I Samuel 6: The Philistines Return the Ark

When we left the Philistines in I Samuel 5, they were experiencing great consequences from having taken the ark. Here in chapter 6, they have had enough. After seven months of death, tumors, and evidently rats, the Philistines ask their priests and diviners, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it to its place.”

One might understand how the heathen and errant Philistines seek guidance from their spiritual leaders on how best to dispense with the ark. Just returning it the way they had captured it was not enough for the diviners and priests; they advised some special conditions for return:

  • Include with the ark a trespass offering of five golden tumors and five golden rats
    • The five represents the pentapolis, or the five large cities making up Philistia; the tumors and rats represented the separate calamities
  • Place the ark on a new cart with the trespass offering beside it
  • Have the new cart pulled by two milk cows that have never been yoked
    • Hide the cows’ calves away (presumably to increase the cows’ focus)
  • Sending the cart away:
    • If it goes towards Beth Shemesh (nearby Israelite territory), it proves that God was creating the calamities
    • If it goes elsewhere, the calamities were due to chance

The degree of difference that these manmade provisions made to God is not clear. One could conclude that God preferred the fearful hearts and minds of the Philistines over the trespass offering, but there is nothing in the text to support this.

A surprising aspect of the guidance of the Philistine priests and diviners is that they allow for a scenario where the calamities of death, tumors, and rats were not due to the Philistines having stolen the ark. It would be difficult to think that these were chance occurrences, considering that the calamities followed the ark from Philistine city to Philistine city. They certainly believed that the “Israelite God” was capable of retaliation and judgment, because they said as much to the Philistine leaders in verse 6: “Why then do you harden your hearts s the Egyptians and Pharaohs hardened their hearts? When He did mighty things among them, did they not let the people go, that they might depart?”

The Philistines, as a polytheistic culture, might struggle with knowing how to ascribe certain actions to members of the pantheon. Still, we might think deeper about why the Philistine diviners and priests would not automatically assume that the calamities were the work of God. After all, the regular people and leaders of Philistia seemed convinced that God was bringing the tumors, death, and rats because they stole the ark. Perhaps, not unlike some of the complicated takes we get on simple things from so-called “experts” in the modern age, the Philistine priests and diviners felt the need to justify their existence and their “divine knowledge” by delivering a solution with complex provisions.

The chapter concludes with the cows returning the ark with the trespass offering of golden tumors and rats directly to Beth Shemesh. When it arrives, the Israelites rejoice. They use the wagon as fuel for a fire on which to offer the cows sacrifices to God. But, many of the Israelites were killed by God because they opened and looked into the ark of the Lord. This was forbidden (Numbers 4:20, Exodus 19:21). The men at Beth Shemesh were so greatly upset by the deaths that they sent for men to come from Kirjath Jearim to remove the ark (it was about ten miles west of Jerusalem).

The lesson for I Samuel 6 is that God’s commandments apply to everyone, and they apply regardless of the offender’s knowledge of the statute. Seem unfair? Perhaps, but in the face of divine power, would not the wise man make it his responsibility to acquaint himself with the ways, wonders, laws, and statutes of Almighty God?

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