“And the ark of God was taken” (1 Sam 4:11, 17, 19, 21). Although this was just part of what was shared with Eli after the Israelites were defeated by the Philistines, it was the most devastating news. Let’s learn more about the account of the capture and return of the ark in 1 Samuel 4–6 with some help from the Oxford Bible Commentary.  


The narrative now focuses on the ark. Samuel disappears from the scene. Eli and his sons show up only briefly (4:4b, 12–22) and there is little interest in Shiloh. The ark narrative (4:1b—7:1; 2 Sam 6) is a self-contained literary entity recording the fortunes of the ark until its installation in Jerusalem. The main theme of this theological narrative is the power of YHWH in ‘The ark of the covenant of God’.

The Capture of the Ark (4:1b–22)

The Philistines appear on the scene without introduction. According to the longer Greek text they were responsible for engaging Israel in battle, and the position of the two camps at Ebenezer and Aphek in the southern end of the plain of Sharon indicates that they were intent on gaining land further north, which was also of interest to the Israelites in their movement westwards. This reflects a recurring position until their ultimate defeat by David. Israel was conquered twice; on the first occasion the enemy’s success was due to God’s decision ‘to put us to rout today’ (v. 3), and on the second occasion it occurred despite God’s presence in battle (v. 7).

The ark is also introduced into the narrative without explanation. But such passages as Num 10:35-6 and 2 Sam 6:2 show that it had an important place in Israel’s battles. It was the visible sign of God’s presence and designated his covenant with his people and his enthronement in majesty on the cherubim. Although Israel brought it out to secure victory and greeted it with a battle-cry (v. 5), they experienced defeat. The author provides no explanation for such a calamity, but v. 11 (recalling 2:34) attributes it to the degenerate priesthood of Shiloh.

Two speeches in the narrative acknowledge the power of YHWH. After the first defeat the elders of Israel advised the people to bring the ark ‘that he may come among us and save us’ (v. 3). When the ark came the Philistines felt helpless against ‘The power of these mighty gods’ (vv. 7–9). Although the Philistines, according to this account, regarded the Israelites as worshippers of several gods, they were aware of the Exodus tradition.

Devastating Repercussions

A messenger delivers news of Israel’s defeat to Eli (vv. 12-22), who was more concerned about the ark than anything else (v. 13).

  • It was the fate of the ark, mentioned as a climax to a triad of calamities, that killed him (vv. 17-18).
  • News about the ark (v. 19) also made Phinehas’s wife give premature birth leading to her untimely death.
  • The name of her son, Ichabod (‘where is glory?’ or ‘alas (for) glory’), and her death-cry both allude to the loss of the ark.

The Ark Among the Philistines (5:1–12)

The clash between Israelites and Philistines moves to another plane; the struggle for possession of territory became a contest between the gods of the two peoples. As was customary in the ancient Near East, idols of the gods of those who had been vanquished (in this case ‘The ark of God’) were carried to the temple of the victors and placed beside the idols of their gods as an indication of the latter’s supremacy over the former. Thus, the Philistines take the ark to the temple of Dagon, a Semitic deity identified in Ugaritic texts as the father of Baal and possibly a vegetation deity (cf. Heb. dagan, ‘grain’).

God Among the Idols

The narrative’s main theme is the power of YHWH. The contest with other deities (vv. 2–5) and the plagues which he brought upon his foes (vv. 6–12) illustrates this. Dagon was twice humiliated in his own temple in Ashdod; on the first occasion he was thrown down in front of the ark, and on the second his head and hands were cut off and were lying on the threshold. These events are introduced into the narrative to explain the sacred character of the threshold which was not trodden by the Ashdodites. In displaying his power against the Philistines God humiliated them in three of their five cities, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron.

The plagues sent by God are referred to as ‘tumours’, which some, on the basis of the reading ‘mice’ in the LXX, have identified as bubonic plague, and which others have taken to be an attack of dysentery (cf. Josephus, Ant. 6§ 3).

There are several significant features of the emphasis on the power of YHWH: ‘The hand of YHWH’ is prominent (vv. 6, 7, 9,); striking the Philistines with tumours is reminiscent of the Exodus tradition (Ex 9:15–16); the supremacy of YHWH over other gods is a recurring theme in the OT; overcoming humiliation is not only a reminder of 2:1–10, but also forms a bridge between the conquest of the ark (ch. 4) and its return (ch. 6).

The Return of the Ark (6:1–7:1)

The Philistines realized that they had to return the ark (v. 2, cf. 5:11), and took consultation on the manner of its return to avoid further humiliation (vv. 1–9). They consulted priests and diviners, but we don’t know if they were Philistines or outsiders hired for the purpose. Attention focuses on the double issue raised in v. 3.

How Do We Get Rid of This?

The first matter of concern was the appropriate offering to accompany the ark. It was recognized that gifts had to be sent (cf. Ex 3:21); they were chosen on the basis of value (‘gold’), correspondence with the victims (‘five’ for the five lords of the Philistines), and representation of the plagues suffered (‘tumours’ and ‘mice’).

Although they are called ‘guilt offering’ (’asam), they had a double function: as sacrifice they would ensure that YHWH would ‘lighten his hand’, and as gifts they were regarded as a compensatory tribute to YHWH. The Exodus tradition teaches the people not to be obstinate and prevent the return of the ark (v. 6).

Who Is Doing This?

The second concern belonged to the realm of divination (vv. 7–9), and they sought confirmation that it was YHWH who had humiliated them. They were to select untrained cows, separated from their calves and therefore inclined to return home, and not to give them guidance which way to take. If the cows went in the direction of Beth-shemesh, the Philistines would know that it was YHWH who had harmed them. The cows had a second function. Because they were to be sacrificed in order to remove contamination, they and the cart had to be new, unused, and therefore ritually clean (cf. Num 19:2). The rituals described in vv. 3–9 show up elsewhere among the Israelites and more generally in the ancient Near East.

The narrative proceeds in vv. 10–18 to record the outcome. the direction taken by the cows confirmed that YHWH had been responsible for the plagues, and it is evident that the gifts sent by the Philistines were acceptable (vv. 16–18). The Israelites celebrated the return of the ark by sacrificing the cows on a ‘large stone’ in the field of an unknown Joshua. Verse 15 introduces the Levites to be responsible for sacrifices and changes the function of the stone by making it a resting place for the ark.

The ark was equally dangerous for Israelites if they did not pay it due respect, either by not celebrating its return (LXX), or by looking into it (MT). The ark was moved to Kiriath-jearim (‘city of the forests’), which had probably been connected previously with Baal-worship (cf. ‘city of Baal’, Josh 18:14 and ‘Baalah’, Josh 15:9, 10); its custodian was Eleazar, son of Abinadab, both bearing names that appear frequently in Levitical lists.

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