Embedded in this story about the fate of the ark of the covenantThe ark of the covenant was a box or chest that God commanded the Israelites to make from wood richly adorned with gold. The ark was built to contain the tablets of the covenant (the Ten Commandments). The ark served as a mobile shrine to... More in Philistine hands is the story of the death of EliPriest at Shiloh who cared for young Samuel. More and his wicked sons (4:11-18).
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 covenantA covenant is a promise or agreement. In the Bible the promises made between God and God's people are known as covenants; they state or imply a relationship of commitment and obedience. More 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 idolIdolatry is the worship of something other than the true God. An idol may be a cult image, an idea, or an object made of wood or stone. Ome of the Ten Commandments specifically prohibits the worship of graven images or idols; this concern is... More, 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 Eli (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 templeThe Jerusalem temple, unlike the tabernacle, was a permanent structure, although (like the tabernacle) it was a place of worship and religious activity. On one occasion Jesus felt such activity was unacceptable and, as reported in all four Gospels, drove from the temple those engaged... More 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 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, seventy (50,000 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 twenty years (6:20-7:2).