Twilight Kingdom (2)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1 Samuel 5:1-7:17)

Last year we left our story with a cliffhanger ending. Recall, chapters 4 through 7 of 1 Samuel comprise a single story in the form of a lengthy chiasm – the drama introduced in chapter 4 is resolved in chapter 7. The central character of the story is not a person but is the ark of the covenant. Introducing the drama in chapter 4, the author describes the loss of the ark, which he links to the fall of Eli’s house. Israel’s poor spiritual condition under Eli is contrasted in chapter 7 with the return of the ark, which he parallels to the return of Samuel to the narrative to lead the people in repentance and restoration. Last time we completed chapter 4 having left: 1) the nation of Israel devastated from a double defeat at the hands of their archrivals, the Philistines, 2) Eli’s two sons killed in battle, 3) the ark captured, the news of which resulted in 4) the death of Eli and 5) the premature birth of his grandson, Ichabod, meaning “the glory has departed.” With no ark and no leader, it seemed as though Israel was defeated and Yahweh essentially handed over to the enemy. We can imagine the headlines of their blogs: “Yahweh in Exile;” “God is Dead;” “Finally Defeated, Yahweh Sleeps with the Fishes!”

Chapters 5 and 6 of 1 Samuel, which detail the story of the ark in exile in Philistia, is an unusual narrative telling of the superstitious religion of the Philistine nation and their false god, Dagon, the fish god. But the supposition of Yahweh’s death turned out to be exaggerated; He was very much alive and quite powerful. After the symbolic defeat of their false god on Dagon’s home turf (5:1-5) and being struck with devastation and disease (5:6-12), the Philistines did everything they could to rid themselves of ark; at last, it returned to Israel accompanied by two cows and a peculiar guilt offering (6:1-6:13). Israel rejoiced that the ark was back in their hands at Beth-shemesh (6:14-18); however, this alone was not enough to restore the nation. Instead, the Levites of Beth-shemesh incurred further chastisement by ignoring God’s law and looking into the ark (6:14-7:2). Instead of repenting, they, like the Philistines, sought to rid themselves of the ark, which they recognized was God’s holy presence, by sending it to Keriath-jearim.

Finally, after 20 years of lamentation, while the ark lay dormant in Keriath-jearim, the nation’s prophet Samuel prevailed on the people to repent of their idolatry and put away their foreign gods. Honoring what was true repentance in Israel, Yahweh destroyed their enemies and restored to them the cities that had fallen into enemy hands. Israel was at last, safe, at peace, and under the leadership of Samuel. This week, in preparation for the sermon, read the entire story from 1 Samuel chapters 4, 5, 6, and 7. This is particularly important, as we will not be able to read the entire narrative in the course of the sermon.