1 Samuel 6 Commentary: The Return of the Ark

1 Samuel 6 Commentary

1 Samuel 6 tells the captivating story of the Ark of the Covenant’s journey back to Israel. After capturing the Ark, the Philistines face divine retribution and decide to return it.

The chapter reveals their unique method to test if their afflictions were indeed from the God of Israel. As the Ark enters Beth Shemesh, the Israelites’ reaction mixes joy with fear, leading to a significant turn of events.

This narrative not only reflects the cultural and religious dynamics of the time but also illustrates the reverence and fear associated with the divine presence.

1 Samuel 6:1-5, The Philistines’ Plan to Return the Ark

The Ark of the Covenant, a sacred object for the Israelites, had been in Philistine possession for seven months. Recognizing its significance and the misfortunes that befell them since its capture, the Philistines sought a way to return it to Israel.

The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. And 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.”

1 Samuel 6:1-2, ESV

Seeking guidance, they turned to their priests and diviners. These religious leaders understood the seriousness of keeping the Ark and advised making a trespass offering to appease the God of Israel.

This act reveals the Philistines’ recognition of a power greater than their gods and their attempt to remedy their offense.

They 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.” And 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. So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel. Perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land.

1 Samuel 6:3-5, ESV

Their decision to send golden replicas of the tumors and mice that plagued them signifies a customary ancient practice of offering symbolic representations of ailments as a plea for healing or forgiveness, suggesting their acknowledgement of the plagues as divine retribution.

1 Samuel 6:6-12, The Test with the Cows and the Cart

The Philistines, remembering the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Egypt and its disastrous consequences, decided not to repeat the same mistake. They chose to discern the will of the God of Israel through a test involving cows and a cart.

Why 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?

1 Samuel 6:6, ESV

They took two milking cows that had never been yoked and placed the Ark on a new cart, watching to see if the cows would head towards Beth Shemesh, an Israelite town. If the cows went straight there, it would confirm that the Lord had brought the calamities upon them.

Now 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. And 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 and 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.”

1 Samuel 6:7-9, ESV

Remarkably, the cows, despite their natural instinct to return to their calves, headed straight to Beth Shemesh. This extraordinary behavior served as a clear sign to the Philistines that their sufferings were indeed the result of divine intervention, not mere coincidence.

The men did so, and took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart and shut up their calves at home. And they put the ark of the Lord on the cart and the box with the golden mice and the images of their tumors. And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.

1 Samuel 6:10-12, ESV

1 Samuel 6:13-16, The Ark Arrives in Beth Shemesh

The arrival of the Ark in Beth Shemesh was an extraordinary event. The Israelites, harvesting their wheat, were astonished to see the cart with the Ark and the offerings. This arrival signified not just the return of a sacred object but also a divine affirmation for the people.

Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there. And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord.

1 Samuel 6:13-14, ESV

Their response was immediate: they offered sacrifices right there, using the wood of the cart and the cows as burnt offerings. This spontaneous act of worship underscores their reverence and gratitude towards God for the return of the Ark.

And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the Lord. And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron.

1 Samuel 6:15-16, ESV

The Levites, tasked with handling the Ark, took charge of it, while the Philistine lords, having witnessed these events, returned to their own territory. This moment marked a significant religious and cultural exchange, highlighting the power and reach of Israel’s God even among other nations.

1 Samuel 6:17-18, The Philistines’ Offering for Trespass

In addition to returning the Ark, the Philistines made trespass offerings to the Lord. The golden objects sent as offerings represented each of the Philistine rulers and their cities, acknowledging their collective responsibility and plea for forgiveness.

These are the golden tumors that the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron, and the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages. The great stone beside which they set down the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.

1 Samuel 6:17-18, ESV

This act of offering presents a profound moment of cross-cultural acknowledgment of a foreign deity’s power. It indicates a level of respect and fear of the God of Israel, rare in the ancient Near East’s religious landscape, where gods were typically seen as territorially bound.

1 Samuel 6:19-21, The People of Beth Shemesh Struck and the Ark Sent to Kiriath Jearim

Despite the joyous return of the Ark, not all went well in Beth Shemesh. Some inhabitants looked into the Ark, an act considered disrespectful and a violation of divine command, leading to a heavy toll on the people.

And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow.

1 Samuel 6:19, ESV

The severity of this punishment serves as a stark reminder of the holiness and reverence required in the presence of God’s sacred objects and illustrates that familiarity with the divine does not permit casualness or disrespect.

Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?” So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to you.”

1 Samuel 6:20-21, ESV

Fearing further repercussions, the people of Beth Shemesh sent messengers to Kiriath Jearim, asking them to take the Ark. This transfer shows the mixed feelings of reverence, fear, and respect surrounding the Ark, and its potent symbol of God’s presence and power.