of the harvest. The Israelites had a harvest without Dagon. The people left their crops and followed the ark to see where it would stop. It came to a large stone in the middle of a field. Clearly, this was one of the sacred stones in Canaan, like those we read about in Genesis. The people used the wood of the cart to make a fire and then sacrificed the cows on the altar stone in the field. The priests of Israel also placed the golden offerings on the stone for God. The five lords of the Philistines watched all this and reported it back in Ekron where they probably sacrificed the calves. With a little humility, these leaders had saved their cities.

            There are a couple of points of interest in verses 13-18. We are told that the stone in the field is there “to this day,” which is an indication that I Samuel was written long after the events it describes. This phrase helps connect later generations to the story. The stone stood as a type of witness that these events really took place. More curious is the mention of the Levites here. They are only mentioned in one other place in I and II Samuel. In Exodus, the Levites were identified as the priestly tribe, but we hear very little about Levites as priests until much later when they served in the Temple in Jerusalem. By mentioning the Levites here, the storyteller further connects the return of the ark to the story of the Exodus and the original construction of the ark.

Propaganda                As I said last week, the ark narrative is an old story that the author of I Samuel incorporated into the story of Samuel, Saul, and David. It tells about the death of Eli, which is important because Samuel will be the next priest and judge instead of Eli’s sons. It also introduces the reader to the brutal struggle between the Israelites and Philistines. And it establishes the importance of David’s decision to bring the ark into Jerusalem after he became king. But this story was also good political propaganda that communicates two messages.

            It tells outsiders to be careful about fighting with Israel. Even though you have superior technology and a larger army, you will not win in the end. You may win the battle and take the people and their treasures into captivity, but you will ultimately lose. Pharaoh could not keep the Israelites slaves. Samson in captivity brought down the Philistine’s temple. The Philistines could not hold on to the ark. Watch out Assyria, Babylon, Rome!

            The other message was to the Israelites themselves, especially during the long years of the Babylonian Captivity. I Samuel was probably written during that time, and you can imagine how important this story of the ark’s return was to the writer. He wanted to tell the people that in the long run it did not matter that the Temple had been destroyed and they were in captivity. God is not bound by the laws of physics and politics. God was not defeated by the Babylonian deities. Babylon would be forced to return God’s people to the land of Israel, just as the ark was returned. This is a theology that has helped the Jews endure many periods of persecution and exile through the centuries. It is a message that can inspire hope in dark times today.

Ambiguous Ending                 It is so tempting to end the story of the ark with verse 18 and the rejoicing of the people in the field of Joshua, but the story continues to an uncomfortable ending. Some of the people did not join in the festivities. They may have even desecrated the ark by looking inside it. The texts are ambiguous. Whatever their offense was, the LORD killed seventy of them, or perhaps as many as 50,000 according to some texts. In other words, the plague was carried into Israel itself and there was great grief. The return of the ark was not a universally good thing, and the people of that region wanted to be relieved of the burden of caring for such a dangerous item. They sent word to another village that the ark had been returned and they should get it. Oddly enough, they failed to mention that people were dropping like flies – or fleas.

            So, the ark finally came to rest in the home of Abinadab on a hill, and the plague finally ran its course. No explanation is given for why the ark was not sent to one of the shrines of Israel. Perhaps none of the other priests wanted to take the chance, but Abinadab was willing. His son, Eleazar, was consecrated to care for the ark, which was a task that Samuel once had. Samuel will now be free to travel around Israel as the spokesman for God while another watches over the Ark of the Covenant.

            What can we make of this grim and somber ending of the story of the ark? This is one of those stories that make many of us uncomfortable with the Old Testament. There is so much death and violence, some of it senseless. The death of those who did not rejoice seems like a random act of violence, like the shootings on a college campus. Whether it was 70 or 50,000 does not lessen the problem. One way to deal with this is to explain it away scientifically and point out that plague rats probably followed the ark. Like all epidemics, this one ended eventually on its own.

            Another way is to deal with the story theologically. It is a stark reminder that God is not Santa Claus. Though we try to domesticate God, he is beyond our categories of good and evil, kind or cruel. The experience of God as holy is to experience God as dangerous as well as good. The third way to deal with this story is the most popular. We simply keep it out of the lectionary so we don’t have to preach about it on Sunday mornings.

Conclusion                  We’ve come to the end of the ark narrative and will return to the story of Samuel next week. This is a strange and compelling story about the sovereignty and power of God. The Bible does not interpret this story for us, but it leaves us to make sense of it if we can. I think that the most important point that people of faith can take from this story today is that God is not our property. We cannot build a gilded chest in which we lock up his power to bless and curse. We cannot carry God into battle to slay or enemies or set him up a Temple as a trophy. We need to respect the mystery of God, and pray that we are doing his will. God can fight his own battles; we do not have to engage in holy wars.

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