Read the Passage: 1 Samuel 5-6
The Ark and Dagon (5:1–5)
The Ark of God was arguably the most important piece of Tabernacle furniture. God commanded for it to be constructed and gave instructions for its design at Exod. 25:10–15. Here it is noted that the Ark was built in order to hold the Ten Commandments. The Ark also contained, for a time at least, Aaron’s rod that budded, as well as a jar of manna (Exod. 16:33; 1 Num. 17:10; 1 Kings 8:9; Heb. 9:4). The Ark resided within the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle, and the mercy seat—where yearly sacrifice was made on the Day of Atonement—was its cover. The Ark is a picture of Jesus Christ (cf. Ps. 40:8; Rev. 11:19), who is the Word and God and in whom is salvation. The Ark was likely captured by Nebuchadnezzar and sent to Babylon in 586 BC. The apocryphal book 2 Esdras 10:22 reads, “The sacred chest has been carried away. In fact, all the sacred things at the temple have been ruined.”
The previous chapter, 1 Sam. 4, detailed the events leading up to the capture of the Ark of God. This would have been a devastating event for many in Israel who viewed themselves as favored by God on account of the fact that they possessed the Ark. Whereas chapter 4 focused on the effects of the capture of the Ark upon Eli’s family, 1 Sam. 5 details the effects of the Ark’s capture upon the Philistines. The Philistines took the Ark to Ashdod, one of their capital cities, and placed it in the temple of their chief god named Dagon. Dagon was one of many Philistine gods and is noted as being the father of Baal. While this was supposed to be a picture of superiority, on the first evening the Lord supernaturally caused the statue of Dagon to fall down prostrate in homage to Him. On the second evening God cut off the hands and feet of Dagon, a sign of the death of one’s enemy.
The Ark and the Philistines (5:6–12)
Given the destruction of their god Dagon, the Philistines should have understood their error in believing themselves to be able to conquer God and His people. This is especially true in light of the fact that they knew of God’s destruction of Egypt (cf. 1 Sam. 4:8). Yet, like the Egyptians, the Philistines did not yet understand the implications of their beliefs. In contrast to Dagon, whose hands had been cut off, the text reports that God’s hand was against the Philistines. Wherever the Ark went, from Ashdod to Gath to Ekron, the Lord struck the people with painful tumors. This disease was likely a variety of the bubonic plague, which causes painful boils and is carried by rats. Eventually the Philistine understood that it was God who was afflicting them. Ironically, while they first rejoiced over the capture of the Ark and put it in the temple of Dagon, they eventually did not want the Ark and resolved to return it.
The Ark and the Israelites (6:1–19)
The account of the return of the Ark of God to Israel is interesting. After seven months of affliction (cf. 1 Sam. 6:1) the Philistines realized their error and sought to return the Ark and to pacify God. Their priests determined that it should be returned with a trespass offering; namely, five golden rats and tumors—one for each main city of Philistia. The rats and tumors where an admission that they realized their affliction was caused by the Lord. Ironically, the priests realized that their situation was very similar to that of the Egyptians (cf. 1 Sam. 6:6); yet, they still hedged their bet. They specified that the Ark was to be returned on a driver-less cart pulled by two untrained cows who were separated from their calves. If these cows successfully and unnaturally brought the Ark back to Israel, then it would confirm their suspicion that God was the source of their troubles.
In designing their test, the Philistines had designated Beth Shamesh as the destination for the Ark. This city was 15 miles west of Jerusalem and was city for the Levites (cf. Josh. 21:16). In condescending to their test, this is exactly where God directed the Ark. We are told that the cows came to a stop in a field, where they were offered as a burnt offering to the Lord, using the wood from the cart that they pulled. While the return of the Ark was a time of rejoicing for God’s people, in 1 Sam. 6:19–21 we are told of a great slaughter of Israelites on account of the fact that they looked into the Ark. Such an act was prohibited, except for by certain priests (cf. Num. 4:17–20). Looking into the Ark showed that these people did not understand God’s holy character nor their own sinfulness. The author is showing that God requires holiness from men, whether Philistine or Israelite.
- What was the Ark of the Covenant? What was its purpose? Why was is built (cf. Exod. 25:16, 20; Deut. 10:5)? Where was it kept? What happened to the Ark?
- Why do you think the Israelites were willing to take such a valuable object into their battle with the Philistines and risk its capture (cf. Josh. 4:7; 6:6–20)?
- Do you ever rely upon external religious activities (e.g., church attendance, Christian service, giving, etc.) to justify yourself before God?
- Like the Philistines, have you ever misunderstood God’s character, His plan of redemption, and the essence of being in relationship with Him?
- Why do you think the Israelites of Beth Shamesh looked into the Ark of God? What does such an act show about their understanding of God?