The Text Teaches: I Samuel 4

This chapter records the initial fulfillment of the Lord’s decree of judgment prophesied by the man of God (2:27–36). The Lord has warned that Eli’s sons would “both die on the same day” (2:33–34). This would be the “sign,” or guarantee, that the prophecy would eventually be fulfilled in its entirety (2:34).

The ark of the covenant, mentioned just once in the book to this point (3:3), becomes a focal point in chapter 4 and continues to occupy the narrator’s interest in chapters 5 and 6. The Israelites take the ark into battle, thinking it will assure them of victory. Yet they experience a humiliating defeat, and the ark is captured. But this is not what it may appear to be, as the Philistines later discover (see chap. 5).

The news of the ark’s capture so shocks aging Eli that he falls over dead. One tragedy leads to another. When his pregnant daughter-in-law hears that the ark is captured and that her father-in-law and husband are dead, she goes into labor and dies in childbirth. It is no surprise to see an Israelite woman suffering death as a result of the foolish actions of Israelite men: this same pattern is apparent in the book of Judges.

The description of her death contributes to the ongoing contrast between Samuel and Eli. When Hannah gave birth to Samuel, it was a jubilant event that prompted Hannah to praise the Lord as her Savior and to anticipate future Israelite victories through a king (2:1–10). But for Eli’s daughter-in-law, the birth of a son brings death and transforms one of life’s greatest joys into mourning: she dies while lamenting the disappearance of God’s “Glory … from Israel” (4:22). Once more we see that Samuel represents the Israel of the future, whom he will lead to victory (chap. 7), while Eli and his sons represent the corrupt Israel of the judges’ period, which is passing away.

Historical and Cultural Background

The ark of the covenant serves as the visible earthly symbol of the Lord’s heavenly throne and as a tangible reminder of the Lord’s presence as King among his people. But Israel is not to view it as an image of God in the way the Philistines view the image of Dagon in the Ashdod temple (cf. chap. 5). The Lord promises to meet his people at the ark (Exod. 25:22; Lev. 16:2; Num. 7:89; 2 Sam. 6:2), but he does not reside in the ark. Walton explains: “The ark mediated the presence of Deity in a limited fashion, but not in the same way that an image did. It did not contain the divine essence. Furthermore, it did not mediate revelation or worship.”
In this chapter the Philistines are mentioned for the first time in 1 Samuel. Genesis indicates that Philistines were already present in Canaan in the time of the patriarchs, but the majority of the biblical references to them occur in Judges and 1-2 Samuel. This reflects the fact that more Philistines arrived in Canaan after the patriarchal period. In about 1200 BC a coalition of the Sea Peoples invaded Canaan. Ramesses III, who was able to prevent them from conquering Egypt, mentions several groups by name, including the Peleset, or Philistines. They settled along the Mediterranean coast, occupying three coastal towns (Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gaza) and two towns further inland (Ekron and Gath). They ruled over Israel prior to and during the time of Samson (Judg. 13:1), roughly 1190–1130 BC. Major conflicts between the Philistines and Israel continued during the days of Samuel, Saul, and David, covering roughly 1130–970 BC.

Theological Insights

God’s decree of judgment begins to fall upon Eli’s house, just as God has announced (cf. 1 Sam. 2:34 with 4:11). This “sign” is a guarantee that the decreed judgment will be realized in its entirety and a vivid reminder that God’s decree is reliable. God’s conditional promise of blessing to Eli was revoked because of disobedience (2:30), but his decree of judgment, sealed by divine oath (3:14), is certain of fulfillment. This story resonates with the exiles, for they too have experienced the consequences of sin and the outworking of God’s decree of judgment. As Firth points out, “The authenticity of the prophetic word” also “demonstrates the authority of YHWH over the people of Israel.”

This story also illustrates the folly of the pagan notion that God can be manipulated into granting success. When the ark enters the Israelite camp, the Philistines declare, “A god has come into the camp” (4:7). Apparently the Israelites view the ark in a similar manner. By associating the Lord too closely with the ark, Israel reduces the Lord to the level of the pagan gods, who can be represented by idols. This faulty thinking explains in part why Eli and his daughter-in-law are so horrified at the news of the ark’s capture. When the Lord gave Israel the ark, he was contextualizing his self-revelation to Israel’s cultural expectations. The nations worshiped images of their gods. The Lord prohibited idolatry in Israel, but he did give Israel a tangible reminder of his royal presence. Unfortunately, Israel, perhaps due to the religious environment of its world, had a propensity toward idolatry (cf. Exod. 32:2–6; 1 Kings 12:28–33) and a tendency to treat symbols as objects of worship (cf. Judg. 8:27; 2 Kings 18:4).

On this occasion Israel’s attitudes and actions foreshadow those of Saul, who will demonstrate a preoccupation with the formal elements of religion in a manipulative attempt to secure divine favor. Thus the story contributes to the author’s strategy of demonstrating David’s superiority to Saul. While David is linked literarily with Samuel, Saul proves to be like Eli and his sons. God rejects the houses of both Eli and Saul.

This story is instructive for the exiles. Before the exile, Israel takes God’s presence for granted, thinking that Jerusalem will never be destroyed because God lives in the city (Jer. 6:13–14; 8:11; 14:13; 23:17). This so-called Zion theology is rooted in the faulty notion that God’s protective presence can be guaranteed by proper cultic ritual apart from obedience (Isa. 1:11–20). As the exiles look to the future and wonder how to be reconciled to God, they need to remember that loyalty and obedience are the only guarantees of divine favor and that God cannot be manipulated into bestowing favor upon those who disrespect him.

Teaching the Text

  1. The Lord’s word is reliable. This story shows how God’s decree of judgment begins to fall inexorably upon the house of Eli. Like so many passages in the Bible, it illustrates the truth that God’s word is reliable and must be taken seriously. In the case of decrees of judgment, this principle is terrifying: it means that those who are the recipients of such decrees are doomed, with no hope of escape (Matt. 13:49–50; Luke 16:26; Heb. 9:27; Rev. 20:11–15). Such a frightening prospect should motivate all people to respond properly to God now, before it is too late (2 Cor. 6:2). But not all of God’s decrees pertain to judgment: some are promises of salvation. The recipients of these can take great comfort in knowing that such promises are reliable and trustworthy (1 Pet. 1:22–25).
  2. The Lord cannot be manipulated into granting his favor. Israel too closely identifies the Lord with the symbol of his presence. They think that by bringing the ark to the battle, they can manipulate God into granting a victory. Surely God will protect himself! He will never allow himself to be hauled away into captivity! But such thinking is foolish and betrays a pagan notion. God is not a good-luck charm and should never be treated as such. Obedience is the key to experiencing God’s favor, as the ancient covenant list of blessings and curses makes clear (Deut. 28) and as Jesus teaches his disciples (John 15:1–17).

written by Robert B. Chisholm Jr.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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