1. Now the ark of the LORD was in the country of the Philistines seven months.
So for seven months the Philistines try to keep the ark of the LORD, but they are plagued the whole time. As we said before, the Philistines were not ready to dwell in the presence of the holy God.
2. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, “What shall we do with the ark of the LORD? Tell us how we should send it to its place.”
At last, the Philistines realize that they are beaten. They have no choice but to send the ark of Jehovah back to Israel where it belongs. However, the question now arises how they are to do this. What if by sending it back in the wrong way they anger Jehovah even further? So they call for those they feel are expert at such things, their own priests and diviners, and ask them how they should go about doing this.
Now these priests and diviners were priests and diviners of the gods of the Philistines. They had not been raised to that position by Jehovah, nor did they have any special knowledge of Him any more than any of the other Philistines had. They knew the religion and ways of the imaginary gods of the nations, but they had no real knowledge of how to treat Jehovah. Nevertheless, the people of the Philistines looked upon these priests as having some special knowledge or connection to the ways of the gods that is beyond that of other men.
This is ever the way with men, who have a tendency to look upon those connected with religion with a kind of special awe they do not really deserve. Certainly this is true today, when men view anyone with a title of priest or pastor or any other thing connected with the Christian church as if he had a special connection to God that others do not have. They do not know nor have they absorbed the truth that there is but one Mediator today between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus (I Timothy 2:5.)
Yet the Philistines looked upon their priests as the experts in things related to the gods, and so they called upon them as men wise in such things. They might have known a little more about the Israelite worship than the common Philistine, since knowing such things would have been of more interest to them than to others, but they probably still did not know much.
3. So they said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty; but by all means return it to Him with a trespass offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why His hand is not removed from you.”
It seems to these priests that they should not just send the ark back, but should include a trespass offering to show they had done wrong. This was a good thought, and certainly we cannot fault them for it. Indeed, it fits fairly well with what God would have demanded in the law. Yet we can see that these priests were showing much more confidence in declaring how to go about this than they had any right to have. They were pretty much blue-skying it, but it was to their benefit to act like they knew what they were doing. They were like such men today, trying to justify their job.
4. Then they said, “What is the trespass offering which we shall return to Him?”
They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden rats, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines. For the same plague was on all of you and on your lords.
Now comes a question these priests certainly did not know the answer to. What would a proper trespass offering be? Of course, if we are conversant with the law, we would know that a trespass offering must be an animal sacrifice, for only by shedding of blood can a trespass be covered. Yet these priests had no idea of this, or of what Yahweh would want as a trespass offering. Therefore, they made something up. They suggest they represent their problem in gold. No doubt the heathen gods were often asking for sacrifices of money through their priests, for of course that money went into the priests’ coffers. Yet this is not the kind of trespass offering Yahweh would ask for. Yet these priests are just going with what they know.
So they suggest giving a golden example of the protrusions they were suffering from, as well as golden rats, which apparently were involved in spreading the plague, much like bubonic plague. They pick five of each to represent the five lords (and major cities) of the Philistines. Again, we can see these priests are making these things up, but they are doing it in a way that makes sense to them and their people. Of course, this is all they could do, having no real knowledge of Yahweh to go on.
5. Therefore you shall make images of your tumors and images of your rats that ravage the land, and you shall give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps He will lighten His hand from you, from your gods, and from your land.
So these will be golden images of their suffering, both from the protrusions and from the rats. They say they are ravaging the land, and a large number of rats would do more than just spread a plague. They would do much damage to property and to the crops as well. So this land was indeed in a sad condition due to the power of the LORD lying heavy upon them.
By making these imagines, the priests believe the Philistines will acknowledge that God is doing this, and give Him glory. Glory in this case means recognition. Recognition was always what the heathen gods were looking for, and it was thought they would be very angry if they did not get it. They think by this recognition to placate Him. Notice that they still think of Him as the God of Israel, not as the God of all. His heavy hand upon them could have taught them that they should worship Him as well, but this does not seem to have done so. Instead, they just view it as the God of Israel being hard on them and their own gods and their own land. Certainly they did not want their people losing confidence in their own gods, for they were the priests of these gods!
At least now these priests are less confident, hoping “perhaps” He will spare them. They must have known they did not really know if this would be what the LORD would want, and so want to cover themselves if this does not work.
6. Why then do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? When He did mighty things among them, did they not let the people go, that they might depart?
The priests cite the actions of the Egyptians against Jehovah and His people, and His mighty acts among them, and the precedent of what the Egyptians finally did, submitting to Jehovah and letting His people go. These events were over four hundred years before this, yet the tale of what God had done is remembered all this time later. Philistia was along the south western border of Israel between Israel and the Mediterranean Sea, whereas Egypt was south and west of Philistia along the southern coast of the Mediterranean. Therefore, since Egypt was a fairly near neighbor of theirs, it may be the Philistines were quite well acquainted with what went on in Egypt. Still, it is interesting to see that the mighty acts of God were long remembered by the people of that region. Not soon did they forget the power this great God showed in Egypt. He did indeed get glory to Himself by His great wonders done in Egypt!
7. Now therefore, make a new cart, take two milk cows which have never been yoked, and hitch the cows to the cart; and take their calves home, away from them.
The priests are still making things up. They decide the ark should be sent back to Israel on a new cart just made. They probably think a new cart will honor Yahweh more than an old one.
What they do next is more a clever way to determine the truth of the situation than it is a way to appease Yahweh. They do not quite want to admit even now that they are certain that it is Yahweh Who is doing these things to them. Therefore, they are plotting a way to determine whether or not all this calamity is really the fault of the ark at all. Therefore they set up a method for returning the ark that well end up in disaster if Yahweh does not act. What they suggest is first of all using cows that have never pulled a cart before. Typically this is something animals have to learn to be okay with, and is not something they do well the first time they are hooked up to one. Moreover, they are to use cows who have just had baby calves, shutting their calves back home away from them.
8. Then take the ark of the LORD and set it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you are returning to Him as a trespass offering in a chest by its side. Then send it away, and let it go.
Then they will set the ark of the LORD on the cart. By its side, they will put a chest with their offering of the golden images within it. Finally, they will send the cart on its way, and then just let it go, letting the cows do as they will.
9. And watch: if it goes up the road to its own territory, to Beth Shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we shall know that it is not His hand that struck us—it happened to us by chance.”
At this point, they will watch and see what the cows will do. Of course, the natural thing for the cows to do in such a case would be to go straight back to their baby calves, as any mother animal would do. If they instead go up the road to return to Israel, the Philistines will know that God is doing it, guiding the cart back to the land where He wants the ark to reside.
This is an interesting part of this story, for in it we see that ancient peoples were not just superstitious buffoons, as many today often think of them. They reasoned out this plan. They were going to see if maybe this plague was just a coincidence. They were not so gullible that this possibility never occurred to them.
Beth Shemesh means “House of the Sun,” and was a city on the border of Judah, Dan, and Philistia. Evidently, it was the first Israelite city the cows would come to if they took the road east to Israel.
10. Then the men did so; they took two milk cows and hitched them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home.
The Philistines take the advice of their priests and diviners and do all they said.
11. And they set the ark of the LORD on the cart, and the chest with the gold rats and the images of their tumors.
They include the offering the priests suggested.
12. Then the cows headed straight for the road to Beth Shemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right hand or the left. And the lords of the Philistines went after them to the border of Beth Shemesh.
The cows went straight as an arrow down the road to Beth Shemesh, headed to the land of Israel. They were complaining the whole way, lowing for their calves! Indeed, we might imagine that the Philistines had them pass right by the pen where their calves were, where they could hear the frantic bawling of their calves for their mothers, and yet the cows never turned aside. How could this be, when no one was leading the cart? Of course, the only answer must be that there was Someone leading the cart. God was leading these cows, guiding them back to Israel, and these cows had no choice but to follow the path Jehovah laid out for them.
So the cows bring the ark back to Israel. The Philistines follow to see what will happen, and to carry out their plan to make sure that their troubles were all caused by God, and were not just a coincidence. Their astonishment must have been great as they watched these cows pass bawling by their calves and go straight down the road, guided as by an invisible hand. There could have been no doubt in their minds at this point that their troubles had indeed been caused by the mighty hand of the One Whose ark they had imagined they had captured.
13. Now the people of Beth Shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it.
It so happened that the people of Beth Shemesh were all outside harvesting wheat. The time of harvest was a special time of year in an agrarian society like that of Israel. The livelihood of the town depended on the crops that came in, and so the time of harvest was a time in which all were concerned. When harvest time came, almost the whole town would turn out into the fields surrounding the town to help bring in the crops. Even those who were not normally farmers would come out into the fields to participate. It was almost a festival time, although the “festival” included a lot of hard work. So the ark happened to come back at the one time of the year when nearly every person in Beth Shemesh would be out of the town in the fields to see it.
Remember, Israel had been missing the ark for seven months. This was the symbol of God’s presence with them, and its absence must have weighed heavily on the heart of every true Israelite. This must have seemed like the ultimate humiliation to them, and the sign that their God had abandoned them. To see the ark rolling down the road on this cart coming back to them, then, must have been a very joyful sight to them indeed.
14. Then the cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and stood there; a large stone was there. So they split the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the LORD.
Jehovah leads the cart to the field of this man Joshua of Beth Shemesh. This was an interesting place for Him to bring it indeed, for we know that the name Joshua, which means “Jehovah is Salvation,” is the same name as “Jesus” of the Greek New Testament. In this man’s field, the cart rolls to a stop by a large stone. At last, the ark is back home in Israel!
The people of Beth Shemesh spring into action. They rightly decide to make an offering to Jehovah in honor of the victorious return of His ark. Unknown to them, the Philistines have provided the means for this. Though they did not realize it, they had provided a trespass offering to Jehovah, though it was not the golden statues they thought they were providing. Instead, it was the cows that pulled the cart. In fact, the Israelites break up the cart itself and use the wood of it to make the burnt offering.
15. The Levites took down the ark of the LORD and the chest that was with it, in which were the articles of gold, and put them on the large stone. Then the men of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices the same day to the LORD.
The town of Beth Shemesh, though it was on the border of Dan and Judah, was actually a Levite town. As we know, the Levites had no territory of their own, but had towns scattered among the other tribes of Israel. Therefore, there were plenty of Levites, the ones authorized to carry the ark, present, and so they take down the ark of Yahweh from the cart, along with the chest with the golden articles, and put them on the large stone. Then, they offer the sacrifices. They did not just offer the cows the Philistines sent, but also made burnt offerings and sacrifices of their own to Yahweh in thankfulness and recognition that His ark had blessed them by coming back to them this day. Remember, they did all this with Philistines lords watching! The Israelites certainly must have been able to see the Philistines, just as the Philistines were able to see them. Perhaps from this these Philistines learned something of the way Yahweh was truly to be worshipped.
16. So when the five lords of the Philistines had seen it, they returned to Ekron the same day.
The Philistines lords are now convinced that it was the LORD Who caused their problems, and that He is now satisfied. Therefore, they turn back into their own land, returning to Ekron, their nearest city. They have been humbled this day, not before the Israelites, though certainly they saw their humiliation, but before the LORD, Who had thoroughly defeated them. They had thought they could rejoice over the ark as a proof of the superiority of their gods. Instead, they learned a lesson about the superiority of the true God!
17. These are the golden tumors which the Philistines returned as a trespass offering to the LORD: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron;
Samuel reminds us that they offered one gold tumor for each of these major cities. We have seen Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron already. Gaza, or “Azzah,” as it appears in the Hebrew here, meant “Strong.” It was the southernmost one of the five great Philistine cities. Ashkelon was north of Gaza, and was a maritime city. Ashkelon might mean “The Fire of Infamy,” or “I Shall Be Weighed,” or perhaps “Migration.”
18. and the golden rats, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and country villages, even as far as the large stone of Abel on which they set the ark of the LORD, which stone remains to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.
Again we are reminded that the golden rats represented these fortified cities, along with the country villages or suburbs that surrounded them. The stone on which they set the ark and the chest with the golden images is called Abel, which means “Grassy Place.” It was still there when this was written many years later by Samuel, though of course there is no way to confirm if it is still there or not the many millenniums later that we are reading this record.
19. Then He struck the men of Beth Shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. He struck fifty thousand and seventy men of the people, and the people lamented because the LORD had struck the people with a great slaughter.
Now a tragedy occurs. The men of Beth Shemesh foolishly look into the ark. It is hard to say what their motivation was. Perhaps they thought they would see if the stone tables of the covenant were still inside. But probably curiosity was their primary motivation. They were thinking much like tourists. Tourists come to a place, and all they want to do is see things and stare at them. These things might be very great, or have been built lovingly by men over many decades or centuries of labor, and yet all the tourist really wants to do is to gawk at them for a few minutes and then move on. A tourist wants to see the sights, but has no real dedication to the things seen or appreciation of their value other than as a sight to see. This might be fine with the things of men, but this is not the way to honor the things of God. God’s things are holy, and are not there just to be stared at by men to satisfy their curiosity.
It is interesting that no such thing happened to the Philistines. It seems likely that they never dared to open the ark. The Philistines now knew better the holiness of the God Who identified Himself with this ark than the Israelites did! They dishonored God by peering into His ark, and they died for dishonoring Him this way.
50,070 is a far greater number than the entire population of the town of Beth Shemesh. When Hebrew was written in the ancient Phoenician alphabet, some numbers looked very similar. Therefore, some think this number may have been corrupted. There are many different suggestions in different versions. Some of them even remove the “fifty thousand” part, and read just “seventy.” However, a closer look at the Hebrew reveals what I believe to be the true solution to this problem. The Hebrew reads “seventy men two fifties and one thousand.” If we add these numbers, we get 70 + 50 + 50 + 1000 = 1170. This is a large number, but a much more reasonable one considering the size of this town.
This was certainly a sad end to their celebration of the return of the ark! Just as when the ark was taken in the first place, we see that the attitude of the sons of Israel toward God’s ark was not at all what it should have been.
20. And the men of Beth Shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God? And to whom shall it go up from us?”
Instead of learning to honor God from this, the men of Beth Shemesh are now afraid of Him. Perhaps we can’t blame them, considering the slaughter that had just taken place, and the grief they must have been going through at the loss of so many of their friends and relatives. At any rate, all they want now is for the ark to go somewhere else, as they are now afraid to have it among them any longer.
21. So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjath Jearim, saying, “The Philistines have brought back the ark of the LORD; come down and take it up with you.”
The men of Beth Shemesh now fear the ark of Jehovah, just like the Philistines did! Indeed, it has caused destruction among them because of their irreverence, just like it did in the land of the Philistines. Therefore, they send messengers to the nearby city of Kirjath Jearim. Kirjath means “City” and Jearim means “Forests,” so this was the “City of Forests.” It was on the northern border of Judah near southwest Benjamin, and was northeast of Beth Shemesh. Interestingly, this was sending it from a Levite city to a Judahite city! Since the Levites were the ones who were supposed to care for the ark, this was quite a thing for them to reject it in this way.
The messengers relay the message that the ark has been brought back to Israel by the Philistines, and urge the men of Kirjath Jearim to come and take it up with them back to their city. The city where it came from, Shiloh, no longer exists, so they must have figured that Kirjath Jearim was as good a place to store the ark as any.