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              The Captured Ark:  The Phillistines Steal God (Or Did They?)

             

 

  The Ark of the Covenant, once designed and built to be God's resting place among His people Israel during most of their 40 years wanderings, was both holy and potent.  Basically a gold sheeted decorated wooden box with a gold sheathed lid, the Levite priests (only those from the Israelite tribe of Levi were allowed to be priests, by God's specific command) carried it using poles that slipped through rings on its corners.  On top of its gold plated wooden lid two seraphim faced each other, from opposite ends of the lid, with their wings outstretched towards each other, touching above the center of the lid.  I cannot discern from the scriptures description if it was both wings, or one wing each.  

  The area between the seraphim, fashioned into the top of the lid, was called the 'mercy seat'.  It seems to have been a dished out area.  On the Day of Atonement each year the Israelite High Priest would drip the blood of a ceremonially sacrificed goat upon the mercy seat to obtain God's forgiveness of the Israelites' sins for that year. 

  The image conveyed in the mind though, and this is speculation, is that the shed blood of the lamb on the seat of mercy suffices to atone for sins.  There would come a day when Jesus, the Lamb of God, would be crucified.  And His blood would suffice to cover  the sins of many.  Many Christians today feel that they recognize this lid of the Holy Ark as a foreshadowing of Jesus and His once and final sacrifice for the sins of all men who would turn to Him. ***It is also interesting to note that just as the mercy seat had seraphim on each side of it, a crucified Jesus had another crucified person on each side of him.  Was that so it would be symbolic of the 'mercy seat'?  A crucified person has outstretched arms.  The seraphim on the mercy seat had outstretched wings.  It would be interesting to see exactly how the three crucified persons were physically oriented with respect to each other on that long ago day.***

              But, back to the subject, it was the Father, our Maker, who dwelled in the ark at His own pleasure, choosing this humble home to be with and reassure His people, the newly minted nation of Israel.  And sometimes when His people did battle with the nations that offered them harm, or the nations that had become so evil that God directed Israel to wipe them out, God would come forth against such peoples with weapons that only heaven could have sent:  Objects flying down from the sky upon their armies but not on the Israelites.  Unexplained fear gripping whole armies.  Strange confusions which caused the enemy armies to break out in fighting among themselves.  One Israelite soldier, or only a few, might be able to face and repel outlandish numbers of enemy soldiers.  All such things and more happened during the course of the years that the ark was with Israel during battle.

              And these ancient Middle East nations traded and communicated with each other just as we do today.  They heard the regional news.  They found out what happened to Egypt when God sent Moses to bring His people out of Egypt to the land long ago promised to Abraham.  There were the terrible plagues, and there was the parting of the Red sea, and there was the pillar of flame at night and the pillar of cloud by day which led the Israelites through the Sinai peninsula as they wandered for 40 years at God's direction.  Israel's God was widely known, and so was His Ark.

              But just as God did marvelous things for His people when they were obedient, so did He become disappointed and angry with them when they were unfaithful or disobedient.  Such periods of falling away are often called apostasy, and it was during one of these periods that the Ark was once captured by an enemy army. 

              The Phillistines were a strong sea going people that came into the land of Canaan and occupied the coastal plains.  They occupied it by strength of arms, and were a force to be reckoned with, having weapons of iron, a tremendous advantage over copper and bronze. 

              To understand how much better iron was, consider that a man with a copper sword might typically rush forward in battle and take a might swing at his enemy.  He might then often be forced to fade back into the pack with a badly bent sword to step on it with his foot while he tried to straighen it out.  Then he would go forward and fight some more.  And of course they lost their sharpness right away.  Bronze was stronger, but nothing like iron.  The Philistines didn't allow Israel to have much iron, and working with metals (blacksmithing) was very restricted for subjugated peoples  You had to go down to a Philistine town, for instance, to get your iron metal tools sharpened.  In this way they kept the defeated peoples weak, poorly armed, and at their mercy.

              The Philistines had 5 principal cities, Ashkelon, Gath, Ekron, Ashdod, and Gaza.  From these bases of power they were able at times throughout history to overpower Israel, even ruling over them.  For several centuries the Phillistines were perhaps Israel's greatest enemy, before the coming of King David who broke their power and subjugated those that did not choose to emigrate elsewhere. 

              Once during a period when Israel was being disobedient, and the duties of the High Priesthood had largely passed from a fairly good priest named Eli (still High Priest, but very very old) to his not so good sons Hophni and Phinehas, there was a clash, an uprising, between the Philistines and Israel.  Israel called upon their God and went out to battle.  But they were defeated terribly in battle, receiving no help from God because they had been a disobedient people.  The Philistines were encouraged by this.

              To try to save the situation the priests allowed the Ark of the Covenant to be brought out to the Israelite army, so that God could be right there to fight with the soldiers.  That was not usually done, for the Ark was normally kept in the Holy Tabernacle during this time period.  The Israelite army was greatly encouraged, and cheered loudly when the Ark was carried to the battlefield. 

              When the Philistines were able to determine what the cheering was about in their enemy's camp, a sense of dread fell over them.  They knew about the Ark.  Everyone around that area of the world knew about the Ark.  It was a sobering thought to know your enemy had brought the Ark to the battle, for it was the most fearful object that had ever existed, at least at such times as the Lord came out from it to fight for His people.

              But in those days, courage was very important.  In a time when all nations might capitalize on anothers weakness it was essential that people believe that no matter what they might send at you, you were going to face them with courage and fury.  Attitude!  Reputation!  Their commanders told them they must remember they were Philistines, and they must fight bravely, and so they did.

              To the Israelites dismay, when the battle was rejoined God did not fight for his people.  Their evil actions of late had finally angered Him to the point where He let them face the music alone.  Their army was defeated.  The High Priest's evil sons, who brought the ark out to them, were killed.  The Ark of the Covenant, the dwelling place of Israel's God,  was captured and stolen!

             

              The aged high priest of Israel, Eli, a heavy man, fell off a bench and broke His neck when he heard the bad news. The Philistines had captured God's holy residence on Earth and taken it back with them as a trophy of war.  Israel was in mourning and lay in a shambles.

              But bad as the day was for the Israelites, it was just as good for the Philistines.  They had greatly defeated and humiliated their enemy.  And they had captured the most potent weapon that had ever been known - the holy residence of the renowned God of the Hebrews!  They had the Ark!!  Word must have raced through their land.  Perhaps the 5 great cities of the Philistines argued over who would get to house it.  But it finally went to the city of Ashdod, and was set by the Philistine priests beside a stone statue of Dagon, their most important God.  This was a sign of honor to the Hebrew God, who dwelt in the Ark.  Now He would get to be one of their gods!  It was a very exciting day for the Philistine nation.  VERY EXCITING!!

              But in the morning, when they entered the temple to make the daily offerings, mighty Dagon had somehow fallen off his pedestal and was on his face on the floor as if worshipping the ark.  Very puzzling.  Disturbing.  They set him back up where he belonged.  But the next morning he had fallen again, and worse - his head and hands had broken off.  He was a broken statue of stone, face down before the Ark of the Covenant.  Then the plagues started.

 

 

              Tumors broke out on young and old, and people died of them.  Rodents were everywhere.  The plague became so severe that the area around Ashdod was being destroyed by it.  It was not stopping.  So the 5 lords of the Philistines met and said "What should we do with this Ark?" They took it to the city of Gath.    

              As Gath began to be destroyed by plague in the same manner, it was suddenly not so fun to be the people who stole the earthly chosen home of the God of the Hebrews.  The big question on the minds of this once mighty people was "How can we get rid of this thing before it gets rid of us?"

              Gath quickly decided that it must be the city of Ekron's turn to get to keep the Ark, but when they carried it to that city, its people came out of the gates to turn them away, prudently refusing to accept it.  The Philistines had now posessed the ark for less than seven months and their nation was in crisis and in danger of being destroyed. They had made a terrible mistake - a very, very grave error.

              They called together their wise men and diviners.  These advised them to send back the ark, and with tresspass offerings.  They said 'Don't harden your heart like Pharoah and the Egyptians'.  They explained that maybe this God would remove His hand from their land if they acted with repentance towards Him. 

              There was some worry that the five lords of the Phillistines were going to look kind of unmanly to the nations around them if they did this, apologizing with their tail between their legs and giving back the ark.  But, there were a lot of reasonable thinkers there who realized that if they were dead, their reputation wouldn't matter much anyway. 

              Some people brought up the possibility that this was a natural plague.  Of course the keepers of Dagon's temple had reason to believe otherwise.  But they resolved finally on a unique sort of plan.  They would put the ark in a wagon.  They would place some tresspass offerings beside it - 5 golden 'tumor' sculptings, and 5 golden 'mouse' statues (one on behalf of each of their 5 great cities of those things these Philistines associated with their plague outbreak).  They would then hook up two oxen that were females with new calves, and which also had never pulled a wagon, and which also had never gone to the Israelite lands.  The calves would be penned up, so they couldn't follow their mothers (and mother oxen ordinarily don't leave their young calves.)

              The Philistines reasoned that if under such unlikely conditions the two mother oxen should abandon their calves and begin to pull the cart with the ark and the tresspass gifts towards Israel, then it had to be the God of the Hebrews causing it.

              And that is basically how it came about that the sad people of Beth-Shemesh in the mourning and heart broken territory of Israel happened to look up from harvesting their wheat fields and see a wonderful sight:  a wagon, with no driver, was being pulled along by two mother oxen, their udders big and full, who were lowing aloud as they went along.  And in the wagon surrounded by treasure was the chosen Earthly home of the God of Israel, returned by His power and according to His plan and at His preferred and chosen time to His chastened people.  God - our God - drove himself back in a wagon.   

              Far in the distance were the leaders of another chastened people, looking on from a hill - the Lords of the Philistines - watching a small nation receive back what the Philistines had never had:  a powerful and living God!

             

 

             

 

              There was joy in Israel; just imagine their rejoicing!  Full hearted rejoicing.  Yet, when some of the local area people decided to lift the ark's lid to look inside - and even the high priest would not do that without cause - a plague killing many people broke out in Israel.  God is to be loved, and admired, yes.  And He loves those that choose Him with a very great love.  But His ways are higher than ours, and He is always to be feared and respected -  first, last, and always.

              About 1000 years later, in 148 B.C., during the Maacabean period, the Jewish leaders Jonathan and Simon burned down the temple of Dagon in Ashdod.  Dagonnit anyway!  And that is a good enough place to end this recounting of a very great and powerful deed of our God, which can also be found in the Bible, better told there of course.  I think it one of the greatest stories in the Bible for some reason.  One of the greatest true stories ever told, in fact. 

©2017 Daniel Curry & 'Deeds of God' Website