Posts Tagged ‘Philistines’

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 5:1-6:11

We are in 1 Samuel 5:1-6:11 today. We have seen previously how the Philistines crushed the armies of Israel, even though they brought the ark of God to the battle. God wouldn’t help them due to their sin and unfaithfulness.

God’s purpose is to work through his people. Leviticus 10:3 states this principle – “through those who are near me I will show myself holy and before all the people I will be glorified.” But if those near him, the Israelites, are unfaithful, so that God can’t bless them, and they are defeated and the ark is captured – it looks like God is not the true God. That’s certainly the message the Philistines took from this.

But in our story today we are powerfully reminded that God is still God, even when his people’s unfaithfulness makes it look otherwise. In a case like this God, or to use his proper name – Yahweh – has to take matters into his own hands. He has to act for his own name and glory.

And this is just what he does –

God wins a great victory over the Philistines

We begin with the defeat of Dagon, god of the Philistines

5:1When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod.

 Ashdod was about 30 miles southwest of Aphek/Ebenezer where the battle took place.

2Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon.

Dagon was the chief god of the Philistines (Judges 16:23-24; 1 Chronicles 10:10). Some think he was the god of grain.

The idea is that Dagon defeated Yahweh, so the ark is brought into his temple as a spoil of war to honor or even serve Dagon,  which, of course, is blasphemous.

3And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.

The statue of Dagon is on its face before the ark in a pose of submission, honor and worship to Yahweh. And the Philistines pathetically have to put him back on his idol stand. Some powerful god, right? Well, it gets worse.

4But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.

Again, he is on his face (stomach) before Yahweh, but this time his head and hands are cut off indicating that Yahweh has killed him in his own temple. That his hands and head are on the threshold might indicate that Dagon was trying to flee from Yahweh out the door!(These two defeats of Dagon may mirror the two times that the Philistines defeated Israel – 4:1-10. Klein)

5This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.

Since Dagon’s head and hands touched the threshold the priests no longer walked on it, thus preserving the memory of Yahweh’s victory “to this day.”

Having defeated Dagon, cutting off his hands – now the hand of Yahweh turns to the Philistines who have dishonored him. God’s hand is mentioned 7 x in these verses.

God punishes the people, cities and lords of the Philistines

6The hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. 7And when the men of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.” 8So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?”

God afflicts them with tumors, or it could mean boils. This recalls the plagues that God sent on the Egyptians. As we will see below, God also sent a plague of rodents (6:4). It’s so bad that Ashdod wants nothing more to do with the ark.

They answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.” So they brought the ark of the God of Israel there. 9But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them.

10So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. But as soon as the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people.”

Can you imagine? “Hey, we didn’t want this! What are you doing? Are you trying to get rid of us?”

11They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there. 12The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.

All this didn’t just happen to these three cities. As we learn below, all the cities and territories of the Philistines were affected (6:4; 17).

The story goes on to show how God is honored by the priests and diviners of the Philistines

6:1The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us with what we shall send it to its place.”

It’s not a question of if they send it back, but how.

God’s victory is complete. They know that Dagon is defeated because of what happened in his temple and that he can’t protect them from the plagues. And in humiliation they only seek to get rid of their suffering by sending the ark away.

The priests and diviners were so-called pagan experts in things supernatural and divine. So the thinking is, they should know what to do and how to send the ark back in an appropriate way.

3They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why his hand does not turn away from you.” 4And they said, “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to him?” They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for the same plague was on all of you and on your lords. 5So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land . . .

They have dishonored God and so now they need to make amends, and they do this by giving gifts of gold. The idea is that these images of their miseries – rodents and tumors – represent their plagues. And if they send these representations away with the ark their miseries will go away too. God will be appeased.

So they are to give these gifts –

. . . and give glory to the God of Israel.

 Yahweh has totally defeated them. Dagon bowed before the ark and now the Philistines give honor to Yahweh.

Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land. 6Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed?

Perhaps by sending these gifts and honoring him, God will have mercy. They appeal to the example of the Egyptians at the Exodus. Don’t be dumb!The Egyptians were stubborn and that only served to increase their suffering. The result was the same, so get rid of the ark quickly!

7Now then, take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. 8And take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off and let it go its way 9and watch. If it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence.”

Back to the question of how to properly send the ark away. In addition to guilt offerings, they are to use two milk cows to send it away.

And then, there is a test, just to make sure their misery is from Yahweh. They are hoping against hope that they can say that Yahweh didn’t do this to them, so they stack the deck. If the cart makes it to Beth-shemesh, an Israelite town, then Yahweh did do all this. But the cows have never carried a load or worked as a team, and no one is leading them. And their calves are back in the barn and so their instinct would be to go to them.

10The men did so, and took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart and shut up their calves at home. 11And they put the ark of the Lord on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors.

As we will see next time, the cows did indeed go straight to Beth-shemesh, turning neither to the left or to the right.

What do we learn from this very interesting story?

1. Yahweh is the true God

  • Even though the Israelite armies were decisively defeated, God is still God – the only true and living God.
  • And even though the ark of God was captured, God is still reigning, even over Israel’s enemies.
  • And even though the Philistines thought that their god had prevailed, God revealed his awesome power to them.

This story clearly teaches us that there is only one true God. And that God is Yahweh, and he is all powerful. And this should  lead us to acknowledge this, be in awe of God and worship him.

2. We need to align ourselves with God so he can work through us, not in spite of us

As we saw, it is God’s purpose to work through his people to accomplish his purposes in this world; to show the world who he is; his glory. But Israel was unfaithful. And so instead of being used they are judged and bring dishonor to God.

And when we are unfaithful, we also are judged and bring dishonor to God. We too fail to fulfill our purpose as God’s people; to make him known in all his glory. Unlike the Israelites of this time, we should give God our faithful obedience. In this way, God doesn’t have to work despite us, taking things into his own hands, but he can work through us to bring glory to his name. And then we will be blessed as we fulfill God’s purpose for our lives.


[Note: There is a strong exodus theme in these verses with the ark standing in for Israel:

  1. The ark is captured – enslaved/ Israel was enslaved.
  2. God overcomes Dagon – 1 Samuel 5:1-4/ God judges the gods of the Egyptians – Exodus 12:12
  3. Plagues on the people – 1 Samuel 4:8/ Exodus 3:19-20
  4. The rodents “destroyed” the land – 1 Samuel 6:5/ The destroyer – Exodus 12:23.
  5. The ark is sent away – 1 Samuel 6:6, 10-11/ Israel is sent out of Egypt – Exodus 12:33.
  6. It is sent away with gold – 1 Samuel 6:10-11/ Israel is sent away with silver and gold jewelry – Exodus 12:35-36
  7. God gained glory over the Philistines – 1 Samuel 6:5/ God gained glory over the Egyptians – Exodus 14:4, 17.]


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The literary structure of 1 Samuel 4:1b-10

This morning we are back into our series on 1 Samuel. And today we begin a sequence of four stories that focus on the ark of the covenant, and which don’t even mention Samuel. These stories show Israel’s sad state at this time and God’s judgment on their unfaithfulness. And they also tell how Israel came to a place of repentance that sets up the narration of Samuel’s ministry in chapter 7 and beyond.

Our story today is about a battle between Israel and the Philistines, starting in the last half of v. 1 of chapter 4.

Israel is defeated

1bNow Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle.

The Philistines were settled along the coast in five key cities. They were the archenemies of Israel at this time and were dominating them militarily (some of the Israelites were forced into servitude – 4:9). The battle took place in Aphek about 20 miles north of Philistine territory and about 20 miles west of Shiloh (where the tabernacle/temple was). Israel was encamped at Ebenezer, probably just East of Aphek. Israel suffered a great loss.

3And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?”

When ancient peoples fought, as they saw it, it really involved a fight between the God or gods of the two nations. And so if you lost it meant that your god was defeated, or perhaps it would be interpreted that your god was unhappy with you. And this was certainly the case for Israel’s God, Yahweh – the only true God. The Lord God is all powerful, so he must have allowed this, as the Elders surmised.

So the Elders of Israel come up with a plan.

“Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.

(One is justified in wondering why the Elders didn’t consult Samuel.) The ark of the covenant looked something like this.

ark of the covenantIt was approximately 4x2x2 in size and covered in gold. (Exodus 25:10-22). On the top were two cherubim; angel-like creatures. It served as the visible throne of Israel’s invisible God. He sat, as it were, above the cherubim. As v. 4 says, the Lord, “who is enthroned on the cherubim.” (Also, Jeremiah 316-17; Isaiah 37:16; Psalm 99:1-3) In other places it is also called God’s footstool, which is also throne language (1 Chronicles 28:2; Psalm 99:5; 132:7).

Now it wasn’t necessarily wrong to bring the ark. The ark was used in battle, for instance when Israel defeated the city of Jericho (Joshua 6). And the title for God here, “Lord of hosts,” refers to God as the leader of his armies, both human and angelic.

The problem is that the diagnosis of their defeat is too shallow. In truth God allowed them to be defeated because of their unfaithfulness – which is highlighted here by the mention of “the sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas.” As we have already seen these two sons of Eli the high priest were publicly known, flagrant sinners. And Eli did not stop them from being priests while they broke God’s law.

The proper course of action would have been to seek the Lord and to repent of their sins, thus restoring God’s blessing to their lives. But they didn’t think the problem was with them. They just thought that if the ark came, God would come and help them. As v. 4 says,  “that it (the ark) may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”

The story goes on,

5As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded (or shook).

Israel has new morale and boldness, because they think that God is now with them. [The shout here and the movement of the earth echoes the story of Jericho – Joshua 6:6-21].

6And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?”

You can feel their concern rising. And they must have sent some people to check out what was going on, because next it says,

And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness.

Here their fears are on open displayThey don’t quite get the details right – they talk about Israel’s gods and think the plagues took place in the wilderness, but they have heard of how Yahweh’s power struck the Egyptians. And now here is the visible presence of Yahweh, his throne, in the Israelite camp, which must have been quite unusual for the Israelites to do, at least with the Philistines, since they say, “nothing like this has happened before” – v. 7.

They can only say, “Woe to us, woe to us.” This is certainly what the Elders of Israel had wanted, to put fear into their enemies. But then something suddenly changes, because they don’t stay afraid.

9Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”

After having said “Woe to us” twice, here they rally and call each other to “be men” twice. Instead of giving up, they decide that they need to fight harder than they ever have to overcome such a powerful foe, so that they don’t become the slaves of the Israelites.

And then the story ends,

10So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell.

Even though they brought the ark, the Israelites suffered a much worse defeat, more than seven times the losses.

Israel’s problem

The title today is “The futility of lucky charm religion” A lucky charm is something that you think has power to protect you and give you success. In Israel’s time of difficulty – a military defeat – instead of coming to God and repenting and moving into faithfulness, they treated the ark of the covenant as a lucky charm; as an object that would bring God’s power to protect them and give them success. Instead of right relationship with God, they went with a mere object that represents God to bring them the help they needed.

I say “The futility of lucky charm religion,” because we see the results of this – their defeat was increased over seven-fold. 

This just isn’t how a relationship with God works. God and the things of God are not magical. God can’t be manipulated by us. It is God who is important above all else, including the ark that represents him. And right relationship with God is important above all else – and not other things that represent God to us.

Well, there is –

A challenge for us

– in this story. Sometimes we act just like these ancient Israelites. We are not walking in right relationship with God; we are unfaithful to God. And when God disciplines us with hard times for this – instead of dealing with the real issue – our unfaithfulness (hey, the problem can’t be with me!), we look to things that are connected to God and think that these will guarantee that God will take care of us.

  • Perhaps coming to church is a lucky charm for some. You are walking sin, but think, “If I go to church I believe God will take care of me.” Well, going to church is great. But it can’t take the place of repentance and walking in a right relationship with God.
  • Perhaps it’s calling yourself a Christian. You are unfaithful to God, maybe you don’t even have a relationship with God, but you think, “If I identify as a Christian God will take care of me.” Identifying as a Christian is wonderful. But it can’t take the place of having a right relationship with God. Calling yourself a Christian is not a substitute for actually being a real, faithful Christian.
  • Maybe it’s wearing a cross or having a cross or a crucifix on your wall. There is nothing wrong with this. But jewelry or artwork that represents God will not save you in the day of trouble. Only being in a right relationship with God can do this.
  • Maybe it’s your connection to a godly person. You know that you are not walking with God, but if you know someone or have a family member who is godly you think, “God will take care of me too.”

None of these things are wrong, just as it wasn’t wrong to bring the ark. They are wrong only when we make them substitutes for dealing with the core issue of our sin and unfaithfulness. And given our undealt with unfaithfulness, we turn these things into lucky charms which can’t protect us and take care of us.

No, God is patiently waiting for you to turn from your unfaithfulness and come into a right relationship with him through confession of you sins, repentance and finding forgiveness. And then God will make his power and love known to help you and take care of you.

[This is also the message of Jeremiah in chapter 7 to a later generation of Israelites, who thought that God would not judge their sin because they had the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Jeremiah refers back to this episode in 1 Samuel. That’s because, as we will see next time, the tabernacle/temple at Shiloh was destroyed, even as the ark was captured by the Philistines. God brings judgment, not salvation when we turn his things into lucky charms.]

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