The Text: The Ark Heads Home

I Samuel 6

This chapter continues the story of the ark. In the aftermath of the Israelite defeat at Ebenezer, the Philistines captured the ark and took it to Ashdod. But it brought death and destruction wherever it went in Philistine territory. Finally the people of Ekron insisted that it be sent back to its homeland (5:11). Chapter 6 tells how the ark returns to Israelite territory, but not without incident! The ark does not make it back to Shiloh or another major worship center. This leaves the story hanging until it resumes much later, when David decides to bring the ark to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6). The fact that the ark does not go to a worship center upon its return to Israelite territory is important because it proves that David does not violate a sanctuary to retrieve it. One gathers the impression that the ark is waiting to be taken to its proper place.
On a more negative note, the incident at Beth Shemesh, where the ark is not treated with proper respect and several people die as a result (1 Sam. 6:19–20), foreshadows the Uzzah incident (2 Sam. 6:6–7). Both stories are stern reminders to Israel that the Lord must be treated with the utmost respect, for he is holy (1 Sam. 6:20). This is a lesson the Philistines have learned the hard way. The appeal of the Philistine leaders to honor the Lord (1 Sam. 6:5) serves as a foil in this chapter to the flippant way the Israelites later treat the ark. It also anticipates Samuel’s calls for Israel to repent in following chapters of the unfolding history (1 Sam. 7:3; 12:20–25).

Historical and Cultural Background

When the Philistines need advice concerning what to do with the ark, they call for their priests and “diviners” (1 Sam. 6:2). The Mosaic law prohibits divination in Israel (Deut. 18:10); in the ancient Near East it was a popular form of discerning the divine will and receiving guidance for life (cf. Deut. 18:14). There were two main categories of “divination” in the ancient world: (1) “Inspired divination is initiated in the divine realm and uses a human intermediary.” This type of divination takes the forms of official and informal prophecy, as well as dreams. (2) “Deductive divination” also originates in the divine realm, “but its revelation is communicated through events and phenomena that can be observed.” It is this deductive type of divination that the law prohibits. Deductive divination involves the interpretation of omens, which includes examining the internal organs of animals, casting lots, and observing celestial, terrestrial, and physiognomic patterns.
Magic also played an important role in ancient Near Eastern religion. Walton explains its relationship to divination: “While divination is concerned with gaining knowledge, magic involves exercising power.” Magic involves the use of incantations and rituals designed “to manipulate cosmic forces in pursuit of self-interest” and to ward off the danger associated with bad omens.
The priests and diviners advise the Philistines with regard to both divination and magic. Their suggestion regarding the two cows and the cart is an ad hoc form of divination designed to determine if Israel’s God really is the source of the calamity they have suffered. The reparation offering, in the form of golden tumors and rats, appears to be a type of sympathetic magic designed to draw off the plague and to appease the Israelite deity.

Teaching the Text

  1. The holy God must be treated with respect. Though the Lord is not to be identified with the ark, the people are not to disrespect it by treating it as an object of curiosity. The ark is a symbol of the Lord’s holy presence and is to be treated with honor. For the people of Beth Shemesh, the Lord’s holiness is cause for fear because they have witnessed firsthand the effect of violating it (6:20). Before this, the word “holy” has appeared only twice in the Former Prophets. For Joshua, God’s holiness is cause for pessimism, for he knows Israel’s propensity to violate God’s standards and thereby offend his holiness (Josh. 24:19). Hannah employs the term when describing the Lord as absolutely sovereign and unique in his capacity to protect his people (1 Sam. 2:2). For Hannah, the Lord’s holiness is cause for celebration, for his incomparability assures his loyal followers of vindication. The contrast between Hannah and the people of Beth Shemesh is particularly striking. Those who disrespect the holy God find him terrifying, while those who honor him find his holiness to be reassuring and cause for hope.
  2. Those who have offended the Lord must honor him rather than harden their hearts. When Israel violates God’s holiness and experiences the punishment that inevitably results, they have two options before them: stubborn resistance or humble repentance. Both the Philistine religious leaders and the narrator of our story recommend the second of these as the appropriate response. Both Deuteronomy (see 30:1–10) and the Former Prophets hold out the possibility of repentance for Israel, even when they have blatantly rebelled against God and experienced his punishment in full measure (see esp. Judg. 2; 1 Sam. 12; 1 Kings 8). The Latter Prophets urge the exiled nation to respond in repentance and experience the renewal that God offers (see esp. Isa. 55; Ezek. 18). The author of Hebrews, using the wilderness generation as a negative example, also warns God’s people of the danger of hardening their hearts (3:8, 15; 4:7).
    As noted above, the Philistine religious leaders urge their people to ascribe glory to Israel’s god. Giving God the honor due him is surely at the heart of genuine worship (cf. Pss. 29:1–2; 96:7–8), for the incomparable God refuses to share his glory (Isa. 42:8; 48:11). Genuine repentance culminates in genuine worship when the repentant ones ascribe to God the glory he deserves. Paul points out that the pagan world has “exchanged the glory of the immortal God” for idols (Rom. 1:23), but John foresees a day when survivors of God’s eschatological judgment will proclaim God’s glory (Rev. 11:13). Indeed, he tells how an angel will proclaim the gospel, announce impending judgment, and call the nations to worship, exhorting them to “fear God and give him glory” (Rev. 14:7).

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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