The Philistines were an ancient people, who descended from Noah’s son Ham after the time of the flood. The Lord promised that the land of Israel would include the territory where the Philistines lived and this promise caused prolonged conflict, as Israel tried to displace the Philistines and they became mortal enemies for hundreds of years. They had different Gods and had different cultures, and they were both powerful and warlike people, and neither group wanted to be ruled by the other, so they constantly challenged the strength of each other to try and prove which one was better.
A priest named Eli had just retired and Samuel replaced him as the Judge. The Israelites mostly dwelled in the hills of Samaria, however in order to expand their trade routes, they pushed westwards towards the plains into Philistine territory. Their settlements along the western edge of the hills, including Eben-Ezer, were part of this push westwards and eventually pressure built up, which brought these two nations into a conflict. Samuel gave the word about the impending battle to all Israel, so the men of Israel went out to battle against the Philistines, and they pitched beside Eben-Ezer and the Philistines pitched their tents in Aphek.
On the first day of the engagement, the Philistines routed the Israelites on the battlefield, as they slew about four thousand men in Israel’s army at Eben-Ezer. When the Israel army regrouped back at the camp, the elders of Israel wondered, ‘Why had their God let the Philistines slaughter them this day?’ The Israelites saw how the Philistines had carried their idol Dagon, and his sacred symbols, into this war, and they wondered if this is what gave them the victory that day. Dagon was a fertility god, he was the head god for the Philistines and he looked like a half fish and half man. The Israelites made an effort to remedy their situation, by sending for the Ark of the Covenant to be brought to the battlefield, which was stationed at Shiloh. They reasoned that when it arrived at the battle, it would save them from their enemies, for the Ark of the Covenant is where God dwelled under the wings of the cherubim, and it contained the promises of Jehovah their God. When the Ark of the Covenant arrived at the Israelite camp, they all shouted with joy as they thought that it would give them success, because God had given them many victories before over their enemies while carrying the Ark.
The Philistines immediately attacked the Israelite camp for a second time, when they heard the shouts of the Israelites and they smote them in a great slaughter. This was one of the most catastrophic military losses in Israel’s history and it tragically resulted in 34,000 Israelite soldiers being killed. The two spiritual leaders, the sons of Eli were dead, and worst of all, the Ark of Covenant, which was brought to encourage the army, was taken by the Philistines. Samuel and a few elders of Israel survived the onslaught, but they could not understand why this battle turned into such a disaster. They did not realize that the spiritual decline of the nation had lost them God’s protection and assured their enemy’s victory. They had placed their confidence in the magic of the Ark, rather than the majesty of the Almighty, who resided above in heaven and not in the Ark. The Israelites tried to use the Ark of the Covenant as a good luck charm, but God had given conditional promises to Israel, and since Israel did not keep these conditions, the covenant with God was broken and God was not obligated to answer their prayers.
The Philistines chased the Israelites back to Shiloh and they destroyed the city. For the first time in its history, the ark was now in the hands of those who did not worship Jehovah. They took the Ark of God from the battle in Eben-Ezer, and brought it into Ashdod. In Ashdod, the Ark was placed in their pagan temple of Dagon, and the next morning the statue of Dagon had fallen on its face in front of the Ark. The Philistines restored the statue of Dagon, back into its upright place, but again the next morning it was found prostrate bowing to the Ark and this time its head and hands had also been broken off. The Philistines decided to move the Ark from Ashdod to Gath, but as soon as it arrived there, all the people became afflicted with hemorrhoids. The presence of the Ark in Gath caused extensive tumors and so much panic, that the people there had to find volunteers to take the Ark away.
They sent the Ark of God to Ekron, and when it arrived there, the Ekronites cried out in alarm, saying, ‘Woe to us! God has come into our camp. They have brought the Ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay all our people.’ While the Ark was in Ekron, the people realized that the severity of the punishments increased each time it was moved from town to town. They felt that the Ark of the Covenant was a curse to them, so they gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, ‘Send away the Ark of the God back to the people of Israel, and let it go again to his own place, so that we will not be slayed by Yahweh’s hand.’ The Philistines were so afraid of the Ark, that they returned it to the men of Beth-Shemesh. The Philistines did not know how to properly treat the ark, thus their desecration of the ark was a sin of ignorance.
The people who lived in the Israelite city of Beth-Shemesh were not properly trained how to take care of the ark either and they did not understand how to respect it, so being curious they decided to open it and see what was inside. This was in direct violation of how the ark was to be treated, and all those who looked inside died. After this catastrophe, the remaining citizens of Beth-Shemesh decided they did not want to have the ark in their city, and they sent it to another Israelite city. Curiosity killed the cat and many evils begin with curiosity.
Twenty years later, Saul became king, David rose in power, Saul died, and David was recognized as king over all Israel. David made Jerusalem his capital city and wanted the ark transported there. During this transport journey, Uzzah suffered divine punishment for desecration of the ark. From the time of Moses, the ark had been at the center of Israel’s temple worship as the representation of the earthly dwelling place of the Lord. Its design was given by revelation, and the ark was to be placed in the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle. Since the tabernacle was designed to be portable, there were specific instructions about how to move the ark.
The Lord commanded the Levites to carry the ark on their shoulders. The ark was designed for this method of transportation featuring four golden rings on the four corners held by two staves. Those who carried the ark put these staves on their shoulders, providing stable transportation without directly touching the ark. The Lord commanded that only one family among the Levites was authorized to carry the ark, who were the sons of Kohath. Kohath was the grandfather of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The ark was so sacred that the sons of Kohath were specifically warned that if they touched the ark, even while performing their duties, they would die.
David went to retrieve the ark accompanied by a large procession and he began the journey back to Jerusalem, however, during this trip the commandments about moving the ark were not followed. Instead of descendants of Kohath transporting the ark, two of the sons of Abinadab were selected and one of them was Uzzah. Also the ark was not carried with the staves on their shoulders, it was instead placed in a cart pulled by oxen.
Uzzah had good intentions when he saw that the ark was about to be tipped, because the oxen nearly upset it, so he put out his hand out to hold the ark, trying to protect the ark from falling off the cart. Uzzah committed a sin because the ark was not being transported properly as it should have been securely resting on the staves on the shoulders of those carrying it. Uzzah was struck dead by God because he violated the law, and the punishment for what he did was death.
Written for this week’s One-Liner Wednesday prompt from Linda G. Hill.