An angel had told Eli, the high priest of Israel, that he and his two sons would soon lose their lives. All three of them had knowingly failed to conduct themselves as proper servants in God’s service (I Sam. 2:27-36; I Sam. 3:11-14).
The prediction came true when Eli’s two sons were killed by Philistine soldiers. Eli fell and broke his neck just a few hours later (I Sam. 4:10-18). God had warned Eli and the people “reverence my sanctuary” (Lev. 26:2). He had warned them that only authorized persons should touch the ark (Num. 4:15). That it should not even be looked upon except when authorized (Lev. 16:2).
To add to the family tragedy, the wife of Phinehas, one of the two slain sons of Eli, was about to give birth to a baby. Then she heard of the death of her husband and father-in-law and about the capture of the ark, which the priests had removed from God’s sanctuary. She was so shocked and troubled that she died shortly after her son was born. Just before she died, she gave her son the name of Ichabod, which was meant to refer to the wretched state into which Israel had fallen (I Sam. 4:19-22).
While this was going on at Shiloh, the Philistine army was triumphantly marching into Ashdod, one of the chief cities near the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Ashdod was one of the places where there was a temple containing a statue of one of their main gods, Dagon. The ark was placed in front of the idol to defy the ark or whatever might be in it to try to prevent Dagon from continuing to tower over the ark (I Sam. 5:1-2).
Next morning the priests of the temple got up earlier than usual to gloat over the sight of the sacred treasure of Israel reclining as a sort of gratitude offering before their god. They froze in fearful amazement when they entered the main room.
Some time during the night the statue of Dagon had toppled to the floor in front of the ark (I Sam. 5:3)!
In the next few hours there was feverish activity within the temple. The people of Ashdod weren’t allowed inside or to learn what had happened. Workmen who struggled with ropes, pulleys and pry poles to haul the idol back into place were threatened and warned – and sworn to secrecy.
It was an awkward day for the Philistine priests, who tried to convince themselves that their idol had been erected off balance, and that a slight earthquake during the night was just enough to cause it to topple. Late that afternoon the statue was hoisted back into place in time for the public to come into the temple to worship that day.
Next morning there was still a greater shock for the priests. They arrived to discover that the statue of Dagon was again on the floor. This time it was mysteriously broken off at the base part, which remained where it was. The arms and head were sheared off and scattered in pieces across the threshold of the temple.
This time the fear and consternation of the priests couldn’t be hidden. Within hours it was known all through Philistia that the God of Israel had struck down the statue of Dagon in Ashdod. The disgrace was so great in the minds of the Philistines that the leaders decreed that no one should put foot on the threshold of any temple containing a statue of Dagon because of what had happened ( I Sam. 5:4-5)!
The destruction of an idol was embarrassing and unpleasant for the Philistines. But God didn’t stop there in dealing with them. He brought misery to the people of Ashdod and those who lived for miles around. Overnight they became afflicted with bleeding ulcers, painful to such a degree that they couldn’t’ even sit down without great distress. The superstitious Philistines were right in their guess that this trouble had come on them because of their treatment of the ark (I Sam. 5:6-7). Leaders met to decide what to do to try to escape the plague that had come to upon their people.
“If giving that box back to the Israelites will relieve us of this miserable condition I’m for sending it to Shiloh right away!” the ruler of Ashdod declared. There was a chorus of disagreement.
“The capture of the ark of Israel was a great triumph for our armies!” the ruler of the Philistine city of Gath exclaimed heatedly. “Without it, Israel will soon tumble, but you want to give it back! I say no!”
“You wouldn’t say that if you were in my condition!” Ashdod’s ruler retorted, grimacing with discomfort. “If you think that fancy box should remain in our nation, take it to your city and see what happens!”
There was a chorus of approval. None of the rulers of the other cities of Philistia wanted to be responsible for keeping the ark.The ruler of Gath realized that he had spoken with too much haste. He had no choice but to agree that the ark should be transported at once to his city.
This time it wasn’t put in the same room with an idol, but it was only a matter of hours before the people of Gath, several miles southeast of Ashdod, began to feel the pain of the same kind of plague that had come to Ashdod. Within a few days it had spread to every Philistine family in and around the city. Some, as in Ashdod, were so painfully afflicted that they died (I Sam. 5:8-9).
The people of Gath pleaded that the ark be sent elsewhere. Through various pressures and arguments, the ark was moved to Ekron, a main Philistine city about fifteen miles northeast of Gath. Almost as soon as the ark arrived there, the people of Ekron were struck by the same ulcerous condition that had come to the people of Ashdod and Gath (I Sam. 5:10-12).
At the same time the area was visited with hordes of mice that seemed to come out of nowhere to overrun fields, barns, homes, streets and public buildings. All this was too much for the inhabitants of Ekron, who begged the rulers of the leading cities to meet in Ekron and consider moving the ark elsewhere.
“We have had enough!” the ruler of Ekron complained to his fellow leaders when they met. “Our people are suffering terribly. Many of them are dying. If the ark isn’t taken away soon from here, we’ll all be dead. Your people in Ashdod and Gath are recovering, and we want the same opportunity.
“But there is no real proof that the Israelite box is causing your trouble,” one of the leaders observed who hadn’t yet kept the ark in his city, and wasn’t in favor of giving it back to Israel. “Before we make any rash move, let us send for our chief priests and seers and ask for their advice on this matter.”
Most of those present agreed on this proposal, inasmuch as most Philistines believed that their priests, magicians, seers and astrologers had unusual wisdom. After a meeting of those revered men, a spokesman made their opinions known.
“Probably it would be wise to return the ark to the Israelites,” he declared. “It shouldn’t be returned without a trespass offering, however. If the Israelite God is actually punishing us because we have this box, we should at least try to make amends by doing something that might please Him.”
“What should this trespass offering be?” the Philistine rulers asked.
“Because Philistia is divided into the leadership of five main cities,” the spokesman explained, “it would be fitting to send an equal number of costly images of the things that have plagued us. If we return the ark to the Israelites, we should send along golden images of five mice. As you know, it is our custom to appease our own gods by making images of things that have brought trouble to us. Therefore we should even make five images of the type of sores that has come to Philistia. They should also be make of gold and include with the five images of mice. It would be well to remember the tales that have been handed down about how the God of Israel dealt with the Egyptians when they held the Israelites against their will. (Ex., chapters 7-12.) To make a further effort to avoid such curses, the ark should be returned in a fine, newly built cart drawn by untrained cows whose calves have been taken so far away from them that they won’t be turned aside because of sensing them in any direction. The animals should then be sent off with what they had to pull. This way we can test the God of Israel and see if He is the One who brought our troubles upon us. If the cows take the cart to Bethshemesh, it will be a sign to show us whether the God of Israel is powerful enough to work miracles. But if the cows choose to haul the ark in any direction they choose except that of the Danite village of Beth-shemeh, then we will know that it was only by chance or by natural conditions that the sores and mice have come to Philistia” (I Sam. 6:1-9).
Fantastic and even droll as this plan might seem, the Philistine leaders took it quite seriously. They believed in the ideas of their priests and seers.
The suggestions were carried out as soon as possible. The cart and golden images were made and the images were put into a coffer, or box. The ark and the box containing the golden images were loaded onto the cart. Two cows with calves were brought to hitch to the ark, and the calves were taken to the opposite side of the city of Ekron (I Sam. 6:10-11).
As soon as the cows were harnessed to the cart, everyone stood back to see what would happen. A few moments passed. Then the cows suddenly set out together to harmoniously pull the cart as though they had been trained all their lives as a pair to do just that.
The Philistine rulers and others present stared in amazement, but not just because the two cows had agreed on how to pull the cart. The astonishing thing was that the animals had chosen to go directly to the road that led to Beth-shemesh! This was the sign that was supposed to prove to the Philistines that the ark was the source of their trouble.
“This means that the God of Israel has been dealing with us because of our capturing the box!” one Philistine ruler exclaimed.
“I’m not convinced yet,” another observed. “The animals are starting out in that direction, but they could turn at any moment and go elsewhere. I’m in favor of following them to see what they’ll do.”
The others agreed. It was an odd sight – two cows lowing for their calves as they pulled the new cart along, and the five Philistine rulers and their aides and advisors following curiously on their various mounts.
The animals didn’t turn to the right or left from the road that led into Beth-shemesh about twelve miles southeast of Ekron. Some Israelite harvesters just outside the village caught sight of the unattended cows pulling the cart, just as they reached the field of a man named Joshua, but not the Joshua who had many years before led Israel across the Jordan river (Joshua 3:9-17). They ran to the road, stopped the animals and swarmed around the cart to see what it contained. (I Sam. 6:12-13).
When the Philistines saw this, they turned off the road and watched, unnoticed, from a nearby grove of trees. They saw the Israelites rip off the top of the box containing the golden idols, then move around excitedly when they discovered what was inside.
Many of the harvesters ran to the nearby villages to tell others that the ark had been found. It resulted in every inhabitant of that area rushing forth to see for himself. The cows and cart were taken off the road and into a nearby field. From there they were guided up a large, rocky mound that jutted up through the field.
“God has chosen the people of our village to find the ark!” a leading citizen loudly proclaimed. Let us show our devotion to our God by sacrificing these two cows!”
There was a chorus of agreeing shouts. The animals were immediately slaughtered and dressed by the villages’ Levites. The wooden cart was broken up and set ablaze under the carcasses. While thousands of the people watched with rapt attention, other thousands inspected the old trespass offerings sent by the Philistine rulers.
Unfortunately, there were many who examined and handled the ark without proper reverence for God, even to the extent of lifting the lid and peering inside. Obviously they weren’t aware of or hadn’t remembered what had happened to certain other people who had touched the ark.The ark represented God’s throne. Such crass disrespect was bound to bring an awful penalty.
These things were witnessed by the Philistines. They at last had seen enough to convince them that they had blundered in taking the ark away from the Israelites and holding it in Philistia for seven months. They returned that same day to their country to commend their priests and diviners for giving them proper advice concerning the ark.The rulers could never know that the God of Israel had caused matters to work out as they did, even to the extent of working through the so-called wise men of Philistia (I Sam. 6:14-18).
Following the departure of the Philistines, a “great slaughter” fell on the village of Beth-shemesh and on all the country around. Fifty thousand and seventy men suddenly were seized with a strange, painful condition that brought death to all upon whom it came (I Sam. 6:19).These were the thousands who had treated the ark irreverently. Not even the Philistines had done so to it! The Israelites should have known better, what with a part of them being Levites instructed in the respect of the ark.
Thousands quickly milled around Samuel’s quarters, and thousands of voices joined in a thunderous plea for help from Samuel, at last the Israelites realized only God could help them.
“Ask God to save us from the Philistines!” they shouted (I Sam. 7:7-8).
Be watching for our next installment of The Story of the Bible. Will God save Israel?