1 Samuel 4 (NRSV)
And the word of Samuel came to all Israel.
The Ark of God Captured
In those days the Philistines mustered for war against Israel, and Israel went out to battle against them; they encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek.
Who were the Philistines?
Towards the end of the thirteenth century, B.C.E., an immigrant people from the Aegean named the Philistines arrived in the eastern Mediterranean and occupied the southern coast of Palestine. Evidence from archaeological excavations suggests that these people were an advanced culture. Philistine artifacts, such as elaborately decorated pottery, indicate that these people maintained contact with other civilizations and suggest that the Philistines were involved in trade. Excavations of Philistine sites show settlements that reflect large, well-planned, fortified cities and cult centers, and suggest that the Philistines were the first people in Canaan with knowledge of iron metalworking. The Bible does not portray the Philistines as an advanced civilization, but rather as a godless, barbaric culture that was a constant threat to the Israelites. Today, even the name “Philistine” evokes the image of an uncultured individual.
2The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle was joined, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3When the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
The ark of the covenant of the Lord was the most sacred piece in the tabernacle. It belonged in the Most Holy Place inside the tabernacle, where the high priest entered only once a year to ask for forgiveness for the sins of the nation. On top of the ark were two gold angels which represented the presence of God. Inside the ark were the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments and other objects important to the history of God’s chosen people.
But neither the priests nor the people seemed to care about holiness. Instead, they saw the ark as a source of power and help — a kind of good luck charm or lucky rabbit’s foot. They looked to the ark to save them, rather than the Lord.
4So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
5When the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6When the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?”
When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7the Philistines were afraid; for they said, “Gods have come into the camp.” They also said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, in order not to become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”
It seems the Philistines have a higher regard for God’s power, and a better memory of his deeds, than do the Israelites!
10So the Philistines fought; Israel was defeated, and they fled, everyone to his home.
There were three reasons for this great defeat. First, the Philistines fought with the courage of desperate men. Second, the Israelites felt the battle would be easy with the ark of the Covenant there, and did not try as hard. Finally, God did not bless Israel’s superstitious belief in the power of the ark instead of the power of God.
There was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. 11The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
The priests who were supposed to supervise the ark were killed in the battle. God promised the two sons of Eli would die on the same day as proof of His ultimate judgment on the house of Eli (1 Samuel 2:34). Now the proof of judgment came.
Death of Eli
12A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line, and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with earth upon his head. 13When he arrived, Eli was sitting upon his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. When the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out.
14When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?”
Then the man came quickly and told Eli. 15Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set, so that he could not see. 16The man said to Eli, “I have just come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.”
He said, “How did it go, my son?”
17The messenger replied, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great slaughter among the troops; your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.”
18When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years.
What killed Eli?
a) the loss of the battle
b) the loss of his sons
c) the loss of the Ark of the Covenant
19Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. When she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth; for her labor pains overwhelmed her. 20As she was about to die, the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or give heed.
21She named the child Ichabod, meaning, “The glory has departed from Israel,” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22She said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
What killed the wife of Phinehas?
a) the loss of her husband
b) the loss of her father-in-law
c) the loss of the Ark of the Covenant
HERE is “And the Glory of the Lord” from Messiah, by G. F. Handel. Performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus. The text is Isaiah 40:5 — “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.