I Samuel 6

The Word Made Fresh

1The covenant chest of the LORD had been with the Philistines for seven months 2when they called a meeting of their priests and seers and asked them, “What should we do with this wooden chest that belongs to Israel’s LORD? Should we send anything with it when we return it to them?”

3They said, “Don’t send it away without sending something with it. Send a guilt offering along with it so you will be healed, and your guilt assuaged. Won’t the LORD’s anger turn away from you?”

4The Philistine leaders asked, “What kind of guilt offering do we need to send?”

5They said, “Five gold blisters and five gold mice. There are five leaders of the Philistines, and the same plague afflicted all of you. 6Make replicas of your blisters and the mice that have run amok among you. Give credit to the God of Israel, and maybe their God will ease up on you and your gods and your territory. 6Don’t be stubborn like the Egyptians and Pharaoh. After Israel’s God made fools of them, didn’t the Egyptians set them free to leave? 7This is what we recommend: prepare a new cart pulled by two milk cows that have never been yoked before and yoke them to the cart. Be sure to take their calves home and keep them out of sight. 8Put the wooden chest of Israel’s LORD on the cart and put the gold items in a box beside it as your guilt offering. Then send them off and let them choose which direction they will go. 9Watch carefully. If the cows go toward Beth-Shemesh in Israel’s territory, then Israel’s God is responsible for our suffering. But if they go in another direction, we’ll know their God had nothing to do with our troubles; it was just a chance occurrence.”

10The Philistines did just that. They yoked two milk cows to the cart and put their calves out of their sight. 11They placed the covenant chest on the cart and the box with the gold mice and gold images of their skin blisters. 12The cows went straight down the road toward Beth-Shemesh, mooing as they went, not turning left or right. The Philistine leaders followed them as far as the border at Beth-Shemesh.

13The people of Beth-Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley when they looked up to see the Lord’s covenant chest coming! They ran to meet it. 14The cows pulled the cart into the field belonging to a man from Beth-Shemesh named Joshua and stopped there. There was a large rock where they stopped, so they broke the cart apart and slaughtered the cows and offered them up as a burnt offering to the LORD. 15The Levites recovered the LORD’s covenant chest and the box with the gold figures in it, and the inhabitants of Beth-Shemesh brought sacrifices and burnt offerings to the LORD. 16The Philistine leaders saw all this and returned to Ekron.

17There were five gold blisters the Philistines sent as their guilt offering to the LORD, one for each of their key cities: Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron. 18And the number of gold mice was also equal to the number of cities belonging to the Philistines. The large rock they set the covenant box beside is still there as a witness in the field of Joshua of Beth-Shemesh.

19But the LORD struck down seventy of the men of Beth-Shemesh because they opened the covenant chest and looked inside. The people mourned at their loss, 20and said, “Who can survive the presence of the LORD, the holy God? Where can we send the covenant chest from here?”

21They decided to send messengers to Kiriath-Jearim and tell them, “The Philistines have returned the LORD’s covenant chest. Come get it and take it back to your town.”

Commentary

1-9: We learn now that the strange skin disease that appeared in Ashdod was accompanied by an infestation of mice. Tradition has it that they were suffering with bubonic plague, which is carried by fleas infesting the rodents that are carried on ships into ports. The Philistines were originally a sea-faring people. The bubonic plague can manifest itself with swollen lymph glands that can be as large as chicken eggs. They determine that their troubles began when the ark was captured, and so they decide to return it to the Israelites. They treat Israel’s God with more reverence and respect than Israel has these many years since the time of Joshua and Caleb. The ark is placed on a new cart drawn by fresh animals, accompanied by a guilt offering of golden replicas of the swollen blisters they are suffering and the mice which may have brought the plague, five of each to represent the five cities of the Philistines. They decide that if the animals draw the cart back to Israel’s territory, they will know that they have guessed correctly the cause of their troubles. Interestingly, they are familiar with the story of the exodus from Egypt, probably because for generations the Israelites and Philistines have been neighbors, and although hostile with one another, there have been some exchanges between them – remember Samson?

10-12: The cows pull the cart with the covenant chest directly to Beth-Shemesh, and the Philistines let it go.

13-16: The Israelites receive the cart with rejoicing, use it to make a fire, offer the two cows as a sacrifice and set up a makeshift altar on which they place the covenant chest and the gold objects of the Philistines. They then proceed to bring their own offerings and make sacrifices of thanksgiving to God, all under the watchful eye of the Philistines. When the Philistines see the ceremony, they are satisfied that they have done all they can to appease Israel’s God and return home to Ekron.

17-18: A note to tell us that the stone on which the cows were sacrificed is still there at the time of this writing. We are not told the final disposition of the golden mice and blisters, except that it winds up in the hands of the Levites.

19-21: But it appears that the chest is a dangerous thing even to the Israelites. Some of the Israelites do not properly honor the covenant chest when it arrives at Beth-Shemesh, and open it to look inside, and the Lord strikes seventy of them dead. Now the people of Beth-Shemesh are in the same position as the people of Ashdod: they want to get rid of the ark, so they summon a neighboring city to come get it.

Takeaway

We are not told of the disposition of the gold mice and blisters, but we are told that Levites collected the covenant chest and the gold images. The Levitical priests were set aside to serve the LORD and preserve the relationship between God and the people. When the priests are corrupt the people suffer. That was true in ancient Israel and is true today.