1st Samuel 4-6: Arkane Lore

1st Samuel

So we begin three delightful chapters of Ark-centric mischief.

Chapter 4 seems to be intact. It consists of two tales: a war story, and the death of Eli (spoilers). Both are deeply connected to the preceding narrative of Eli and his sons.

We begin with the Philistines (rather abruptly) attacking Israel. “The Israelites” (how many and what tribes is undefined) face off against the Philistines on the battlefield and are quickly routed. So they decide to pull out their secret weapon:

4:3 ‘Why did the LORD let us be routed today by the Philistines? Let us fetch the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD from Shiloh to go with us and deliver us from the power of our enemies.’ So the people sent to Shiloh and fetched the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD of Hosts, who is enthroned upon the cherubim; Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the Ark.

Just so you know, cherubim aren’t cherubs, the cute little baby angels. They are basically griffins. God sat on their wings and used the Ark as a footstool. True fact.

The Ark is brought to the Israelite camp, and the Philistines get scared. But, um, quite unexpectedly… the Philistines win the battle! All that build-up… and the Ark is apparently just a useless box they dragged out for nothing.

4:10 The Philistines then gave battle, and the Israelites were defeated and fled to their homes. It was a great defeat, and thirty thousand Israelite foot-soldiers perished. The Ark of God was taken, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were killed.

Bummer. This tragic turn of events, btw, was predicted in 3:34 by the mysterious “man of God”.

One of the Israelites who fled home was a Benjamanite, who comes across a blind, 98 year-old Eli sitting by the side of the road. The soldier tells Eli the bad news, and Eli promptly keels over and dies:

4:18 At the mention of the Ark of God, Eli fell backwards from his seat by the gate and broke his neck, for he was old and heavy. So he died; he had been judge over Israel for forty years.

I see the Deuteronomist is still labelling everyone a judge.

The chapter ends with Phinehas’s wife abruptly going into labor, having a baby, and dying. She names the kid Ichabod (“No-glory”). The text then gives us: a folk etymology (“Glory has departed from Israel”), a needless explanation for this etymology (“in allusion to the capture of the Ark of God and the death of her father-in-law and her husband”), and then a restatement of the same etymology (“‘Glory has departed from Israel,’ they said, ‘because the Ark of God is taken.’). GUESS WHAT WE GOT IT THE FIRST TIME.


I was too quick to doubt God. Apparently he had a plan: the Ark is his trojan horse!

The Philistines have brought it down to their city of Ashdod. They place it next to a statue of Dagon, their grain deity. (Same god they tried to sacrifice Samson to.) This was a bad move.

5:3 When the people of Ashdod rose next morning, there was Dagon fallen face down-wards before the Ark of the LORD, with his head and his two hands lying  broken off beside his platform; only Dagon’s body remained on it.

But that’s just the start of the Ark’s trail of destruction: It soon inflicts the entire population of Ashdod with tumors (עפלים) and rats.

Sucks to be Ashdod. They pass the Ark on to Gath.

The people of Gath get tumors. They shove the Ark off on Ekron.

Ekron has apparently got word of the Ark Misery Tour ’45, because they decide to ship it off back to Israel post-haste. But they aren’t quick enough, or something, and can’t escape the Ark’s tumory wrath. In fact, the Ark seems to do more damage here than ever; those with mere tumors are the lucky ones.

The three cities visited by the Ark- Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron- are three of the five major Philistine zip-codes. The others, Gaza and Ashkelon apparently escaped unscathed. Apparently.

There is a bit of repetition/contradiction between the last few lines of chapter 5 and the start of chapter 6:

5:11 So they summoned all the Philistine princes and said, ‘Send the Ark of God of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will be the death of us all.’

But soon:

6:1 When the Ark of the LORD had been in their territory for seven months, the Philistines summoned the priests and soothsayers and asked, ‘What shall we do with the Ark of the LORD Tell us how we ought to send it back to its own place.’

Notice the difference in terminology: Ark of the God vs Ark of the LORD. Each chapter uses their term consistently.

(In chapter 6 it’s “Ark of the LORD” in narrative and “Ark of God” in spoken dialogue- consistent with J’s style. I suspect this chapter is possibly J maybe.)


A larger contradiction becomes apparent: here, the tumors are said to have plagued all five cities. In chapter 5, only three are mentioned. But that’s not the BIG contradiction. I wanted to see if both chapters used  the same word for “rat” and I was astounded to find out that the mention of “rats” in chapter 5 is present only in the early Greek (Septuagint) and Latin (Vulgate) translations. It was apparently added to the text to harmonize the two chapters! Originally, and still in the Hebrew, chapter 5 made no mentions of rats!

(I gotta admit the possibility that the Masoretic Text *lost* a pre-existing reference to rats, but that is unlikely. A crucial point is that the Hebrew-language Masoretic Text is not inherently “more correct” than the translations (Greek, Latin, Syriac, etc.) All extant manuscripts are relatively late in the game, and they all underwent their own evolution; the Hebrew texts did not miraculously stay “pure” just because they were in the original language. But logically, it’s more probable that “rats” was added to clear up a discrepancy, rather than accidentally removed and thus *creating* a contradiction.)

So the textual relationship between these two chapters is uncertain. This chapter acts as a sequel to the previous (it makes no sense without the prior actions having occurred) but it seems to be a sequel to a slightly different episode (where rats were involved and the tumors more widespread.


The Philistines indulge in some “sympathetic magic”. They want to send the Ark back to Israel, but they can’t do it without a gift. They need something special to appease YHWH.

What does YHWH love more than anything? Why, five gold tumors! And five gold rats! For the five (not three) Philistine princes  of the five cities he scourged. They craft these strange tokens and place them in a box. (I thought God wasn’t a fan of molten gold idols?) They also construct some fresh wheels for the Ark- a wagon, so it can rove the countryside on its own volition.

So the Ark is loaded up with gold mice and tumors and it takes off. The Philistine soothsayers proclaim a weird prophecy: If it goes towards Beth-shemesh, that is proof YHWH inflicted them with the plague of tumors and rats. If it goes anywhere else, then… everything was a big coincidence! Right on.

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.

Anyway, the Ark, as you probably guessed, goes to Beth-shemesh. And we get what seems to be a description of a local sanctuary:

6:14 … The wagon came to the farm of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and halted there. Close by stood a great stone; so the chopped up  the wood of the wagon and offered the cows as a whole-offering to the LORD. Then the Levites lifted down the Ark of the LORD and the casket containing the gold offerings, and laid them on the great stone; and the men of Beth-shemesh offered whole-offerings and shared-offerings that day to the LORD.

FIRST OF ALL, if they chopped up the wagon, what were they lifting the Ark *down from*? Also, the description of sacrifice, exact to the Priestly text’s mandates, is suspected to be an embellishment.

The Philistines wander back to Ekron. Their tense anticipation of the Ark’s movements isn’t really tied up. Given the jerky narrative and the sudden change in tumor-terminology, I’m guessing some editing has gone down.

Then everything goes haywire in v. 19. There are many differing translations and none make much sense, the Hebrew is apparently corrupt (saying “seventy men fifty thousand”). And while I love my New English Bible to death, its version is absolutely bizarre– beginning “But the sons of Jeconiah”… WHO? WHAT? That’s not in the Hebrew! Jeconiah was the second-to-last King of Judah, an impossibly late reference for anyone but P or a final editor.

Oh. It’s from the Septuagint. That explains the late reference, but not why my Bible is choosing the most obscure fucking versions to use.

Anyway, this little coda to the story makes no sense. The Philistines just gave the Ark back to the Israelites, and God celebrates by randomly killing a shitload of his chosen people?

But plot point accomplished: they pass it off on the people of Kiriath-jearim. If I were them, I’d refuse it. Damn Ark been nuttin but trouble.

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2 Responses to 1st Samuel 4-6: Arkane Lore

  1. Paul Dawson says:

    Hey Abbie,

    My name is Paul, I’ve commented a bit on The King and I (mostly at the beginning), I mainly lurk now. The Oklahoma Atheists, of which I am a part, is doing a weekly Bible study through Skype, and publishing it along side our other podcasts. We were wondering if perhaps you would be interested in joining us for an episode or so at your convenience/preference. We would LOVE to have your commentary, expertise and input. Thanks!

    Oklahoma Atheists Godcast

    • אביגיל says:

      Hahah, expertise?

      I do have commentary and input, I guess. Shoot me an email with more info. I’m kind of shy I may decline but I’m thinking about it. I listened to the Genesis episode, and will catch up with the rest regardless.

      I’d want to do Judges!

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