The Philistines have captured the Ark of the Lord but have paid a heavy price because of it. Dagon took a nose dive, tumors erupted and the countryside was ravaged by mice. Time to get rid of the Ark and hope for healing.
When we left our story the Ark was at Ekron. The people did NOT want it there! They equated its presence with death and disease. In truth it was God’s displeasure with His Ark being in their hands. Let’s be honest here and admit to the fact that it wasn’t ALL the Philistines fault that the Ark was in their possession. Israel sent for it on the field of battle WITHOUT
consulting the Lord about it. Hophni and Phinehas were the WORST of the priests, yet they were the ones who escorted it into battle. Eli KNEW God was going to punish his sons and he let them leave with the Ark anyway. And let’s not forget God. He KNEW what was going to happen. He intentionally withdrew His hand of protection from the whole initiating event. He ALLOWED the Ark to be captured. But He also determined to teach the Philistines a lesson through its capture.
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The Ark of the God of Israel has been moved from one key city to another since its capture. Disaster and disease follow wherever it goes. The people are beside themselves with fear! They want the Israel’s God GONE! It has been more than six months of one disaster after another. Ekron is its final stopping place.
The people of Ekron had heard of the trouble following Israel’s God around and wanted nothing to do with it but their cries go unheeded. The Ark is sitting in their midst and wreaking its havoc. The king of Ekron calls for his scribe and his fastest runners.
“Send word to the lords of Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon and Gath. We must meet together to determine what to do with the Ark of Israel’s God. Have them assemble her within the week and bring their priests and diviners with them.”
As soon as the words are written the runners are dispatched to their destinations. The king of Ekron has already decided that the Ark must be sent back to Israel. There is nowhere left for him to send it in Philistia. He needs the other Philistine lords to agree with him and for the diviners and priests to prescribe how this will happen.
After everyone is assembled in the hall of the king of Ekron the discussion begins in earnest.
“I cannot have Israel’s God in my territory! It brings nothing but death and disease! Will any of you take it into your own lands?”
An immediate chorus of “No!” and “Never!” breaks out. No one wants what it brings with it. This is a war trophy without a home in the country that captured it.
“I propose we send it back to Israel. Let them deal with it” proposes the king of Ekron. There is immediate agreement to this idea.
“Tell us with what we shall send it to its place” (verse 2b) inquires the king of Ekron of all those present.
The high priest of Ekron speaks for the group of diviners and priests. “If you send away the Ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return Him a guild offering. That you will be healed, and it will be known to you why His hand does not turn away from you” (verse 3).
They all agrees that this is a good idea but what kind of offering is the next question on their lips. “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to Him?” (verse 4a) inquires the king of Gath.
The priests and diviners converse for a few minutes. It takes little time at all for them to come up with an appropriate offering. It will represent ALL of the Philistine lords and the plagues that they have suffered. “Your offering should be ‘five golden tumors and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines, for the same plague was on all of you and your lords. So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel’ (verses 4b-5a)” the high priest of Ekron offers.
The kings all scowls and murmuring is heard at this last part; giving glory to the God of Israel. It looks like they might reject the whole plan on account of this stipulation.
Quickly the high priest of Ekron offers hope. “Perhaps He will lighten His hand from off you and your gods and your land. Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After He had dealt severely with them, did they not send the people away, and they departed?” (verses 5b-6).
This reminder of Israel’s past is enough to remove all reservations the kings had. “It will be done! We will not refuse to honor Israel’s God. Tell us what must be done” commands the king of Gath.
The high priest of Ekron breathes a sigh of relief. He wants Israel’s God’s Ark gone and is ready to do whatever it takes to see that it happens. All his counterparts are in complete agreement on seeing it OUT of their land! “Take and prepare a new cart and two milk cows on which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. And take the Ark of the Lord and place it on the cart and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to Him as a guilt offering. Then send it off and let it go its way and watch. If it goes up on the way to its own land to Beth-shemesh, then it is He who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not His hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence” (verses 7-9).
Now that a plan has been formed craftsmen are immediately commissioned in the city of Ekron. The Philistine lords agree that there is not time to return to their own lands to complete their portions of the offering. None of them will rest easy again until they see the Ark of Israel’s God leave their lands.
Within days the cart and guilt offering castings are readies. Each king presented his latest tumor for removal and casting. Five mice were plunged into the vat of gold for casting and added to the offering being prepared. A new yoke was even made for the milk cows to wear. All is in readiness.
All the Philistine lords, priests and diviners assemble once again.
“Bring two milk cows from my herd” orders the king of Ekron.
Two cows of equal size are brought to the waiting assembly. As the group looks on the two cows are yoked together and attached to the cart. Next the Ark of the Lord is carefully placed on the cart. Finally, next to the Ark is placed an ornate box that contains the tumors and mice of the guilt offering.
“What do we do now” asks the king of Ashdod.
Before the words even have a chance to fade in the air the milk cows begin moving. Even though they have never worn a yoke or asked to do a day’s work beyond caring for their young and providing milk to the maids who tend them, they move together as if they are a well-trained team. They move “straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh” (verse 12a) lowing as they go. They have no need of driver, bit or reign. They don’t turn either right or left from the road that leads out of Philistia and into Israel.
The Philistine lords follow the cows and cart as it makes it way down the highway. They go as far as the border of Beth-shemesh. There is NO doubt remaining in their minds as to the question of coincidence or divine judgement. Relief washes over the group as they watch from a hiding place as the people of Israel receive their God back.
The cart continues on until it reaches a field on the outside of town. The people of the town were engaged in harvesting their wheat when they heard the cart approaching. Instead of seeing one of their neighbors coming to offer help they see a cart carrying a large covered object.
Joshua, the owner of the field where the cart is nearing, runs over to stop the cart before it strikes someone. The wheat on that side of the field has already been harvested and bundled but a driverless cart can cause a LOT of damage.
Before Joshua even lays a hand on the team or cart, it comes to a stop. Joshua is surprised to see two cows with swollen udders in the place oxen should be occupying. He is also curious to know what they have brought and where it came from. As he steps to the side of the cart he starts to reach a hand out to grasp the covering but then he freezes when he sees the gold poles poking out front and back of the object. He steps back in wonder and fear. “Could this be what I think it is?!”
Work stopped in the field when Joshua ran towards the cart. All eyes watch him as he makes his discovery.
“It is the Ark of the Lord” yells Joshua.
People come running to join him. Questions and shouts of joy ring out from those assembled.
“Are you sure?” “How can this be?” “Praise be the Lord!” “Where did it come from?”
A group of four men approach the ark and attempt to lift its cover. As soon as their hands touch the covering they fall to the ground as if struck by lightning. They scream and convulse for but a moment before the life leaves them all.
The crowd is stunned into silence at the sight.
Finally Joshua gets hold of his excitement and fear. He needs to call for the Levites. They are the only ones who will be able to touch the ark. He seizes his oldest son by the shoulders and turns him so they are face to face. “I need you to go into the city. Go to the house of the priest and tell him what we have found. Go as fast as you can. Stop for no one.”
Joshua’s son takes off as if he is an arrow being released from a drawn bow. He is fleet of foot and will have word to its intended destination faster than any other man could have.
While his son is on his mission Joshua stands firm in a mission of his own. He is determined to ensure that no one else touch the Ark of the Lord while they await the Levites. “Stand back all of you! We must not touch the sacred things of the Lord. It would dishonor Him. My son has gone to fetch the Levite.”
This warning is all it took for the rest of the people to move back even farther. While they wait for the Levite to arrive the men who were struck dead are pulled away from the cart. Those who have performed this task will have to perform the ritual for cleansing at the end of the day but at least the Levite won’t become unclean as he cares for the ark.
The Philistine lords are watching from cover and have witnessed the death of the men who tried to lift the cover. “Israel’s God lets no one look on His Ark. Neither Philistine nor Israelite. I wish we had known this beforehand.”
Joshua’s son returns and he is accompanied by not just one but several Levites. The task of caring for the ark takes at least four Levites so the Levite Joshua’s son was sent to called out for assistance. They enter the circle of people who wait around the Ark.
“This is indeed the Ark of the Lord! Praise His name for He has returned it to us!” This call goes up from the town’s head Levite. “We must make a sacrifice of thanks giving to the Lord.”
The milk cows had drawn their cargo very close to a large flat stone at the edge of the field. This natural stone was part of the boundary of Joshua’s field. It had stood sentinel for his family since the tribe of Judah divided the land by clan and family. This stone will serve well as the place of offering to the Lord.
Four Levites move into position beside the four extended pole ends. Together they lift the Ark of the Lord from the cart and carefully carry it to the stone. Gently and with great respect they place in the center of the stone. Before turning loose they ensure it is stable on its foundation.
The head Levite returns to the cart and retrieves the ornate box that accompanied it. He opens the box to find tem golden objects. Five of them appear to be rodents but the other five are oddly shaped. There is nothing accompanying them stating what they are supposed to be. His fellow Levites examine the items in the box and one concludes that they look very much like tumors. The number of each of these items corresponds to the five major cities of the Philistines. “These appear to be part of an offering from the Philistines” reasons the head Levite. All agree and the box is placed near the Ark of the Lord.
Once the Philistines’ offering is in place it is time for Israel’s offering. Joshua instructs his men to break the cart and yoke into pieces. “This will be the wood for our offering” says the Levite. He takes the wood and lays it on the ground near the base of the stone that holds the Ark.
It is time for the offering itself. The head Levite removes a knife he carries from his robe. He has one with him at all times for when he is called upon to make an offering. He quickly slits the throats of the two cows and lets their blood run out on the ground hear the base of the stone. He then cuts their bodies into pieces. The bodies of both cows are arranged on the wood. Finally a torch is brought and laid to the base of the offering. Fire springs forth and consumes the offering within minutes.
The Philistine lords looking on have seen enough. The Ark of the God of Israel is back where it belongs. Their guilt has been atoned for in the offering of the tumors, mice, and cows. They pray this is enough to remove the hand of Israel’s God on them. There is nothing left for them to do but return to their own country and see the evidence of their supplication.
The women begin to dance and sing praises to the Lord. The men of the city decide to offer sacrifices to the Lord also and before long Joshua’s field is turned into a place of worship. Each offering is presented at the base of the stone on which the Ark of the Lord rests. Each man rejoices as he concludes his sacrifice of praise unto the Lord and returns to join his fellow revelers.
By the time the sacrifices finally conclude much of the day has passed. The revelers have broken into groups, some large and some small. Most of the groups are sharing of the meat that returned to them from their sacrifice. The original two cows were the only sacrifice that was completely consumed and consecrated to the Lord. The spirit in Joshua’s field continues to be one of thanks giving.
There is one group however that has a different plan in mind. This is the closest ANY of the people have ever been to the Ark of the Lord. It has been hidden away in the Holy of Holies their entire lives. Who knows when anyone will ever get to see it again. Even when the Levites were performing the sacrifices here today it stayed covered. This group is intent on getting a peek beneath the cover. Their hearts are bursting with curiosity and daring. Now that the sacrifices are completed they will make their move.
The Levites have all been included in different groups who are sharing their meals. None are standing guard over the Ark. The group of brash young men make their move. They heard of the four men who died when they touched the covering of the Ark earlier. They will not make that same mistake. Instead they have brought sticks that they will use to raise just one side of the cover with. The slip around the back side of the ark and prepare to act. They wait until the crowd in the field seems to be the loudest. The crowd has been going in waves of excitement all day and they are just waiting for another one to crest before they make their move.
Song breaks forth in one of the groups and others join in as if a wave of fire were moving throughout the field. “This is about as good as it’s going to get” one of the crouching young men whispers to his colleague. They are the ones holding the sticks. His partner nods and the two of them quickly insert their sticks under the edge of the covering and lift. Before even raising the covering a hands’ breadth screams of pain erupt from the entire group. They all fall to the ground, writhing in pain.
Alerted by the screams the rest of the occupants of the field turn their attention to this group. The first ones on the scene are struck with terror at the sight. The young mens’ skin appears as if it has melted like a candle. Their screams have nearly died out as there is little life left in those lying on the ground. The ones that are still crying out will cease to do so very soon.
The Levites push their way to the front and shout for the people to move back. It is obvious by the charred sticks what this group was attempting to do. They have received their just reward from the Lord. He is NOT to be mocked.
But their fate also strikes fear into the hearts of every father in the assembly. Could one of these lying here be their own son? If not now, could their own succumb to the same temptation? Something has to be done before anyone else falls prey to this sin.
“God is HOLY! ‘Who is able to stand before the Lord, this Holy God? And to whom shall He go up away from us?’ (verse 20b).”
This call was made by the head Levite. Not even he trusts that the people would remember this lesson and not repeat it. This town has too many inhabitants and the nation has wandered away from the Lord too far to be trusted.
Joshua has a suggestion. He has relatives near the city of Kiriath-jearim who fear the Lord and have kept His commandments. “Let me send a message to my cousin Abinadab in the town of Kiriath-jearim. He can come with some of the men from his family and take the Ark of the Lord into his own home. It will be safe there until the Lord moves to bring it back unto His Tabernacle.”
Joshua is a well-respected man in Beth-shemesh so the people readily agree. Word is immediately sent to Abinadab right away. While awaiting an answer Joshua and his sons stand guard against any further attempts to approach the Ark of the Lord.
Three days later a contingent of men from Kiriath-jearim arrives. In their number are six Levites. Four of them will carry the Ark of the Lord. A fifth will precede the Ark and the sixth will follow. This is how they plan to keep any from approaching and angering the Lord. The remaining men will see to the needs of the Levites and ensure their safety as they travel to Abinadab’s home.
Joshua and his sons are glad to see the Ark of the Lord on its way. They know it is one step closer to being back where it belongs. They also know that it will be well cared for where it is going.
While waiting for the arrival of the Ark of the Lord, Eleazar, Abinadab’s son has been preparing its place. A room has been cleaned to within an inch of its life and a heavy curtain hung across the doorway. It is a room where the family will not be allowed to enter as it will belong to the Lord. It will be a little crowded in the home for a time as this room once was the sleeping space for Eleazar and his wife. A new room for them will be constructed when time permits.
The Ark of the Lord arrives on the doorstep of Abinadab. Before it enters his house he wants the Levites to offer a special blessing for his house. He wants it to be a worthy place for the Ark of the Lord to rest in its journey.
“Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, look down on this humble home as it is offered to You as a place of refuge. Bless those who watch over Your holy Ark while it rests in its travels. Keep their hearts and minds fully grounded in Your Laws. Keep their feet from straying from Your path. And bring Your Ark once again to Your Tabernacle at Your appointed time.”
After the blessing was completed Abinadab opened his home and received the Ark of the Lord. Eleazar led the way to the place where it would stay. Once the Ark was settled everyone withdrew and the curtain was let down across the door.
“Before we depart we will consecrate your son Eleazar to minister to the Ark of the Lord” instructs the lead Levite.
“This is good as I am an old man and do not know how many more years the Lord will bless me with. My son Eleazar has followed the Law of Moses from his youth. He will do well as one to watch over the Ark of the Lord.”
Abinadab and Eleazar quickly gathered wood and a ram for a sacrifice. The Levites prepared the sacrifice according to the Law of Moses. Abinadab brought out precious oil he had been saving to bring to Shiloh as part of his offering.
Eleazar bowed before the Levites and they poured the oil on his head. The also put some of the blood of the sacrifice they had made onto his right thumb, his right earlobe and big toe of his right foot. He was now set apart to care for the Ark of the Lord.
Eleazar would serve in this role for twenty years as he kept the Ark of the Lord and all the ordinances pertaining to it faithfully. God would also bless Abinadab’s home during these years as he was faithful in all he did.
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Father God, when reading Your stories earlier about the building of Your Ark I wanted to peek beneath the blanket too. I long to know what it really looks like. I have a feeling I would have been in the wrong company that day in Joshua’s field! I’m glad I wasn’t given that opportunity to tempt You. I pray my telling of this story doesn’t test Your patience either. I don’t know if there really was a group that got in trouble or if those who stared at Your Ark as it passed along were the ones judged. The people were permitted to see the Ark as it traveled with them while under its cover. I’m assuming that this is the state in which it was returned to Israel. I can’t see You punishing someone for simply looking up as it approached.
I KNOW You are HOLY. But do I demonstrate that knowledge in how I approach You and Your word? I PRAY that the extra time I spend trying to figure out the little details communicates my desire to honor You with the stories we craft together. I NEVER want to write a story that disrespects You or goes against Your word. Thank You for speaking to my heart in stories. I’m looking forward to an eternity of them in TRUE first person when I see You face to face. Until then, keep sending me pictures to paint with words so I can share what I see while on Your lap.