1 Samuel 4:3–5, 10, 20–22; 5:1–4; 6:19–21comment (0)
June 10, 2010
By James Barnette
Related Scripture: 1 Samuel 4:3–5, 10, 20–22; 5:1–4; 6:19–21
Bible Studies for Life
Associate professor of religion, Department of Religion, Samford University
When Religion Fails
1 Samuel 4:3–5, 10, 20–22; 5:1–4; 6:19–21
The Philistines had migrated to the costal regions of southwest Israel during the 12th century B.C. and had become a serious threat to God’s people. The covenant people had experienced an initial loss to the Philistines and were facing a second defeat. The “elders” of Israel were a group of senior tribal leaders, 70 in number, who were entrusted with decisions. They proposed to bring the Ark of the Covenant to the battlefront. They believed that the Ark’s presence would deliver them and make them victorious. The Israelite army was so inspired that its roars of approval were heard two miles away at the Philistine camp.
Unfortunately the shouts of joy were premature. The Philistines handed Israel a staggering loss. To “flee to his own tent” is not simply to retreat but to abandon military service altogether. Defeat with the Ark was more devastating than defeat without the Ark. Even worse, for the first time in history, Israel’s most sacred material possession had been hauled away by a pagan people and housed in a pagan temple. Note the significance of “take” in this narrative. The Israelites “took” the Ark to the battlefield (1 Sam. 4:3), but it “was taken” by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:11, 17, 19, 21–22), who “took” it to their city (1 Sam. 5:1) but eventually “took” it back to Israel (1 Sam. 6:8). Both sides treated this sacred symbol without respect, as an instrument through which victory could be gained. Clearly Israel had lost its sense of God’s holiness.
On the same day that Eli, Hophni and Phinehas died, Phinehas’ wife went into premature labor and was overcome by labor pains. As she lay dying, her attendants attempted to cheer her over the birth of her son, which was the most honorable achievement that a woman of the ancient Near East could reach. In her despondency, she paid no attention.
As Hannah did, Phinehas’ wife named the boy, though the death of her husband forced her to do so. The contrast between these birth stories is striking and is revealed in the infant’s names. Samuel was named with gratitude and hope “because I requested him from the Lord,” while Ichabod was named with despair “for glory was exiled from Israel.” Here “glory” refers to God Himself.
The words of this unnamed woman suggest that God was not among the covenant people. On the contrary, Lord Yahweh planned to demonstrate His glory in the land of Philistia as the following chapters reveal.
Treating the Holy As Common
Ashdod was a major Philistine city in the promised land at this point in history. It was also the site of the most important worship center for the military god, Dagon, who was credited with the Philistines’ recent successes on the battlefield. To the Philistines, Dagon had proven his superiority over the Israelite God; hence the Ark was placed “beside Dagon” as a sign of defeat and submission.
The next morning, Dagon was found in a posture of reverence and servitude before the Ark. His “face” was “on the ground.” In his own dwelling, this god was no match for the true God before whom he lay prostrate. The following morning, Dagon was prostrate before the Ark, but this time, the pagan god’s head and hands were “broken off.” It was a common wartime practice to collect the heads or hands of the fallen enemies to demonstrate great victory. What a powerful sign of the Lord’s pre-eminence over an earthly idol.
According to the Torah, no Israelites outside the Aaronic priesthood were allowed to see even the exterior of the Ark. Even the Kohathites, who were commissioned to transport the Ark, were forbidden to touch or gaze upon it. The first duty of the Israelites would be to hide the Ark from view. However, some shameless inhabitants of Beth Shemesh did just the opposite. They displayed the Ark on a “large rock” and then even looked inside it. Such disregard for the sacred resulted in the death of many. There is no better way for people to place themselves in ultimate peril than through flippant attitudes and actions toward the Holy and Sovereign God.