The narrative found in 1 Samuel 4–7 describes the fate of the Ark after it was removed from the sanctuary at Shiloh. The Ark was brought to the battlefield to help the army of Israel in its war against the Philistines. The biblical text tells about Israel’s embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Philistines, the capture of the Ark, the placement of the Ark in the temple of Dagon, and the return of the Ark to Israel. The narrative culminates with the defeat of the Philistines and the erection of a memorial to mark this decisive moment in the history of Israel.
The Capture of the Ark
During the period of the judges, the Ark of the Covenant was in Shiloh, a city located in the territory of Ephraim. The Ark was in the custody of the priest Eli and his family. When the people of Israel entered the land, Joshua and the leaders of Israel set up the tent of meeting at Shiloh (Joshua 18:1). During the early days of Samuel, “Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was” (1 Samuel 3:3).
The Ark of the Covenant was the most important sacred religious symbol in the religious life of Israel. According to the book of Exodus, the Ark was an oblong chest covered with gold. The golden cover of the Ark, also known as the kapporet or the “mercy seat,” contained two golden cherubim which formed a chair. The chair was the throne of Yahweh, who was enthroned on the cherubim (1 Samuel 4:4).
During the early period of their settlement in Canaan, an uneasy truce prevailed between the Philistines and the Israelites. The Philistines were a people of Aegean origin who entered Canaan with a group of people known as the Sea Peoples a few years after Israel settled in the land. The Philistines became the ruling class in five major fortified urban centers located in Gaza, Gath, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron. The Philistines had access to iron technology which gave them unparalleled superiority over the people of Canaan. The Philistine use of horses and chariots posed a threat to the Israelite tribal confederation of the central hill country.
In the early days of Samuel, the imperial ambitions of the Philistines were on the rise, and the expanding Israelite confederation in the hill country posed a potential threat to Philistine hegemony over the peoples of the southern coastal plain. “In those days the Philistines mustered for war against Israel” (1 Samuel 4:1). The time is not specified. In the days of Samson, the Philistines oppressed Israel for forty years (Judges 13:1). Samson judged Israel twenty years (Judges 16:31). Thus, it is possible that the last twenty years of the Philistine oppression and the battle of Aphek occurred at the time when Eli was judging Israel.
No reason is given for the mobilization of the Philistines against the Israelites. If this war happened after the death of Samson, it is possible that the Philistines were trying to avenge the damage Samson caused to their nation. The battle took place at Aphek. The poorly equipped army of Israel was no match for the powerful Philistine army. Israel was defeated and the Philistines killed four thousand soldiers.
The survivors returned to the camp to report the events. When the leaders of Israel heard about the defeat of the army, they asked themselves, “Why has the LORD used the Philistines to defeat us today?” Without waiting for a response from Yahweh, the leaders of Israel, decided to take the Ark of the Covenant which was at the sanctuary in Shiloh so that Yahweh could give them a victory against their enemy.
During Israel’s war with the Philistines, the Ark was taken into the battlefield because the people believed that the presence of the Ark in the battlefield would assure the presence of God with the army. The Ark represented the presence of Yahweh with the army of Israel. The people believed that if God would be with them in the battlefield, they would win. They believed that if the Ark would go with the army, they would be invincible.
Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, went with the Ark. Hophni and Phinehas were escorting the Ark into battle because only priests and Levites were allowed to carry the Ark. When the Ark came to the battlefield, “all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded” (1 Samuel 4:5). The Hebrew word for “mighty shout” is terû‘āh, which is the sound of the trumpet calling the people to war. Although the mighty shout gave Israel the confidence that they would win the war and although the Philistines were afraid because they believed that the God of the Hebrews had come to the battlefield, the Philistines fought against Israel and Israel was defeated again.
During the battle, the Philistines captured the Ark and killed the two sons of Eli. While the army was fighting the Philistines, Eli was sitting on his official seat he had as judge in Israel. Eli’s heart was trembling because he feared for the safety of the Ark of God. A man came running “with his clothes torn and with earth upon his head” (1 Samuel 4:12), in deep mourning for Israel’s humiliating defeat and for the capture of the Ark. When the man told the news all the people cried out. When Eli was told that his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were dead, and that the Ark of God had been captured, Eli fell from his seat backwards. He broke his neck and died (1 Samuel 4:18).
Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant when her husband went into the battlefield. When she heard the news that the ark of God had been captured and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she went into labor prematurely and gave birth to a son. She called the name of her son “Ichabod.” The name “Ichabod” means “Where is the Glory?” Israel’s glory was gone because the Ark had been captured.
Concerning the capture of the Ark, the psalmist wrote, “He abandoned his dwelling place in Shiloh, the tent where he had lived among humans. He allowed his power to be taken captive and handed his glory over to an oppressor” (Psalm 78:60–61). Because the Ark was the embodiment of God’s presence with his people and because Yahweh “allowed his power to be taken captive,” the capture of the Ark was what Samuel Terrien called “the humiliation of Yahweh.” He wrote, “Presence in judgment meant absence in history, but the divine decision meant a divine humiliation. [Yahweh] voluntarily relinquished his royal magnificence to the power of the enemy” (Terrien 1978:265).
The Ark Before Dagon
Chapter 5 of 1 Samuel describes what happened to the Ark after it was captured by the Philistines and placed in the temple of their god Dagon. The text says that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was captured by the Philistines. In their view, Yahweh lost and Dagon won. The previous chapter ends with the humiliation of Yahweh and the capture of the Ark. Chapter 5 tells the story of the humiliated God being exalted, the exalted god being humiliated (Brueggemann 1990:35).
“After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. They brought it into the temple of Dagon and placed it beside Dagon” (1 Samuel 5:2). In the Ancient Near East, victory in war was the victory of one’s god. According to the Philistines, Dagon prevailed over Yahweh because the God of the Hebrews was weak and powerless. Dagon was the god of the Philistines who was worshiped in Ashdod. Dagon was also worshiped in many places in Mesopotamia, but little is known about the true character of this god.
After the Ark was brought to the temple of Dagon, it was placed beside Dagon, the defeated God of the Hebrews paying homage to the victorious god of the Philistines. The day after the Ark was placed by Dagon, as the people came to his temple to worship, Dagon was “fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD” (1 Samuel 5:3). The conqueror god was paying homage to the defeated God.
When the priests of Dagon came back the next morning the same thing happened. Once again, Dagon had fallen face down before the Ark of the LORD. This time, however, his head and hands had broken off and were lying in the threshold of the temple (1 Samuel 5:4).
In describing what had happened during the night, Cartledge writes, “The position of the broken image suggests that Dagon had been trying to escape through the door or perhaps appealing for the aid of spirits who were believed to reside under the threshold. The fact that the head and hands were “cut off ” rather than simply broken, implies mortal combat in the night, with Dagon coming out the dismembered loser” (Cartledge 2001:83).
When the people of Ashdod realized what had happened to their god, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy upon us and upon Dagon our god” (1 Samuel 5:7). So, they sent the Ark to Gath. When the Ark was in Gath, God afflicted the people of the city with an outbreak of tumors. In panic, the people of Gath sent the Ark to Ekron. When the Ark arrived in Ekron, the people there were so afraid of having the Ark in their city that they decided to return it to the people of Israel “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place” (1 Samuel 5:11).
After seven months of having the Ark in their cities, the Philistines returned the Ark back to Israel. They prepared a new cart, selected two cows that had never been yoked and put the Ark on it together with five gold tumors and five gold mice which they were offering as a guilt offering to the God of Israel.
The preparation that the Philistines made is very significant. First, the five gold tumors and five gold mice were meant to be a guilt offering for Yahweh (1 Samuel 6:4). The guilt offering was also known as the trespass offering. This offering was made as an atonement for a sin against God. The Philistines recognized that they had committed a sin against the God of Israel. Second, the number five represents the five cities of the Philistines. They represent “the respect, capitulation, and submission of all of the Philistines” to the God of Israel (Brueggemann 1990:40). The five gold tumors and the five gold mice were made of gold to indicate that they were offering the best and the most valuable gift to the God of Israel.
The return of the Ark moved the people of Israel to celebration, “Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight” (1 Samuel 6:13). The people used the wood of the cart for fire and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to Yahweh. This celebration is a clear indication that the people of Israel desired to renew their relationship with God. The sacrifice they offered was a demonstration of their gratitude for the returning of the Ark.
Some people, however, failed to recognize that the Ark was a holy object. Some of the people from Beth Shemesh looked inside the Ark and as a result, seventy people died for violating the holiness of the Ark.
Returning to God
Because of the violation of the holiness of the Ark, the people of Beth Shemesh asked the people of Kiriath-jearim to take the Ark to their city and keep it there. The Ark was taken to the house of Abinadab, and Eleazar, his son, was consecrated to take care of the Ark. The ark remained there for twenty years. During these years, the people of Israel were still in submission to the Philistines and the temple at Shiloh had been destroyed. Now, the Ark of the Covenant was placed in a house.
During these twenty years, the people of Israel had returned to idolatry and the worship of false gods. Those who feared the Lord mourned and sought after God (1 Samuel 7:2). The people then sought Samuel to help them return to the Lord. Samuel came before the people to ascertain their sincerity. Samuel presented several conditions before the people to ascertain their true intention to return to God.
Samuel told the people, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines” (1 Samuel 7:3). The oppression by the Philistines began when Israel “did evil in the eyes of the LORD, so the LORD delivered them into the hands of the Philistines for forty years” (Judges 13:1). The oppression of Israel would end when the people returned to God with all their hearts.
At the urge of Samuel there was a mass recommitment to God. After the people abandoned their false gods, Samuel said to the people, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah and I will intercede with the LORD for you” (1 Samuel 7:5). At the assembly at Mizpah, the people made offerings to the Lord, fasted, and confessed, “We have sinned against the LORD.”
For many years the people had been away from God. Now, they were turning back to God. The great assembly at Mizpah was the occasion when the people returned to God with all their hearts. For years they believed that their idols could give them prosperity, fertility, and better crops. For years they had replaced God with things they believed would give them a good life. The result was forty years of misery and oppression. They needed to recommit themselves to God and only a change of heart and attitude would bring them back to God. Samuel’s intercession for the people brought them reconciliation with God.
When the Philistines heard that the Israelites had gathered at Mizpah, they feared that the unity of Israel would pose a threat to them. The Philistines decided to attack Israel and enforce their oppression on Israel. The people came to Samuel and asked him to pray to the Lord and ask him to deliver them from the Philistines.
Samuel agreed to pray for the people. He made sacrifices to the Lord and then he prayed to God on behalf of the people “and the LORD answered him” (1 Samuel 7:9). While Samuel was offering the sacrifice to the Lord, the Philistines attacked. During the battle, the Lord intervened “with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites” (1 Samuel 7:10).
In the war against the Philistines, God fought for Israel and won a great victory for his people. To commemorate that define moment in the life of Israel, Samuel took a stone and set it as a memorial. He called that memorial “Ebenezer,” a Hebrew word which means “Rock of Help” and said, “Until now the LORD has helped us” (1 Samuel 7:9–12).
There were many defining moments in the life of Israel. In each one of them, God had an important part in creating those defining moments. Israel acknowledged the presence and the action of God by erecting memorials, standing stones, to remind them and future generations that their God was a faithful and gracious God.
My pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois preached a sermon on June 27, 2021 titled “Standing Stones: Returning to God.” The post above is based on his sermon.
In his sermon, Jeff emphasized that Christians must go from Ichabod to Ebenezer. Many people, in their life journey encounter moments where God seems to be absent. In their struggles they say, “Ichabod,” where is God? It is at that time that they need a recommitment of their lives.
Like the people of Israel, Christians also experience Ichabod, but when they recommit their lives to God, they experience the glorious presence of God. They also experience his favor and vitality and when that happens, they go from Ichabod to Ebenezer by declaring “until now the LORD has helped us.”
Jeff ends his sermon by telling the story of Francis Thompson, the author of “The Hound of Heaven.” Thompson wanted to become a pastor but one of his seminary professors told him that he should not be a pastor. Thompson quit seminary and went to medical school. However, he was not happy. He shifted his focus from God into a secular life. He became addicted to drugs, became homeless, begging on the streets. He tried to commit suicide, but he was saved by a prostitute.
He finally realized that God was pursuing him. He met a Christian couple and through them he returned to God. God changed his life. He became a poet and wrote a poem called “The Hound of Heaven” to teach people that God can redeem those who have gone away from him.
The Hound of Heaven
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Thompson fled and hid from God until God revealed himself to him and said, “Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He Whom thou seekest!”
A Video Presentation
The Sermon: “Standing Stones: Returning to God” by Jeff Griffin.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990.
Cartledge, Tony W. 1 & 2 Samuel. Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2001.
Terrien, Samuel. The Elusive Presence. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1978.