When the Israelites lost a battle to the Philistines, they knew their enemies weren’t responsible. “Why has the Lord defeated us today?” they asked (1 Sam 4:3). During a second attack, the Israelites brought the ark of the covenant to the battlefield, believing that its presence would protect them. Even the Philistines expected to lose the rematch, lamenting, “Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?” (4:8). Despite this, the Israelites were annihilated and the Philistines captured the ark. What’s going on in this episode?
More Than a Symbol
To understand this event, we need to step back and look at it from the viewpoint of ancient Israel. While the ark of the covenant was meant to be a tangible reminder of God’s presence, the Israelites—like the surrounding nations of their day—mistakenly identified Yahweh with an image. They thought the ark contained his essence. By bringing it to the battlefield, they believed they brought Yahweh himself into the fray—and surely he would protect the Israelites, if only to prevent himself from being carried off by the Philistines.
That kind of belief was strictly forbidden by the second commandment (Exod 20:4; Deut 5:8). Yahweh was much bigger than a mere symbol. Furthermore, the ark was meant to be kept in the place of worship.
Yahweh shows he is more concerned with confronting his people’s immorality than with protecting the ark. The caretakers of the ark, Hophni and Phinehas, had already corrupted his sanctuary with their greed (1 Sam 2:12–17, 22), and their father, Eli, had done little to prevent their sin. But Israel’s sin problem was much broader. Although the people knew that Yahweh had caused them to lose the initial battle to the Philistines (4:3), they refused to seek him. They never considered the possibility of their own deep-rooted moral failure, so they saw no need to repent. Instead, they tried to force God’s hand, as if he were like the gods of the surrounding nations.
God took the ark away from them to teach them an important lesson: He will not be manipulated. He demands his people’s allegiance and worship. When the Israelites disregard his standards, they may even forfeit his presence, at least for a time.
Yahweh vs. Dagon
The Philistines also discovered that their concept of the ark was fundamentally flawed. They feared the God of Israel and were likely surprised to win such a resounding victory. After they captured the ark, they concluded that their god Dagon must be superior to Yahweh. In homage to Dagon, they took the ark to Ashdod and put it “beside” Dagon’s image (1 Sam 5:2), perhaps believing that Israel’s God would become Dagon’s subordinate ally. But they were in for a surprise.
The next morning, the Philistines found Dagon’s image lying before the ark. Oblivious to the symbolism, they set the idol back in its place. The following day, they found the image of Dagon lying before the ark again—this time with its head and hands removed. The symbolism was unmistakable. Warriors often cut off the heads and hands off their enemies. In fact, a well-known Canaanite goddess, the warlike Anat, is depicted in a myth with the heads and hands of her victims attached to her necklace and belt. Yahweh had attacked Dagon and killed him. The Philistines’ capture of the ark did not weaken God in any way.
This Holy God
Yahweh had no respect for the false god or the Philistines’ idolatrous ways. He struck the people of Ashdod with a horrible affliction. The Philistines immediately sent the ark to Gath and then to Ekron. But wherever it went, God struck the city with the terrible plague. Finally, the Philistines sent the ark back to the Israelites with peace offerings made of gold.
Even with the ark back in their possession, the Israelites still didn’t understand the lesson God was teaching them. They offered sacrifices to Yahweh after the ark was returned to Beth-shemesh. But even in their worship, they demonstrated that they didn’t know how to relate to Yahweh or how to revere him. Some even peered into the ark (6:19). 1 Just as Yahweh had done to the Philistines (5:12), God “struck” the people of Beth-shemesh for their disrespect. The phrase “great blow” or “slaughter” (6:19 esv, nasb) suggests massive loss of human life. 2 “Who is able stand before the Lord, this holy God?” (6:20), they cried. Although the Philistines realized their attempts to subjucate Yahweh ended in utter failure, Israel was slower to learn the same lesson. They learned only through tragic means that God cannot be manipulated and coerced like the “gods” of the other nations.
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (esv).
1 ESV reads “looked upon,” but “looked into” is preferable here (niv, nasb). See Robert B. Chisholm, Jr., 1 & 2 Samuel, Teach the Text (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 41.
2 Chisholm, 1 & 2 Samuel, 41.