1 SAMUEL 5
4 And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of Yahweh; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him.
The Philistines brought the ark in triumph to Ashdod, and placed it in the temple of the idol Dagon.
"They set it by Dagon,"
in token of Dagon having got the upper hand of the God of Israel, which they superstitiously considered the ark to be. This was a change in the situation of things, which evoked a corresponding change in the divine attitude. Though God dishonoured the ark when disobedient Israel clung to it idolatrously as a charm against evil, the case was different when it was used to the dishonour of His own name, and the exultation of a heathen idol.
He would not suffer this insult. He pulled the idol from its pedestal during the night, and flung it prostrate before the ark with a violence that broke off its head and hands. In addition to this, he plagued the inhabitants of the place with a painful disease.
The inhabitants rightly interpreted the omens, and refused to allow the ark to remain with them. At a public conference, it was decided to send it to Gath. It was sent to Gath, but the Gathites could not do with it any more than the men of Ashdod. The Gathites suffered exactly as the men of Ashdod had done,
9 And see, if it goeth up by the way of his own coast to Bethshemesh, then he hath done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us: it was a chance that happened to us.
They proposed that the ark should be placed on a new cart (made for the purpose, and, therefore, without such affinities as might be feared would attach to one that had been in use in some particular way); and that to the new cart should be yoked two cows in milk, whose calves should be taken from them and secured at home; and then to leave the cows undirected to take what route they liked.
The route for the land of Israel lay in one direction, and the road towards the calves in the opposite. In the ordinary working of nature, the disposition of the cows in such circumstances would have been to make straight home to the calves. Would they make towards the calves, or would they take the road to the land of Israel? The Philistines agreed to make the result turn on this.*
12 And the kine took the straight way to the way of Bethshemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left; and the lords of the Philistines went after them unto the border of Bethshemesh.
This was certainly a severe test, and it worked out with unmistakable simplicity and directness.
...The fact is, the animals were divinely impelled, and could no more resist the inclination to make toward Bethshemesh, than in the ordinary circumstances they could resist the inclination to go to the calves. Their decided preference for the route contrary to nature satisfied the lords of the Philistines, who followed them to Bethshemesh, and restored the ark to the land of Israel.*
19 And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of Yahweh, even he smote of the people 50 070 men: and the people lamented, because Yahweh had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.
But they shall not go in to see when the holy things are covered, lest they die. - Num 15:20
An imaginary narrative must needs have taken the form of depicting a degree of blessedness attending the progress of the ark in its own country corresponding with the distress inflicted on the Philistines while an exile from home. Instead of this, on the arrival of the ark in the midst of Israel,
"Yahweh had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter".
It was an appointment of the law that none but the high priest and sons were to look on the holy things on pain of death (Numbers 4: 15, 20). This law was broken at Bethshemesh; and a destructive manifestation of Yahweh's displeasure was the consequence.
If this happened then everything is established, from Genesis to Revelation. If it did not happen, it will baffle ingenuity to explain why a narrative so candid, so circumstantial, and so clear, should invent such a thing-a thing so discreditable to the nation for whom the record was written, and throwing so harsh a light (as looked at from a human standpoint) upon their own God.
There might be a degree of plausibility in attributing the record of the ark plagues among the Philistines, to the Jewish vanity of the recorder; but what is to be said about the record of destruction and disaster among the Jews themselves on the return of the ark? Such a record is only intelligible on the principle of its being true-a remark which increasing acquaintance with the Bible will endorse with increasing emphasis, concerning every separate part of the Bible, and especially concerning the Bible as a whole.*
21 And they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjathjearim, saying, The Philistines have brought again the ark of Yahweh; come ye down, and fetch it up to you.
The Israelites of Bethshemesh, like the Philistines of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron, were anxious to be rid of the ark which had been the occasion of such calamity in their midst. They therefore sent messengers to the Israelites of Kirjathjearim, apprising them that the Philistines had returned the ark, and asking them to take charge of it. The Israelites of Kirjathjearim complied with their request.*
*Visible hand of God Ch 22