1 Samuel 6


The Return of the Ark to Israel

        • Now the ark of Yahweh had been in Philistine territory for 7 months, and the Philistines called their priests and diviners saying, “What should we do about the ark of Yahweh? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.” They replied, “If you’re sending the ark of the God of Israel away, don’t send it empty. You must return it with a guilt offering. Then you’ll be healed and you’ll know why His hand has not been lifted from you.”

        • NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “It is unlikely the Philistines were aware of Israelite worship regulations. A Philistine guilt offering would have been a payment to the deity in an attempt to avert his wrath…”

        • NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible notes that there are similar examples of this in ancient Hittite records, “In one Hittite text, an enemy god is assumed to be responsible for an outbreak of plague, and in response a chosen animal is decorated and driven back into enemy territory in the hope of pacifying the angry god and ending the plague. This procedure loosely parallels the Philistines’ actions in ch. 6…”

        • And they said, “What guilt offering should we send to Him?” They answered, “Since the same plague struck both you and your five rulers, make five golden tumors and five golden mice just like those that are destroying your land, and give glory to the God of Israel. Perhaps then He will lift His hand off of you, your gods, and your land. Why should you harden your hearts like the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After He had dealt severely with them, didn’t they send the Israelites away, and they left? Now then, get a new cart ready and two milking cows that have never had a yoke placed on them. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. Take the ark of Yahweh and put it on the cart. Next to the ark, put a box containing the golden figures you are sending back as a guilt offering. Send it off, let it go its way, and watch it. If it goes up to its own territory, to Beth-shemesh, then we’ll know that it is He who has brought this disaster on us. However, if it doesn’t, then we’ll know that it wasn’t His hand that struck us- it was just a coincidence that this happened to us.”

          • Guzik draws our attention to this important information, “Aware of the Exodus account, the Philistines rightly remembered that no good comes when anyone hardens their heart against the LORD. Even in a purely self-interested sense, it isn’t smart to harden your heart against the LORD.”

          • On this hardening, HCSB adds, “The Bible teaches that human beings are free to make choices (Gn 2:19; 4:7; Ezk 18:2-32). God is good (Ps 25:8; 34:8; 100:5) and always acts consistently with His nature. Yet people can choose to rebel against God’s goodness, and consistent rebellion can lead to their hearts being ‘hardened.’ As the saying goes, ‘The same sun that melts butter also hardens clay.’ Egyptian pharaohs believed they were divine, and Pharaoh would would never have been inclined to submit to the Israelites’ God. Each time God placed a demand on him, he became more determined to resist. Thus it was both God’s demands and Pharaoh’s own pride-motivated stubbornness (Ex 8:15, 32; 9:34) that led to his hardened heart. God would use Pharaoh’s stubbornness for a good end, to demonstrate His power and extend His reputation (9:16).”

          • The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible explains the significance of selecting cows that had never been yoked and that also had nursing calves, “The point of the exercise, as explicitly stated in v. 9, was to determine whether their distress was wrought by the Israelites’ God or whether it had come upon them for some other unknown reason. As v. 7 explains, the cows chosen to pull the cart had never been yoked before and had recently given birth to calves. If, contrary to nature, they should forsake their calves, and accepting the yoke, pull the cart toward Israelite territory, this abnormal behavior would be a sure sign that Israel’s God, Yahweh, was the cause of their recent distress…The aims of the Philistine procedure were to ascertain the cause of their affliction, to pacify the offended deity if necessary, and to bear the plague away by sympathetic magic.”

        • So, the men did this: they took two milking cows, hitched them to the cart, and penned up their calves. Then they put the ark of Yahweh on the cart along with the box containing the golden mice and images of tumors. The cows went straight up the road to Beth-shemesh, keeping on the main road without veering off to the right or the left, lowing as they went. The Philistine rulers followed behind them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.

          • Guzik writes, “This was a remarkable miracle. Two cows who never pulled a cart before, either alone or together. No driver led them, yet they left home, and marched the ten miles or so to a city they had never been to. They left their own calves behind and went straight on a certain road, with never a wrong turn, never a stop, never turning aside into the fields to feed themselves, never turning back to feed their own calves.”

          • Guzik includes this interesting note on mention in the text of the cows lowing, “The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament on the ancient Hebrew word ga-ah, translated lowing: ‘This root indicates an intense aversion which is expressed often in punitive or adverse action.’”

        • Now the people of Beth-shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley when they looked up and saw the ark. They rejoiced at the sight! The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there near a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to Yahweh. The Levites took down the ark of Yahweh and the box containing the golden figures and put them up on the large rock. Then the men of Beth-shemesh made burnt offerings and offered sacrifices to Yahweh that day. When the five Philistine rulers saw this, they went back to Ekron that day.

        • Returning to Guzik, “After being guided for some ten miles from the Philistine city, without stopping or going to one side or the other, the ark then stopped in Israelite land, at the exact field of one chosen man…In a strict sense their offering was against the Mosaic Law. First, they offered female animals to the LORD, which was forbidden (Leviticus 1:3; 22:19). Second, they made a burnt offering to the LORD away from the tabernacle, which violated the command in Deuteronomy 12:5-6. Yet God knew both their hearts and the remarkable circumstances, and He was no doubt honored. The Israelites were careful to let the Levites handle the ark, as was commanded by the law (Numbers 4:1-6, 15). Beth Shemesh was a priestly city (Joshua 21:16), so priests were on hand.”

        • As a guilt offering to Yahweh, the Philistines sent one gold tumor for each city: Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron. The number of gold mice also corresponded to the number of Philistine cities and their surrounding villages belonging to the five rulers- both fortified cities and villages with no walls. The large rock on which they set the ark of Yahweh is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.

          • NLT lllustrated Study Bible writes, “These five major Philistine cities were located on or near the Great Trunk Road. This major ancient trade route connected Egypt with Mesopotamia via the coastal plain. Each city was governed by a king-like ruler.”

        • And He struck down some of the men of Beth-shemesh, 50,070 of them, because they looked upon the ark of Yahweh. The people mourned because Yahweh had struck them with such a great slaughter.

        • A few elements of this verse (v. 19) are highly debated: (1) did the men look at the ark or into the ark; (2) how many men were killed (some texts say 70, some say 50,070, the vast majority of Hebrew manuscripts read “70 men, 50,000 men”, so it’s an odd numerical format); and (3), what about the additional information in the LXX regarding the identity of those who were killed?

          • On issue (1):

          • Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges writes, “The rendering of the E. V. follows the explanation given by Rabbinic commentators [i.e. that they had looked into the ark], but the expression used signifies rather ‘to gaze upon with profane curiosity.’ The priests of Beth-shemesh must have known that even the Levites were forbidden to look upon the furniture of the Holy of Holies upon pain of death (Numbers 4:19-20), but instead of hastening to cover it with befitting reverence, they left it exposed to the public gaze, and brought down a judgment which was intended to vindicate the holiness of Jehovah. Certainly they were not punished for the unavoidable sight of the Ark as it approached them, at which they justly rejoiced (1 Samuel 6:13).”

          • HCSB adds, “…Very specific instructions had been given to the priests regarding the proper handling of the ark of the covenant; whenever it was outside the tabernacle it was to be covered with three layers of cloth and leather; it was never to be seen or touched by anyone (Num 4:5-6, 15)…”

          • On issue (2):

            • The NET text critical notes point out, “The number 50,070 is surprisingly large, although it finds almost unanimous textual support in the MT and in the ancient versions. Only a few medieval Hebrew mss lack ‘50,000,’ reading simply ’70’ instead. However, there does not seem to be sufficient external evidence to warrant reading 70 rather than 50,070, although that is done by a number of recent translations (e.g., NAB, NIV, NRSV, NLT).”

          • Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges writes, “It is generally agreed that there is some mistake in the text here. (a) The anomalous order of the numerals in the Hebrew (70 men 50,000 men), and the absence of the conjunction and mark corruption,…”

          • HCSB states, “Did 70 or 50,070 men die? English versions reflect a scholarly uncertainty regarding the correct number in this verse; KJV, NKJV, and NASB use the larger number; many other versions accept the smaller one. The Masoretic (Hb) Text and Septuagint (Gk) both give the larger number; Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, quoted the smaller number. The fact that the Biblical writer characterizes the deaths as a ‘great slaughter’ suggests that the larger number is the one originally supplied. However, most modern versions prefer the smaller total and, in many cases, deal creatively with the Hebrew text at this point. Translations that opt for a smaller number probably do so because the larger one does not seem credible; archaeological evidence available at the present time suggests that nowhere near 50,000 men lived in the region of Beth-shemesh during the period of this narrative, some 3,000 years ago.”

          • On issue (3):

          • Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers notes the additional LXX material, “And the children of Jechoniah among the Beth-shemites were not pleased with the men of Beth-shemesh because they saw the Ark, and he smote them.” The same source continues, “Erdmann, in Lange, is inclined to believe the LXX. Version represents the true text, and thus comments on it: “The reason of the sudden death of the seventy of the race of Jechoniah is their unsympathising and, therefore, unholy bearing towards the symbols of God’s presence among His people, which showed a mind wholly estranged from the living God—a symptom of the religious moral degeneracy which had spread among the people, though piety was still to be found.”

          • Pulpit Commentary adds, “The Septuagint ascribes the sin not to all the people, but to “the sons of Jeconiah, who were not glad when they saw the ark, and he smote them.”

        • The men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before Yahweh, this holy God? Who should the ark go to from here?” They sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of Yahweh. Come now and get it.”

          • Guzik says, “We don’t know why they picked this village…Whatever the reason, the men of Kirjath Jearim received the ark and it stayed there for many years until King David brought it to the city of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6).”

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