The Crusade of the Lost Ark – 40 Days of Exoduses (22)

A Barren Woman

Our last study concluded with Israel having crossed the Jordan and destroyed the city of Jericho. At this point we jump forward in biblical history, leaving the rest of the book of Joshua and skipping the books of Judges and Ruth. Although the intervening texts have a few exodus sequences, given the limitations of our forty part series, I will have to pass over them without comment. The Israelites have now been settled in the land for a few hundred years. If we follow the chronology of the text, the book of 1 Samuel begins around 280 years after the conquest of Canaan. This figure presumes that the ministry of the judges overlapped, as they operated in different regions of the country. Samuel would have been a contemporary of such figures as Samson and Jephthah.

The book of 1 Samuel begins in a manner very similar to that of the book of Exodus. Israel is languishing under wicked and spiritually dull rulers. The priests, Hophni and Phinehas, the two sons of Eli, were wicked and corrupt. They despised the offering of YHWH (2:12-17) and violate the women at the door of the tabernacle, the virgins who were to represent Israel’s holiness as the bride betrothed to YHWH (2:24). In committing this act of sexual violation, Phinehas is the opposite of his namesake in Numbers 25 and reminds us of the apostasy at Baal of Peor.

The high priest, Eli, was spiritually dull. He couldn’t even recognize prayer when it was taking place at the tabernacle (1:12-16), which suggests both his and the people’s spiritual laxity. In 3:1-3 we have a threefold parallelism: the lack of the word of YHWH and prophetic vision (v.1); the dimness of the eyes of the high priest and judge, representing poverty of spiritual sight (v.2); the lamp of God that will soon go out, as the world of the tabernacle is rendered dark and formless again (v.3). At this time the people are also oppressed by the Philistines and are about to be defeated by them at the battle of Aphek.

In this context we are introduced to a barren wife, Hannah, who is one of two wives of an Ephraimite named Elkanah. Hannah is constantly provoked by Peninnah, her rival, who has a number of children (1:2, 4). However, Elkanah loves Hannah and gives her the firstborn portion (v.5), even though YHWH had closed her womb.

As a barren wife, Hannah should remind us of the wives of the patriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, who were all barren also. The opening of the barren womb is a crucial exodus theme. As the barren and oppressed wife, who calls out to YHWH, Hannah represents the entire nation, waiting for the promised seed of the woman to deliver them from their condition. The fact that the narrative of 1 Samuel begins at this point, rather than many years later, when Samuel reached maturity, gives us insight into YHWH’s priorities and the way that he both works and views the world. As in the original story of the Exodus and in such stories as that of Ruth, when covenant history seems to have broken down irreparably, it is through the prayers and the courage of faithful women that a new future becomes possible. In the midst of the gathering gloom of history, God plants the seeds of his future in unexpected places.

In praying for a son, Hannah promises that, if YHWH hears her request, she will dedicate him to YHWH and that he will be a Nazirite all of his life (v.11). Like Samson and John the Baptist, both also children of barren women, Hannah’s son would be a dedicated servant, bound by a vow of special service for all of his life. The Nazirite was a person who exercised a priest-like task within the wider world, with many of the same limitations that the priests were under in their service. Hannah’s son would be set apart for a lifelong special mission, a form of holy war, preparing the way for the establishment of the kingdom to come.

A Miraculous Child

The woman who cried out to YHWH was remembered by him (v.19), something that should recall the Exodus for us, where YHWH heard the groaning of his people, remembered them, and opened the womb of Egypt for the birth of the firstborn son that was dedicated to him. Hannah gives birth to a son and names him Samuel. When Samuel was weaned, Hannah brought him up to Shiloh, to give him to YHWH. Samuel was adopted as a son of Eli, although, as we shall see, Samuel as one dedicated to YHWH and sleeping in his tent (3:3), is primarily the son of YHWH, with Eli as his guardian.

The theme of adoption is important in 1 Samuel. Peter Leithart writes:

Eli’s paternal relation to Samuel forms the background for the contrast between Samuel and Eli’s natural sons that is developed in chapter 2. Father-son relations are, moreover, prominent throughout 1-2 Samuel. Samuel’s troublesome sons provided a pretext for the people to ask for a king, and Saul was “adopted” as Samuel’s son. Later, David became a son-in-law to Saul, and much of the account of David’s reign in 2 Samuel is taken up with recording David’s difficulties with his sons.

In each of these cases, biological sons were replaced by an adopted son. Just as Eli and his sons lost the priesthood and were supplanted by Samuel, so Samuel’s sons were supplanted by Saul and Saul’s son by David. In contrast to Genesis, the true son in 1-2 Samuel is not a younger biological son but an adopted son who comes from outside the genealogy… 1-2 Samuel thus makes the typology of Genesis more precise by showing that the “seed” would not come through the normal channels of fleshly descent but would be pre-eminently the one “born according to the Spirit” (cf. Lk. 1:35; Gal. 4:21-31).

Hannah responds to the birth of Samuel with a prayer of rejoicing (2:1-10), a prayer which is the pattern for Mary’s Magnificat in Luke (Luke 1:46-55). Much as the parents of Noah, Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus, Hannah realizes that the birth of Samuel heralded more than her own vindication against Peninnah. It was a sign that YHWH was about to turn Israel upside-down, throwing down the rich and mighty and raising up the weak and poor. Hannah’s prayer praised YHWH that he was about to tear down the corrupt house of Israel and re-establish it again upon righteous foundations.

As in the story of the Exodus, there is a lot of focus upon doors at the beginning of 1 Samuel. The door or threshold is the place of birth and death. In 1:9, Eli is sitting by the door as Hannah prays for a son. Hophni and Phinehas violate the women at the door of the tabernacle (2:22). Later, Eli will die at the gate (4:18). Significantly, Samuel is the one who opens the doors of the house of YHWH (3:15). The connection between passing through the doors and the firstborn’s opening of the womb in Exodus occurs again here. The birth of Samuel opens the doors of the womb of Israel, so that faithful children can be born.

Unlike Eli, who was a poor guardian of the gate, and Hophni and Phinehas who violated the women there, Samuel will guard the gate, protecting the holiness of the people of YHWH. In opening the doors, he will also bring the life and word of YHWH out to the nation.

Tearing Down the House of Israel

Eli is an indulgent father, who fails to deal seriously with the wickedness of his sons, much as the blind Isaac planned to bless the wicked Esau rather than Jacob. YHWH declares to him through two witnesses – first through a man of God (2:27-36) and then through Samuel (3:1-18) – that his house will be brought low and his two sons killed in a single day. While Eli indulges his wicked sons, Samuel grows and is blessed by YHWH, the faithful adopted son who will take their place leading the nation.

In chapter 4 the entire house of Israel is brought crashing to the ground. The Israelites go out to fight against the Philistines, but are defeated by them and four thousand men are killed. In response to this tragedy, the elders of Israel suggested that they bring the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH to the battle, hoping that it would lead to their victory. Hophni and Phinehas are among those who bring the Ark (4:4). The camp of Israel responds with a mighty shout.

The Philistines were fearful at the report, recognizing that YHWH was the one who struck the Egyptians with plagues (vv.6-8). Once again, it is important to remind ourselves that the Philistines have been connected with the Egyptians from the first time that we read of them in the Scriptures (Genesis 10:13-14), and a couple of the exoduses that we have encountered have been from Philistine territory.

However, things do not work out as expected. The Philistines inflict a great slaughter upon the Israelites. Thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel perish, ten times the body count following their sin at Sinai. The Ark of YHWH was captured and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were killed.

A man from Benjamin ran to tell Eli, who inquires about the meaning of the uproar that he is hearing. When he hears what has occurred, he falls backwards off his seat by the gate, breaks his neck, and dies. Perhaps there is some parallel to be seen between this event and Joshua’s inquiry about the meaning of the noise in the camp of Israel in Exodus 32, immediately followed by the breaking of the covenant (Exodus 32:17-19), as Moses casts down the tablets of stone, as they realize what is occurring, the breaking of heavy high priest relating to the broken of the stone tablets. At the battle of Aphek, Israel commits a new act of national apostasy, compounding all that has occurred before. They treat the Ark of the Covenant as if it were an idolatrous technology by which a wicked nation could control YHWH. As a result, as at the Golden Calf incident, the covenant is broken and the worship of YHWH exiles himself from the people.

After the capture of the Ark, the tabernacle worship was never truly restored again. The tabernacle and the Ark would always be separate – a broken house of YHWH – until the Ark was finally brought into the temple. At this point, Phinehas’ wife gives birth to a son, dying shortly after childbirth (v.20), another sign of the desolation of Israel. She names the son Ichabod, ‘Inglorious’, because ‘the glory has been exiled from Israel’. The Ark of the Covenant, the throne chariot of YHWH, upon which the Glory of YHWH rode, had been taken away from the nation.

At the end of chapter 4 we see the complete destruction of the house of Israel. The high priest has died as have his two sons, devastating the priestly house. The house of YHWH, the tabernacle, has been torn in two, with the Ark taken into captivity. The house of Israel has been ravaged by their enemies and has lost 30,000 men, in an event of national apostasy, akin to that with the Golden Calf at Sinai.

The Ark in Captivity

As in Exodus 33:7-11, where the presence of YHWH leaves the camp after Israel’s apostasy, after the battle of Aphek the Ark leaves Israel to go into exile. The grace of YHWH is seen in that, rather than sending Israel into exile, he went into exile for them.

The Ark is brought to Ashdod and placed in the house of Dagon, the Philistines’ god, beside the statue of Dagon. YHWH was presented as a vassal of Dagon, the supposedly greater god. The next morning, the Philistines come to the temple of Dagon to find Dagon prostrate before the Ark, as it were bowing to YHWH. They restore Dagon to his upright position, but the next day they find that Dagon is prostrate before the Ark once again. This time, however, the head of Dagon and the palms of his hands have been removed. The decapitated Dagon is like a defeated serpent, whose head is crushed. The removal of his hands signifies the removal of his strength.

In 1 Chronicles 10:8-10, we see that the Philistines brought the head of Saul to the temple of Dagon and fastened it there. If it was customary for the Philistines to display the decapitated heads of defeated enemies there, it adds an extra level of irony to YHWH’s decapitation of Dagon in his own temple. The falling of Dagon and his being broken at the neck also recalls the death of Eli in the previous chapter. Just as the judge of Israel is broken, so shall the god of the Philistines be.

We have already noted that a significant feature of many exodus motifs is a battle of YHWH with false gods, or the humiliation of idols. As YHWH humiliates Dagon, strips him of power, and triumphs over him in his own temple, decapitating him in the very place where the heads of his defeated enemies would have been presented, we see this theme re-emerge. YHWH is above all of the gods of the nations and can prove his supremacy in the very places of their presumed power.

The hands of Dagon may have been cut off, but the hand of YHWH was heavy on Ashdod and the surrounding region. They are struck with a great plague. The people of Ashdod determine that the Ark must be removed from their city, for their own safety and for the well-being of their beleaguered deity, Dagon. The men of Ashdod want the Ark to depart from them, much as the Egyptian people desired the Israelites to leave them as they were plagued by YHWH. The Ark was then brought to Ekron, where the same thing happened. The Ekronites insisted that the Ark be sent back to Israel, because they feared complete destruction at YHWH’s hand.

Leithart observes the presence of exodus allusions in the language of the text (further allusions can be found in David Daube’s work):

1 Samuel 5:6 says that the hand of the Lord was heavy on the Ashdodites and smites them with tumors; similarly, in Exodus 9:3 we read that the hand of the Lord brought severe pestilence on Egypt. When the plagues hit, “the cry of the city went up to heaven,” (1 Sam. 5:12); similarly, on the night of Passover, there was a “great cry” throughout the land of Egypt (Exod. 12:30). In 1 Samuel 5:11, the people pleaded with their leaders to get the ark out of Philistia; similarly, in Exodus 10:7, Pharaoh’s servants advised Pharaoh to let Israel go before Egypt was completely destroyed. Philistia’s priests and diviners advised the rulers how to get the ark out of the land (6:2), just as the Egyptian magicians warned Pharaoh to remove Israel. In 6:6 we learn that the priests and diviners even know part of the Exodus story about Pharaoh hardening his heart, and they warned the Philistines not to do the same. The effect of the whole series of events was that the Philistines came to “know” Yahweh (6:9), and this was also the issue throughout the confrontation between Moses and Pharaoh. There are also many verbal similarities. The word “smite” is used in both Exodus 3:20 and 1 Samuel 5:6, 9; the phrase “strike with plague” occurs in both Exodus 9:14 and 1 Samuel 6:4; and the phrase “destruction of the land” is repeated in Exodus 8:20 and 1 Samuel 6:5.

All of the five cities of Philistia appear to suffer the plague. We encounter five cities in a number of key connections in Scripture (as usual, James Jordan has some interesting observations on this front). In Genesis 14:2 we see that there were five cities of the plain: Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, Zeboiim, and Zoar. All of these, save for Zoar (cf. Genesis 19:22), were destroyed by YHWH (Deuteronomy 29:23). The Philistines are also associated with five cities: Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron (1 Samuel 6:17). Jordan observes that there is an association drawn between both of these sets of five cities and Egypt, which is also associated with five cities in Isaiah 19:18-19. The five cities of the Philistines should remind us of the five cities of the plain in Genesis, both ‘Egypt-like’ civilizations that Abraham and his children had to relate to while in the land and both cities that were judged by YHWH.

Crucified in Weakness

When the Ark was brought out to the battle at Aphek, the Israelites were expecting a miraculous and mighty deliverance and the defeat of their enemies. However, they suffered a catastrophic rout and the Ark passed into the hands of their enemies, seemingly powerless. The great strength that they had associated with the Ark, which had been involved in the crossing of the Jordan and the defeat of Jericho, was not displayed. Instead it seemed to be characterized by a tremendous impotence.

The Philistines then placed the Ark in the temple of their god, at the very power centre of their civilization. It is there, like a timed explosion, that the might of YHWH finally breaks forth. The Philistines had unwittingly served in YHWH’s plan, bringing the Ark to the very place where YHWH’s victory over them and their god might be most dramatically displayed.

A very similar disaster befell the Philistines, probably not many years after this (remember that the chronologies of Judges and 1 Samuel overlap). In Judges 16, a chapter with a couple of exodus patterns, Samson is betrayed by one close to him (Delilah, much as Joseph was betrayed by his brothers), is taken captive by the Philistines, his eyes are removed, and he becomes a slave grinding in the prison. The lords of the Philistines gather together at the temple of Dagon to sacrifice and celebrate the defeat of their enemy. They bring Samson out to perform in front of them, to make a mockery of him and to gloat over him. Samson’s strength returned to him, he took hold of the pillars of Dagon’s temple, and pushed against them, bringing down the entire building, crushing the heads of all of the lords of the Philistines and the others within the building, giving up the Spirit and dying with them.

There is the theme of deception here once again. If the lords of the Philistines had known what Samson and the Ark would do, they never would have taken them to the temple of Dagon. At the very climax of their apparent victory, the foe them thought vanquished rose up and dealt them a deadly blow from which they could not easily recover. This God, one who seems to be utterly stripped of power, who is taken to the very heart of the dragon lair, and then rises up to crush the head of the beast, is, of course, the God that we know in Jesus Christ.

The Release of the Ark

The lords of the Philistines, the priests, and the diviners consult about the best course of action. They determine that the Ark must be returned, but must be accompanied by a trespass offering, offering restitution for their sacrilege. As Daube observes, in the discussion of the Philistines, the Ark is personified, spoken of as a slave to be released.

The statement ‘If you send away the ark of the God of Israel’ in 6:3 is a significant one. As I have already observed, the freed slave was not to be released empty-handed, but was to be sent away with many gifts (Deuteronomy 15:12-14). The Ark is treated as a slave that must be allowed to go free and treated according to the law for released slaves. Once again, Exodus parallels are underlined here.

The Philistine lords decide to send five golden tumours and five golden rats with the Ark. The golden tumours represented the five cities of the Philistines and the golden rats their surrounding villages (6:17-18). They also related to the form of the plague with which they had been afflicted (v.5). Once again, the Philistines seem prepared to learn from the lessons of the Egyptians, not wanting to harden their hearts as Pharaoh did and court the level of destruction that he faced (v.6). The sending of the Ark with gifts also relates to the plundering of the Egyptians in Exodus.

Wanting to rule out the slight possibility that the plagues that had befallen them and Dagon were purely chance occurrences, unrelated to their taking of the Ark, the Philistines determined to return hitch two milk cows that had never previously been yoked, separate them from their calves and see whether they would bring the Ark back to the land of Israel. They did, bringing the cart bearing the Ark up towards Beth Shemesh.

The Ark in the Wilderness

As Leithart points out, the people of Beth Shemesh sin in a number of respects. They offer a false sacrifice, offering the milk cows instead of the bulls required by the Law (Leviticus 1:3). They placed the Ark on a stone, and looked within it (or at it). It should have been kept covered and never touched. The people of Beth Shemesh were struck with a dreadful plague as a result (6:19), suffering the same sort of judgment as the Philistines had.

The men of Beth Shemesh, fearful of YHWH’s judgment, wish to be free of the Ark, much as the Philistines did. The men of Kirjath Jearim bring the Ark there and leave it at the house of Abinadab, who consecrates his son to keep it (6:20—7:2). The city of Kirjath Jearim was one of the cities of the Gibeonites (Joshua 9:17), which means that its population was primarily Gentile, while under the rule of Israel. The Ark’s resting in a Gibeonite city and not being restored to the tabernacle is a sort of wilderness period, after release but prior to settlement and restoration. It would be almost a century before the Ark was brought up to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6), and even longer before the pieces of the torn house of YHWH were brought back together in the temple.


Twenty years after the return of the Ark to Israel, Samuel and the Israelites re-establish and affirm the covenant at Mizpah, acknowledging their sin, forsaking their false gods, and asking Samuel to pray for them. As they are doing this, the Philistines gather together and go up against Israel.

The contrast with the battle of Aphek is striking. Here the Israelites are the fearful ones, not the Philistines, as in chapter 4. However, even though they did not have the Ark of the Covenant to bring to the battle, the storm chariot of YHWH fought for them. YHWH thundered against the Philistines and confused them so that they were overcome (7:10) and fled before the Israelites.

Once the heart problem of the people had been addressed, the conquest of the land could occur in earnest. At the very place where the Philistines had camped twenty years earlier, prior to the battle of Aphek (4:1), Samuel establishes a memorial stone, Ebenezer, marking the help of YHWH that they had received to that point (7:12). All of the territory that they had lost to the Philistines was recovered, the Philistines were driven back, and YHWH judged the Philistines for all of the days of Samuel (vv.13-14).

In chapter 7 we see Hannah’s prayer coming to fruition. The corrupt house of Israel had been torn down at Aphek and the rich and the oppressors had been crushed – first with the battle of Aphek and its aftermath, the plaguing of the Philistines, and then in Samson’s crushing of the heads of the Philistines in the temple of their god. Now the poor and weak are being raised up from the dust, as they turn to YHWH in humility and repentance.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in 1 Samuel, Bible, Exodus, Lent, OT, OT Theology, Theological, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Crusade of the Lost Ark – 40 Days of Exoduses (22)

  1. Pingback: Samson on the Cross: A Good Friday Reflection | Alastair's Adversaria

  2. Pingback: #Luke2Acts – Some Notes on Luke 1 and 2 | Alastair's Adversaria

  3. Lynn says:

    Alistair, I’ve been reading these stories and I wanted to ask a question – it looks to me as though the original components of the Tabernacle are never all in the same place again after Shiloh. The ark and the tent of meeting are taken to Jerusalem for the temple, but the bronze altar stays at Gibeon, correct? And Solomon builds a new altar?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.