The story concerning the ark falls into three sections that correspond closely to the three chapters in the biblical text: the loss of the ark (4:1b-22), the ark with the Philistines (5:1-6:1), and the ark returns to Israel (6:2-7:2).
In the first section, Israel’s defeat at the hands of the Philistines is determined to be the result of their proceeding into battle without the ark, the symbol of God’s presence, which housed the tablets of the covenant and was carried into battle ahead of the troops in the wilderness and during the conquest of Canaan (4:1-4). This plan, however, apparently treated the ark as an idol, because this time Israel experienced even greater casualties, Eli’s sons died, and the ark was captured (vv. 10-11). News of the loss of the ark resulted in the death of Priest at Shiloh who cared for young Samuel. More (vv. 12-18) as well his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas. The devastating news brought early labor upon Phinehas’s pregnant wife, and the premature birth of the child resulted in her death. She named the child “Ichabod,” meaning “No Glory?” (if it is derived from Hebrew) or “Where is the Glory?” (if it is derived from Ugaritic), that is, “The glory has departed from Israel” (vv. 19-22).
The middle section describes the fate of the ark among the Philistines, or better, the fate of the Philistines, since they experienced nothing but trouble after bringing their hard-won spoil to the temple in Ashdod (5:1-2). The next morning the Philistines found their god, Dagon, face down, “worshiping” before the ark (vv. 3-4). To make matters worse, plagues, mice, and tumors broke out among the people wherever the ark was moved throughout its seven-month sojourn among the Philistines (5:8-6:1).
The final section describes the return of the ark to Israel. The Philistines came up with an ingenious plan to rid themselves of the dangerous ark without admitting that their troubles were the result of God’s judgment. They placed the ark and a guilt offering of golden tumors and golden mice on a cart drawn by two milch cows and claimed that God’s responsibility would be indicated only if these cows chose to return the ark to Israel (fat chance!) rather than return to their own calves (6:1-11). That God was, in fact, responsible is unambiguously indicated by the cows’ unswerving march into Israelite territory, much to the joy of the residents of Beth-shemesh (vv. 12-18). When the otherwise unknown descendants of Jeconiah looked into (Hebrew; “greeted” in NRSV) the ark, 70 (50,070 in Hebrew) of them died (v. 19). The adventures of the ark come to a close with its transfer to Kiriath-jearim, where it remained for 20 years (6:20-7:2).