Wednesday, June 12, 2013

1 Samuel 4:1-8:22


This portion of 1 Samuel begins with tragedy. Israel is at war with the Philistines and the war is going badly. Eli's sons, the priests Hophni and Phinehas, have a bright idea. They take the ark of the covenant, the seat of YHWH's presence, the closest thing to an idol that Israel is allowed to have, down to the battlefield. The Philistine's, frightened, redouble their efforts and Israel suffers a crushing defeat. Predictably (because it was predicted in 2:27 ff.) Phinehas and Hophni die. The ark of the covenant is captured. When Eli hears the bad news, he keels over backward, breaks his neck and dies. Phinehas's pregnant wife dies in childbirth. With her last breath she names her son "Ichabod" which means "the glory has departed" from Israel.

Tragedy quickly turns to comedy in chapters 5-6. The Philistines take the ark of the covenant into captivity. When they put it in the temple of their god Dagon in Ashdod, Dagon's idol falls over and is smashed. What's more, the people of the Ashdod are afflicted with...something.

The good old King James Bible said that they had "emerods"--a variant spelling of "hemorrhoids." Most modern translations say "tumors." A laugh-out-loud funny article in Biblical Archeology Review (May/June 2008) suggested that the Philistines were afflicted with erectile dysfunction. Really.

Whatever it was, it caused the Philistines to move the ark from town to town for seven months. Everywhere the ark went, the affliction followed. Apparently there were rats, too. The solution to the Philistines' woes is to return the ark to the Israelites along with a gift: five gold rats (one for each of the Philistine rulers, don't miss the point) and five gold emerods, or tumors, or phalluses, or something. The process for returning the ark is fairly complex. It involves cows and a cart and let's just say it works. Israel gets the ark back at a price.

When some of the residents of Beth Shemesh look inside the ark, YHWH strikes them dead. So, Beth Shemesh sends the ark on to Kiriath Jearim where it stays for 20 years.

At least the people of Beth Shemesh had to look inside. In 2 Samuel 6 a man named Uzzah will die just for touching the ark. And he was trying to keep it from falling!

In 1 Samuel 7, after repentance and prayer and sacrifice, under Samuel's direction, and with God's help, the Israelites defeat the Philistines.With peace established, Samuel serves as Israel's judge, working a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah to his home in Ramah.

In 8 short chapters, Samuel has already grown old. His sons are not fit to serve as Israel's leaders. So the Israelites ask Samuel to anoint a king for them. Samuel is not in favor of the idea. YHWH tells Samuel to do as they ask but to warn them first. Be careful what you wish for. A king will be a taker. A king will take their sons and daughters and fields and wealth and "you yourselves will become his slaves."

YHWH wants to be Israel's king. Israel wants a human king such as other nations have. And they shall have one.

Golden hemmorhoids? Really?

Next: 1 Samuel 9-12


  1. Is it Hophni and Phinehas who decide to send the ark into battle? My RSV says it was "the elders" (1 Sam. 4:3) with no indication that Eli didn't know about it and give his approval. It doesn't even say that Hophni and Phinehas were there with the ark, they are merely mentioned as having died in the same battle (though I think it's reasonable to assume that they were there as bearers).

    Am I missing something? Or is this a translation issue?

  2. I don't think you're missing a thing. In general you are a more careful reader than I.

    I wrote this post long enough ago that I no longer know just what I was thinking. I probably meant to imply that Phinehas and Hopni should have known better than to take the ark into battle. Though it isn't stated clearly in the text, I do think it likely that they were there as ark-bearers rather than soldiers.

    As for Eli's approval or knowledge, neither 1 Samuel nor I have an opinion on the matter. It was the news of the ark's capture and his sons' deaths that apparently did the old man in.

    Thanks for your comment and clarification!