A Game of Divine Hot Potato.
“So they called together the rulers of the five Philistine cities and asked, “What should we do with the Ark of the God of Israel?” The rulers discussed it and replied, “Move it to the city of Gath.” So they moved the Ark of the God of Israel to Gath.” – 1 Samuel 5:8 NLT
This is a great story. Unless of course, you happened to be a Philistine. It seems that after the defeat of the Israelites at the hand of the Philistines and their capture of the Ark of the Covenant, things got a little hot in the city of Ashdod. That’s where they took the Ark and put it only display as kind of a trophy in the temple to their own god, Dagon. During the night, the statue of Dagon took a nose dive and they found it the next morning lying prostrate before the Ark. They stood it back up and the next night it fell again. Only this time its head and hands were sheered off on the threshold. This was a divine message from God because “the hand of the Lord was heavy on the Ashdodites” (1 Samuel 5:6). And things were about to get worse. Their god was not going to be the only one to suffer. God ravaged them with tumors or emrods, a word that could have signified that God struck them with hemorrhoids! A disease you wouldn’t wish on your own worst enemy. Regardless of what these tumors were exactly, they were painful and even the Philistines recognized that they were a retribution from God. So the men of the city of Ashdod hold a pow-wow and come up with a plan. They decide to get rid of the Ark by sending it to the city of Gath, another neighboring Philistine city. I’ve always loved this story because it reveals the heart of man – our stupidity, selfishness, and insensitivity. The men of Ashdod know full well that the Ark is the source of their problems and their pain, but they are more than willing to send it to the city of Gath so that it can become a literal pain in the rear to the people there. They just want their suffering to end, and they don’t care who they hurt in order to make that happen.
The Ark arrives in the city of Gath and it isn’t long before the same problems break out. The men of Gath then send the Ark to the city of Ekron. By now, the word had gotten out and when the men of Ekron see the Ark, they rightfully panic. “So the people summoned the rulers again and begged them, ‘Please send the Ark of the God of Israel back to its own country, or it will kill us all.’ For the plague from God had already begun, and great fear was sweeping across the city” (1 Samuel 5:11 NLT). For more than seven months the Ark made its way from city to city, bringing death and destruction wherever it went. God was dealing with them harshly. So the Philistines consult with their priests and diviners, asking for their advice as to what to do. Their recommendation? Send the Ark back to Israel. Get rid of it. Give the God of Israel back His Ark along with some tokens of sacrifice and maybe He will relent on the tumors and the plague of mice that was devastating the land (1 Samuel 6:5). So the Philistines agree to send back the Ark. They load it on a cart along with some golden replicas of the tumors and mice, hitch two milk cows to the cart and send it on its way. Miraculously ignoring their calves, the cows make a bee-line to the Israelite city of Beth-shemesh. The residents of this levitical city welcome back the Ark by offering sacrifices to God. The only problem is, 70 men of the city ignore the sacredness of the Ark, look inside, and are struck dead by God. This was in direct violation of the Mosaic law prohibiting anyone from looking inside the Ark (Numbers 4:5, 20; cf. 2 Samuel 6:6-7). So the people of the city react in fear and decide to get rid of the Ark one more time. They send it on to the city of Kiriath-jearim.
As has been the base all along, we see in this story the omnipotent, sovereign hand of God at work. The Israelites attempted to use the Ark as a good luck charm, only to lose it in battle to the Philistines. But God would use these circumstances to teach the Philistines about His power. It is interesting that Dagon was their fertility god, but he lost his head and hands before God, and the land was devastated by mice, probably destroying crops and contaminating their stores of grain. But in verse 13 of chapter six, we see that harvest had come to the people of Israel. God had been blessing them while He had been destroying the people of Ashdod. In spite of Israel’s sacrilegious treatment of the Ark, God faithfully returned it to them. But He wanted them to learn to treat it and Him with a sense of holy awe and respect. It was not some good luck charm or talisman. It was a holy vessel set apart for God’s use in His tabernacle. It was not to be taken lightly or treated flippantly. It belonged to God. God takes His holiness seriously, even if we don’t. He demands our awe and respect, and deserves it.
Father, You are a holy God. You deserve our obedience and respect. Forgive us for taking You for granted and treating You flippantly and lightly. You are set apart. You are truly unique and one of a kind. Everything about You is holy. May we learn to treat You with the dignity and respect You deserve. But thank You for Your faithfulness in spite of our faithlessness. Amen
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men