In the Bible, all wars were god wars. It wasn’t just who had the most brawn on the battlefield, it was about whose gods were the toughest in the supernatural realms. Everyone understood this. The atheism we promote today would have been considered utterly absurd in those times. No one doubted the existence of gods. The only question was whose gods were the greatest on any given day.
In 1 Samuel 4, we find the Philistines launching an attack on Israel. The Israelite army rushes to meet them only to end up getting seriously spanked. The Israelite casualties skyrocket to 4,000 soldiers. We don’t find any fussing about poor military strategies. We don’t see commanders blaming each other for bad field calls. Such foolishness would happen today, but back then the Jews knew what the problem was: their God wasn’t helping them.
When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did Yahweh bring defeat on us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the Ark of Yahweh’s Covenant from Shiloh, so that He may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.” (1 Sam. 4:3)
So what was the point of the Ark? Why was it so special? Yahweh commanded the Ark to be built back in Exodus 25, at the same time that He told the Jews to build a sanctuary where He would dwell among them (see Know Your Bible Lesson 6: The Sacrificial System). The Ark was closely associated with Yahweh’s personal Presence. It was a wooden box that was overlaid in gold and had two golden cherubim sitting on top with their wings touching. It contained a few special objects that were monuments of major moments in Yahweh’s early history with Israel, such as the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were chiseled. But no one got to see these objects because to look inside the Ark was illegal. In fact, no one was allowed to touch the actual Ark—only the poles that were attached to it for transportation. And not just anyone could touch the poles. Only men from the tribe of Levi who were descendants of Levi’s son Kohath were authorized to carry the Ark around by its poles. And when the Ark was out in public, it had to be covered, because it was illegal to look at it as well. Mess with the Ark, and you die, because the Ark was holy. Those were Yahweh’s rules, and for the most part, the Ark stayed parked in the Holy of Holies–a little curtained off room inside the Tabernacle that only the high priest could enter into. But when times were dire, the high priest could rush into the Holy of Holies, throw a covering over the Ark, then call out that it was safe for the Kohathites to come in and grab the Ark by its poles. This is what the plan was on this dark day of military defeat in 1 Samuel 4. The Israelite soldiers are dropping like flies and they need some supernatural intervention. Since Yahweh’s obviously not participating, they figure they’ll manually haul Him onto the battlefield by fetching His Ark.
THE ARK IS BROUGHT INTO BATTLE
When the Ark arrives, the morale among the Israelite army soars. Now that Yahweh has come in His little box, victory is certain. The ancient Jews were a very vocal bunch, and they were big on public displays of emotion. When the Ark arrives, all the men let out such a thunderous roar that we’re told the ground shook. This is very disconcerting to the Philistines, who thought they were winning.
When they learned that the Ark of Yahweh had come into the camp, the Philistines were afraid. “A god has come into the camp,” they said. “Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before. We’re doomed! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!” So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost 30,000 foot soldiers. (1 Sam. 4:10-11)
Everyone knows the story of Yahweh spanking Egypt with ten horrifying plagues. The Philistines are a little confused about the details—they think multiple gods were responsible for dishing out those horrible plagues. After all, they see the Jews worshiping multiple gods, so they don’t have any reason to think Yahweh was operating alone. Besides, in these times, every nation had multiple gods. This is one of the many ways Yahweh tried to make His people stand out as different—by telling them that He was the only God they should worship. Of course the Israelites never went for that idea, and they worshiped many gods besides Yahweh, causing the nations around them to correctly assume that they had multiple gods.
The Philistines are superstitious little pagans, and they see this whole Ark thing as a very bad omen. But we have to admire their pluck, because instead of running away in terror, they gather their courage and launch another assault on the Israelites. Much to their surprise, the Israelites once again fall before them and another 30,000 men go down. Now the battlefield is a sea of bloody corpses (there’s nothing pretty about getting chopped down with a sword). The Israelites are looking like pantywaists and the Philistines are walking off with the greatest trophy they’ve ever scored: Yahweh’s Ark. So much for being scared of the God who smote Egypt. Obviously the Philistines have some much better supernatural muscle.
The news that the Ark has been captured tears through Israel like a shockwave. As far as they are concerned, Yahweh is still sitting between those two golden cherubim that were mounted on the Ark’s lid (see 1 Sam. 4:4). The Philistines didn’t just capture a box, they captured Yahweh Himself. What now? In a little while their God would be sitting in a Philistine jail. This was terrible.
THE ARK ARRIVES IN PHILISTIA
Where do you park a God who you just captured? The safest place would be right next to your bigger, stronger god, so that he could keep the Newbie in line. The Philistines carry the Ark to their town of Ashdod and into the temple of their god Dagon—who was represented by a statue of a half-man, half-fish merman. Then everyone goes to sleep feeling pretty good about themselves.
Early the next morning, when people come in to see how the two gods made out, they are shocked to discover that the big statue of Dagon has fallen face down in front of Yahweh’s box. Hm. This scene doesn’t say “victorious,” so they quickly set Dagon back up and dust him off. Then they go about their business trying to think up a logical explanation for how Dagon got toppled.
The second morning, they walk in on an even more disturbing scene. Not only is Dagon flat on his face again, but this time his head and hands are totally broken off. Now powerful Dagon is just a stump, but he’s not the only thing that’s falling apart in Ashdod. We’re told that Yahweh is ravaging the people, plus they’re coming down with terrible tumors—growths are springing up on their bodies which are causing great anguish. Finally a few geniuses put their heads together and decide that the Ark has to go.
When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The Ark of the God of Israel must not stay here with us, because His hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.” So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and asked them, “What shall we do with the Ark of the God of Israel?” (1 Sam. 5:7)
Notice no one asks how they can convert to Judaism, even though they can see that Yahweh is clearly a superior God. In these times, pagans were used to their gods failing them. When a stronger power came along, the best thing to do was to try and help your god keep his distance until the danger had passed.
During this emergency meeting, someone suggests that they dump the Ark on their brothers in the town of Gath. As soon as the Ark arrives, those horrible tumors break out all over the people of Gath as well. Once again, Yahweh struck the city and we’re told there was “very great confusion.”
Well, the people of Gath aren’t going to stand for this. They ship the Ark on to the Philistine city of Ekron, but when the Ekronites see it coming, they protest.
As the Ark of God was entering Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought the Ark of the God of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.” So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, “Send the Ark of the God of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people.” For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy on it. And the men who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven. (1 Sam. 5:10-12)
It’s a scary thing when God’s hand is “heavy” on you. This isn’t a good heavy. The Philistines are having all kinds of horrible things happen to them. They’ve got three cities in turmoil. People are dying. Others are covered in tumors. The mighty Dagon has been rendered impotent. They really need to get rid of this Israelite God.
It’s been seven months of hell for the Philistines. Now it’s time for another emergency meeting. All of the demon worshiping priests and dark magic sorcerers get together to figure out just how to resolve this crisis. What a sight that must have been: a bunch of spiritual fools poking around at animal entrails, mixing potions, and muttering mumbo-jumbo as they search for some kind of omen about what they should do to appease this God in a box. Finally someone comes up with a real breakthrough.
“Send the Ark of the God of Israel back with a gift,” they were told. “Send a guilt offering so the plague will stop. Then, if you are healed, you will know it was His hand that caused the plague.” (1 Sam. 6:3)
This is straight out of the “How to Appease Angry Gods” manual: give them presents. Now in these times it was thought that gods needed statues and sacred objects which they could inhabit in order to communicate with humans. This is why it was so important to make statues and keep them in nicely maintained temples—otherwise the gods wouldn’t inhabit their statues and then you’d have nothing. Also, many gods were assumed to be bound to a certain geographical area. The God of Israel would be hanging out where His people were, Dagon would be hanging out with the Philistines. Even if the Israelites moved on, it would be logical for Yahweh to still cling to His favorite plot of earthly soil. We see this mentality demonstrated many years later in 2 Kings 17. After trashing Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel, and dragging all the Jews off into exile, the conquering king of Assyria sends his own people in to live in the land. Naturally, they worship their own gods. But as they settle into the area, lions keep rushing in on them from the surrounding land and killing them. They conclude that the plague of lions is due to the fact that they’re not appeasing the local “God of the land.”
It was reported to the king of Assyria: “The people you deported and resettled in the towns of Samaria do not know what the God of that country requires. He has sent lions among them, which are killing them off, because the people do not know what He requires.” (2 Kings 17:26)
The solution was to send a Jewish priest who could instruct the foreigners on how to appease this local Deity. Once the priest came and the people started paying some homage to Yahweh (along with all of their other gods), the lions stopped ripping them apart. So in their minds, their theory was proven correct. Of course we know that Yahweh isn’t bound to any one plot of soil—He is everywhere. The lion attack was His way of making these foreigners aware of His existence so that some of them might truly turn to Him in their hearts and be saved.
Now back to our Philistines: they recognize Yahweh is ticked that His favorite box has been taken out of His homeland. The Philistines were naughty to take the box, and if they’re going to lift the curse on them, they need to bring it back with some kind of apology gift. But what?
The Philistines asked, “What guilt offering should we send to Him?”
They replied, “Five gold tumors and five gold mice corresponding to the number of Philistine rulers, since there was one plague for both you and your rulers. Make images of your tumors and of your mice that are destroying the land. Give glory to Israel’s God, and perhaps He will stop oppressing you, your gods, and your land. Why harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened theirs? When He afflicted them, didn’t they send Israel away, and Israel left?” (1 Sam. 6:4-6)
The spiritual “authorities” in Philistia have come up with the perfect idea: make gold monuments that sort of celebrate the plagues that have come on them. The tumors we knew about, but this is the first time we’re hearing about the infestation of mice. Yuck. Yahweh is certainly spanking these people. By making gold icons of these things, they’ll be telling Yahweh, “You win. Wow, You really got us good.”
Once again we’re reminded about how far and wide Yahweh glorified Himself through what He did to Egypt. It’s decades since that happened. The current generation is remembering oral stories that they were told by their parents and grandparents. Today, we’ve heard the ten plagues referred to so often that we fail to appreciate how epic they really were. It is an absolute miracle that there was anything left of Egypt at all. The Philistines have good reason to be afraid and their priests are warning them not to follow Pharaoh’s stupid example by delaying in giving Yahweh what He wants.
So far the demon worshiping priests aren’t doing so bad. But now they start to doubt themselves. Maybe it isn’t really Yahweh after all. Maybe the mice and the tumors are all just one big coincidence. So now these geniuses come up with their own version of Gideon’s fleece.
“Now build a new cart, and find two cows that have just given birth to calves. Make sure the cows have never been yoked to a cart. Hitch the cows to the cart, but shut their calves away from them in a pen. Put the Ark of Yahweh on the cart, and beside it place a chest containing the gold mice and gold tumors you are sending as a guilt offering. Then let the cows go wherever they want. If they cross the border of our land and go to Beth-Shemesh, we will know it was Yahweh who brought this great disaster upon us. If they don’t, we will know it was not His hand that caused the plague. It came simply by chance.” (1 Sam. 6:7-9)
The natural thing would be for these two new momma cows to stick close to their calves, who are no doubt fussing over the separation. It would be strange for the moms to just ditch their babies and head on over to Israel. Well, good. Yahweh likes this “difficult” test He’s been given because it gives Him a way to publicly show the Philistines that, yes, He is the Source of their problems.
The golden objects are made and the cart is sent off just as the priests and sorcerers have advised. Lo and behold, those cows go hauling off in the direction of Beth-Shemesh, mooing all the way. We can imagine the Philistines gasping in surprise as their sign is confirmed to them. They follow the cart to the border of their territory and then stop. So it really was Yahweh after all.
UNDERSTANDING THE SLAUGHTER OF ISRAELITES
It’s been seven months of shame and humiliation for Israel. Everyone is stressed out. Why did Yahweh abandon them? Why did He let the evil Philistines mass slaughter them?
Now let’s think about this. What was it Yahweh said would happen if His people disobeyed Him?
“Yahweh will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth. Your carcasses will be food for all the birds and the wild animals, and there will be no one to frighten them away.” (Deut. 28:25-26)
Whenever we see God bringing in pagans to mow down His chosen people in the Old Testament, we know it’s because they are disobeying Him. Now let’s be clear: when an individual’s life is filled with trials today, that doesn’t mean God is mad at them. God uses the same methods to spiritually refine us and to spank us. An individual Christian whose life is falling apart might be greatly honoring God in his heart, so we must not be hasty to judge. However, when it came to Israel being thrashed in the Bible, Yahweh was very clear that her trials were a form of punishment because of her foul attitude towards Him.
At this point in Israel’s history, she is wallowing in immorality and worshiping every god she comes across. 1 Samuel comes historically after the book of Judges, which ends in a shocking display of just how morally and spiritually corrupt Israel has become (see Judges 17-21: Anarchy in Israel). Over and over again, God has been raising up the people groups around Israel to come and beat on her. And it’s her own fault that He has so many choices in which nations to use against her, because she rebelliously refused to finish clearing out the Promised Land of its original inhabitants when she moved in. God’s instructions were for Israel to completely purge the land of all its native people groups—that would have cleared out all of the pagan influence as well. But as it was, Israel got lazy and decided to “live and let live.” Just as Yahweh predicted, she soon became enticed by the occult practices around her and was worshiping a large pantheon of idol gods. So much for obedience.
THE ARK RETURNS
Imagine the surprise a couple of Israelite men have when they look up from working in their fields and see the Ark being carried towards them by a couple of mooing cows. Right away they chop the cart up into firewood and use the cows to present a burnt offering to Yahweh. Levites take down the Ark and the box of golden goodies that came with it, then everyone makes more sacrifices to God. Off in the distance, we’re told that the five lords of the Philistines watch the whole thing, then return to tell their people about it.
There were five gold tumors and a bunch of gold mice—one mouse for each town that belonged to the five Philistine rulers. What ugly items those must have been. Now you’d think the Jews would be so happy to get the Ark back that they’d treat it with extra reverence. Not so much. The little twerps have the audacity to uncover it, take off the lid, and look inside. So much for respecting Yahweh.
Yahweh killed seventy men from Beth-Shemesh because they looked into the Ark of Yahweh. And the people mourned greatly because of what Yahweh had done. “Who is able to stand in the Presence of Yahweh, this holy God?” they cried out. “Where can we send the Ark from here?”
So they sent messengers to the people at Kiriath-Jearim and told them, “The Philistines have returned the Ark of Yahweh. Come here and get it!” (1 Sam. 6:19-21)
Here is an ironic turn of events. The Israelites get the Ark back and now they’re looking to shuffle it off onto someone else. Notice this whining about “Who is able to stand before Yahweh, this holy God?” What they really mean is “Why can’t we disrespect Yahweh and get away with it?” If they hadn’t violated His box, Yahweh wouldn’t have struck them all dead. The rules about the Ark weren’t complicated. Everyone knew it wasn’t supposed to be touched—that’s why they brought authorized Levites in to unload it from the cart. These Israelites obviously haven’t learned much from their recent defeat by the Philistines. Yahweh demands reverence, and He’s fed up with their constant attitude. Now they talk as if they’re the victims because He’s justly killing them for disrespecting His Ark—something He has always said He would do.
How often today do we take this same rotten attitude? When God gives us a well-deserved spanking, we start whining about our hardships and wish God would just go away for a while. What a nice homecoming this is for Yahweh—He brings His box back and right away His people totally insult Him by treating His special Ark like a common thing.
When they hear about the slaughter in Beth-Shemesh, Israelites from the town of Kiriath-Jearim come over to get the Ark. They bring it into the home of a man named Abinadab who lives on a hill. Abinadab has a son name Eleazar who goes through the appropriate consecration rituals in order to take care of the Ark. At least these individuals are showing some respect, but they should have taken the Ark back to Shiloh where the tent Tabernacle was set up. The Ark is supposed to be kept in its little curtained off room inside the Tabernacle—the Holy of Holies. These men are being very sloppy with God’s things and no one seems to care.
We’re told the Ark stays at Abinadab’s house for twenty years. It will be King David who finally comes to rescue it, and even he will try to cut corners which means someone else will have to die. At this point all of our sympathy should be with Yahweh, who is being disrespected all over the place. At least the pagan Philistines made Him some presents. Sadly, they seem to be showing Him more respect than His own people.
Now at last someone who really respects Yahweh comes onto the scene. It’s the prophet Samuel: the best leader Israel’s seen since the death of Joshua. Samuel started off as that little boy who heard God calling his name in the night and thought it was someone else. Soon he’ll be the one to anoint Israel’s first two kings: Saul and David.
Then Samuel spoke to all the house of Israel, saying, “If you return to Yahweh with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtoreth from among you and direct your hearts to Yahweh and serve Him alone; then He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” So the sons of Israel removed the Baals and the Ashtoreth and served Yahweh alone. (1 Sam. 7:3-4)
Well, now we know why Yahweh keeps massacring His own people: they’re worshiping other gods. In fact they’ve got statues and altars set up to these idols all over the land God has given them. Wow, what twerps.
Samuel is well respected, and the Israelites do as he says because they’re desperate. At this point, they’ve got widows all over the land and the grave digging business is booming. If tearing down some altars will bring better times, why not? Besides, Yahweh has shown Himself to be stronger than the other gods they’re worshiping.
Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel to Mizpah and I will pray to Yahweh for you.” They gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before Yahweh, and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against Yahweh.” (1 Sam. 7:5-6)
We’d like to believe the Israelites really mean what they say here, but experience has taught us that their “revival” will only last until the immediate crisis is over. Right now that crisis is the Philistines, who suddenly appear on the horizon to launch yet another surprise attack while all of Israel is gathered at Mizpah. Boy, those Philistines really don’t learn, do they?
When the Philistine rulers heard that Israel had gathered at Mizpah, they mobilized their army and advanced. The Israelites were badly frightened when they learned that the Philistines were approaching. “Don’t stop pleading with Yahweh our God to save us from the Philistines!” they begged Samuel. So Samuel took a young lamb and offered it to Yahweh as a whole burnt offering. He pleaded with Yahweh to help Israel, and Yahweh answered him.
Just as Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines arrived to attack Israel. But Yahweh spoke with a mighty voice of thunder from heaven that day, and the Philistines were thrown into such confusion that the Israelites defeated them. The men of Israel chased them from Mizpah to a place below Beth-car, slaughtering them all along the way. (1 Sam. 7:7-11)
At last the Israelites get to taste sweet victory as God turns His Divine rod of discipline against the Philistines. Yahweh’s spanking everybody in this story. What a bloodbath.
Samuel then took a large stone and placed it between the towns of Mizpah and Jeshanah. He named it Ebenezer (which means “the stone of help”), for he said, “Up to this point Yahweh has helped us!”
So the Philistines were subdued and didn’t invade Israel again for some time. And throughout Samuel’s lifetime, Yahweh’s powerful hand was raised against the Philistines. The Israelite villages near Ekron and Gath that the Philistines had captured were restored to Israel, along with the rest of the territory that the Philistines had taken. (1 Sam. 7:12-14)
At last there is peace in Israel. Why? Because they’re putting on a temporary pretense of obedience. But in the next chapter we’ll find out how weak that pretense is as the Israelites come to Samuel and demand a human king. Yahweh is already their King, and He’s certainly proven His ability to protect them a thousand times over. But Yahweh isn’t good enough for them. They want to be like the nations around them who all have human rulers. This will be one of their saddest days: the day they publicly reject Yahweh as their King and insist that a selfish human being would be far more satisfying.
Remember that in these times, the tent Tabernacle that Moses constructed (which would later be replaced by Solomon’s Temple), was set up in Shiloh. At the start of our story, the Ark was taken from Shiloh to the battlefield, where it was captured. The Jews viewed the departure of the Ark as Yahweh expressing His anger with them (which He was), and this event goes down in Jewish history books as a very traumatizing moment. A long time from now, one Jewish psalmist will sit down and compose Psalm 78, in which he will describe major moments in Israel’s history with Yahweh. This whole episode with the Ark will be described like this:
But they rebelliously tested the Most High God, for they did not keep His decrees. They treacherously turned away like their fathers; they became warped like a faulty bow. They enraged Him with their high places and provoked His jealousy with their carved images. God heard and became furious; He completely rejected Israel. He abandoned the Tabernacle at Shiloh, the tent where He resided among men. He gave up His strength to captivity and His splendor to the hand of a foe. He surrendered His people to the sword because He was enraged with His heritage. Fire consumed His chosen young men, and His young women had no wedding songs. His priests fell by the sword, but the widows could not lament. (Ps. 78:56-64)
This passage helps us see how the Jews interpreted this event theologically. Then we come to the book of Jeremiah, in which Yahweh again refers back to this Ark event as the time when He “destroyed Shiloh.” Once the Ark was removed from the Tabernacle in Shiloh, it was never returned. Eventually King David will move the whole Tabernacle set up to Jerusalem, and he’ll go and fetch the Ark from Abinadab’s house so that Ark and Tabernacle will finally be reunited. But meanwhile, Shiloh remains in a crippled state–it’s a city in which people are supposed to come and meet with God, yet God has removed His Presence from it by not allowing the Ark to return.
Now prior to the Ark being taken out of Shiloh, corrupt priests were abusing the sacrificial system and doing all kinds of nasty shenanigans in the Tabernacle. Roll the clock forward hundreds of years, and we find more corrupt priests stuffing God’s Temple in Jerusalem with demonic idols. Speaking to His prophet Jeremiah, Yahweh says:
“Say to them, ‘This is what Yahweh says: If you will not listen to Me and obey the word I have given you, and if you will not listen to My servants, the prophets—for I sent them again and again to warn you, but you would not listen to them—then I will destroy this Temple as I destroyed Shiloh, the place where the Tabernacle was located. And I will make Jerusalem an object of cursing in every nation on earth.’” (Jer. 26:4-6)
And again in Jeremiah 7, Yahweh makes it clear that He shut down the Tabernacle in Shiloh in response to the Israelites’ spiritual rebellion. Speaking to the Jews who are living in the southern kingdom of Judah, Yahweh says:
“‘Go now to the place at Shiloh where I once put the Tabernacle that bore My Name. See what I did there because of all the wickedness of My people, the Israelites. While you were doing these wicked things, says Yahweh, I spoke to you about it repeatedly, but you would not listen. I called out to you, but you refused to answer. So just as I destroyed Shiloh, I will now destroy this Temple that bears My Name, this Temple that you trust in for help, this place that I gave to you and your ancestors.’” (Jer. 7:12-14)
The Jews never forget about the day that Yahweh left them–He makes sure of that. And He makes it clear that His leaving was justified. After all, weren’t the Jews just trying to coerce Him into giving them their way by forcibly dragging His box into a losing battle? Yes, they were. Today we Christians are up to similar antics. Instead of waiting for God to instruct us, we instruct Him. Instead of submitting to His Authority, we want Him to submit to us. Instead of aligning with His will for our lives, we try to coerce, nag, pressure, and bribe Him into doing what we want. We’re being great fools to act this way, because Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit do not take orders from us. Reverential submission is what They demand from us, and if we refuse to give it to Them, we’re going to be in for some very miserable surprises.