Tuesday, August 19, 2008

I Samuel 6–7:1

I Samuel 6–7:1: The Ark is returned to the Israelites

Synopsis

In the last passage, we saw how the Philistines were suffering because of the Ark. After seven months of this, it’s finally too much for them; they need to get rid of it. But they’ve learned to respect this god, somewhat, so they decide to call together their “priests and diviners” (verse 6:2), and ask them how to do it properly.

Here is the advice they get from the priests and diviners:
  • First of all, they shouldn’t send the Ark back empty. It needs to be accompanied by a guilt offering.
  • The offering to be sent is a set of golden tumours and rats, representing the plague the LORD has sent against them. (The previous chapter didn’t mention rats, but they’re mentioned here, so I assume that God sent rats to the Philistines, in addition to the tumours and death.)
  • Because the plague from God has struck not only the Philistine people, but also the leaders, it is decided to send one gold tumour and one gold rat for each Philistine leader, meaning five of each.
  • They are to put the Ark, and the golden tumours and rats, onto a cart, and yoke two cows to it. (Two cows that have given birth, but that have never been yoked before.) They are then to set the cows loose, without any guidance, and watch them.
    • If the cows head back to Israel, then the Philistines will know that it really was the LORD that had afflicted them.
    • On the other hand, if they don’t, then the Philistines will know that it wasn’t the LORD; that it was just chance.
In addition to these instructions, the priests and diviners also say something very interesting to the Philistine leaders:

Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When he treated them harshly, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way? (verse 6:6)

They almost sound like prophets of the LORD—except that this one verse is the only part that’s really true, in this way.

Anyway, having been given their instructions, the Philistines follow them, and then watch to see what the cows do. And the cows head straight for Beth Shemesh (which I assume is an Israelite town), without turning to the right or left. (Verse 6:12 tells us that they “low”—that is, moo—all the way, but I don’t know if that’s significant.)

When the Ark gets to Beth Shemesh, the people see it and rejoice. The cows come to a field belonging to Joshua, and stop beside a large rock. (I don’t know if this is the guy from the book of Joshua—meaning a field belonging to his descendent—or if it’s some other guy named Joshua.) The Levites put the Ark on the rock—along with the chest containing the gold rats and tumours—and the people chop up the cart, and sacrifice the cows as a burnt offering. The Philistine rulers, who have been watching, see all of this, and return home.

However, it’s not a completely happy ending. Seventy of the people of Beth Shemesh look in the Ark, which is forbidden, and God puts them to death as punishment. So the people of Beth Shemesh mourn, and ask themselves what they are to do, and to whom the Ark can be sent. They decide to send it to Kiriath Jearim, where it is put in the house of someone named Abinadab. A man named Eleazar is consecrated to guard it.

Thoughts

This passage is a fascinating look into how pagans of the day viewed religion. If a particular god is angry, you need to find out why that god is angry, and appease him. In this case, they decide to make offerings to that god, in the form of golden idols, made to represent the plagues he has sent. I also find it humourous that the priests and diviners speak with such authority; they know nothing about the true LORD, and what He requires. (They remind me of modern-day pundits; under the right circumstances, if you call yourself an expert, people will regard you as an expert.)

It’s also interesting that people still remember what the LORD did for the Israelites in Egypt. The full story hasn’t been shared—they don’t know all the details about what He has done for them, and I’m sure they haven’t read the book of Exodus and gotten all of the details—but they do know that this is a powerful god they’re dealing with, that Egypt wasn’t able to defeat.

Notice that the people of Beth Shemesh kind of miss the point, when the seventy people are killed for looking in the Ark. They suddenly treat the Ark like it’s some kind of radioactive item—they need to get rid of it! But if they would simply follow the LORD’s commands, it wouldn’t be dangerous. You’re not supposed to look in the Ark, so don’t look in the Ark. Sometimes the Israelites seem to be as superstitious about the Ark as the Philistines are. It’s not magic; it’s a representation of the Presence of the LORD. The Ark didn’t kill those seventy people, God did.

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