“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?’ ” (v. 20).
The Philistines thought that Yahweh, the covenant Lord of Israel, was just one god among many. When they captured the ark of God at the end of the life of Eli the priest (1 Sam. 4), they set the ark in the temple of their god Dagon, for they believed Dagon had defeated Yahweh and that Yahweh could be worshiped alongside Dagon. But the Philistines soon learned that Yahweh was no mere rival to their god. Yahweh displayed His sovereign power while the ark was in Dagon’s temple. He broke the idol of Dagon and afflicted the Philistines with tumors for treating Him as one god among many (chap. 5), thereby revealing Himself not only as higher than Dagon but as the one, true creator God.
The Philistines had to get rid of the ark if the plague was to be stopped. Today’s passage tells us how they did this, and it also tells us that God sent rats among the Philistines while the ark was with them. The Philistine priests told the people to send the ark back with a “guilt offering”—five golden rats and five golden tumors according to the five “Philistine rulers” (1 Sam. 6:1–5). This references the five major Philistine cities located near the Mediterranean coast, each with its own leader. Commentators indicate that the Philistine priests were employing a kind of “sympathetic magic.” By sending the tumors and rats away, the Philistines thought they would send the plague out of their land.
The Philistines set the golden images and the ark on a cart drawn by two cows that had never been yoked and that had some young calves. Female cows that had never been yoked would instinctively go to their young, so if the oxen were to head for Israel, it would be a sign that Yahweh had brought about the plagues and that He accepted the gold offerings. Yahweh did direct the cart back to Israel, for the cows were compelled to head for the Israelite town of Beth-shemesh, lowing all the way (vv. 6–16).
But when the ark came to Beth-shemesh, God put seventy inhabitants of the city to death because they “looked into the ark” (vv. 17–21). They treated the ark with contempt, handling it even though only the Kohathites, from the tribe of Levi, were supposed to touch it (Num. 3:27–32). That they did so should not surprise us, for the Israelites had lost the ark in the first place by treating it as a magical talisman, trusting in its presence instead of the God whose footstool it was (1 Sam. 4:1–11).
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
The Bible reveals a God who cannot be manipulated by human beings. However, God’s people have not always embraced this truth consistently. In Samuel’s day, they treated the ark as a talisman and looked inside it when they were not supposed to (1 Sam. 4:1–11; 6:17–21). Such idolatrous and manipulative practices ended poorly for the Israelites. Things will not go well for us either if we try to manipulate the Lord.