Before getting started on the last chapter of our ark-related tangent, I noticed that chapter 5 tends to refer to the ark as “the ark of God” (such as 1 Sam. 5:1), while chapter 6 tends to call it the “ark of the Lord” (such as 1 Sam. 6:1). This and other details that I’ll mention when I get to them leads me to suppose that that the story of the ark’s return was, at one time, independent from the story of its capture. Or, perhaps, the cobbling editor liked the first part of one version and the second part of another.

When we last left the ark, it was being tossed from Philistine city to Philistine city. Though only three were named (Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron), it’s possible to interpret 1 Samuel 6:4 to mean that all five Philistine cities were hit. We’re told that this odd game of Hot Potato lasts seven months (without any apparently attempt at rescue) before the Philistines have had enough. In 1 Sam. 5:11, the Philistines called on their lords to advise them. Here (1 Sam. 6:), they call on their priests and diviners. (If we wish to be charitable, we might read this to mean that they called on their lords first, who then made the executive decision to call on the priests and diviners. More likely, I think that this is more evidence of at least two versions of the story having been stitched together.)

These priests and diviners suggest that the ark be sent back with an appeasement offering of five golden tumours and five golden mice (some translations say ‘rats’), “according to the number of the lords of the Philistines” (1 Sam. 6:4). This is a rather obvious example of sympathetic magic – send away an image of the thing that’s giving you trouble – but I think, as Brant Clements points out, that the juxtaposition of rats and tumours against the lords of the Philistines is another humorous jab at the Philistines. Certainly, these three “adventures of the ark” chapters have been quite comedic!

You may be wondering about the mention of mice/rats here. If the golden tumours are fetishes to send away real tumours, what are the golden mice? Or, depending on the translation you are reading from, you may not see a problem at all. It seems that the Greek Septuagint included the mice in chapter 5, so either they were dropped from the Hebrew text, or they were added to the Greek to harmonize the two chapters.

There’s also some question about the pairing of mice/rats and tumours. I mentioned in my discussion of 1 Sam. 5 that the tumours may refer to the swellings of the bubonic plague. If that’s the case, either the authors understand the connection between rats and the plague, or they don’t (therefore the concern about the mice/rats likely has more to do with the damage they do to food stores).

Abbie, of Better Than Esdras, points out that there’s a language shift within chapter 6 as well:

Something strange happens at v. 11: the word for “tumors” (עפלים) changes to “hemorrhoids” (טחריהם). But! All previous mentions of “tumors” had an interesting quirk. Basically, the Masoretic text has instructions to read “hemorrhoids” instead of the written “tumors”. This is called Qere and Ketiv, the spoken and the written. I did not know this was used to “fix” textual difficulties like this. Very interesting.

The ark goes to Beth-shemesh

In addition to sending it home with a bunch of golden fetishes, the Philistine priests specify that the ark must be transported on a cart pulled by two dairy cows that have never been yoked, and that the cows’ calves cannot accompany them. They are then to send the the cart off and, if it heads toward Beth-shemesh, they will have confirmation that YHWH was the source of the contagion. If it goes in any other direction, however, they will know that “it happened to us by chance” (1 Sam. 6:9).

The Plague at Ashdod, by Nicolas Poussin, 1630

The Plague at Ashdod, by Nicolas Poussin, 1630

The use of a new cart and dairy cows probably has to do with ritual purity – dairy cows would not have been used to pull anything worldly, and same goes for a new cart. The separation from the calves is a little trickier, but may have to do with the divination aspect of this ritual – the cows would naturally want to head back in the direction of their calves, whereas Beth-shemesh lays ahead. Therefore, if the cows pull the ark toward Beth-shemesh, it can be assumed that they are being led by the hand of God.

So the Philistines lead the cart up to the border, then set it loose. Sure enough, it heads toward Beth-shemesh, and comes to a stop by a particular rock, which then becomes a landmark.

When they see the cart approach, the people of Beth-shemesh (who were out for the wheat harvest) approached. In an odd sense of sequence, they first break up the cart and use the wood from it to sacrifice the two cows, then the Levites come over and set the ark down. I imagine that it simply hovered in the air at about cart-height while the Levites got their act together.

Speaking of Levites, their inclusion seems to be an editorial insert. As my study Bible puts it, their presence in the story may be “to make the procedure conform to later requirements” (p.338).

At some point during all of this, 70 (or, perhaps, 50,000) Israelites peek into the ark and are killed. If I understand correctly, it seems that the Hebrew text includes both figures, presumably by accident. My snarky study Bible lets us know that this “shows how easily exaggeration could occur” (p.339).

While this portion of the story has the clunky feel of an addition, it serves to reinforce God’s power and his dominion over the ark. It is not merely a weapon against the Philistines, but rather subject only to the will and whim of God – just as likely to kill Israelites as non-Israelites.

So the people of Beth-shemesh understandably want nothing to do with such a finicky and dangerous object, so they send a message to Kiriath-jearim, asking if they’ll have it.

Why not Shiloh? It seems that, in the seven months since the ark has been away, Shiloh was destroyed. At least, that’s what every source I’m looking at is claiming.

And that’s it for the ark’s little side adventure. Next chapter, we’re back to Samuel!