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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 6

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verses 1-3


The Philistines had more than enough of their trophy, the captured ark of the God of Israel. Deadly plague had fallen upon them everywhere the ark was placed; and, in desperation, the five lords of the Philistines decided to return it to Israel.

“The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us with what we shall send it to its place.” They said, `If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means send him a guilt offering, then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why his hand does not turn away from you.’“

As frequently occurs in Biblical narratives, we have here a summary paragraph, followed by the elaboration of the details. This gives a broad outline of what needed to be done, namely, that the ark should not be sent back without a guilt offering and also a promise (later explained as a `perhaps’) that they would know if God had afflicted them, or if it was `by chance.’

The priests and the diviners. The priests were the ones in charge of the ceremonies connected with their worship of Dagon, and the diviners were the practitioners of all kinds of superstitious and magical maneuvers that were falsely alleged to reveal future events or answer difficult questions. In ancient times, such deceivers were widely trusted; and even today one cannot fail to be aware that palm readers, phrenologists, fortune-tellers, etc. are still operating in every great city on earth.

The methods employed by diviners included: (1) shaking the arrows; (2) consulting the teraphim; and (3) looking at the liver (Ezekiel 21:21). For further comment on `shaking the arrows,’ see our commentary on Ezekiel, pp. 215, 216. In this third method, the entrails of some animal were poured out, and the arrangements of different portions were supposed to provide some kind of information to the observers! Willis tells us that other methods included watching the movement of clouds, the flight of birds and the disposition of the stars.(F1) There was also, evidently, some ancient version of the modern superstition of being able to read the future by the disposition of the tea leaves in a cup of tea. Joseph’s silver cup which was used for divining (Genesis 44:4) was probably utilized for that type of reading the future.

Then you will be healed (1 Samuel 6:3). The meaning of this verse is that, “The hand of God would be heavy upon them so long as they refused the acknowledgement”(F2) inherent in the proposed guilt offering.

Verses 4-9


“And they said, “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to him”? They answered, “Five golden tumors and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines; for the same plague was upon all of you and upon your lords. So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps he will lighten his hand from off you and your gods and your land. Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had made sport of them, did not they let the people go, and they departed? Now then, take and prepare a new cart and two milch cows upon which there has never come a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. And take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart, and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off, and let it go its way. And watch; if it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done all this great harm; but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance.”

“Five golden mice” “The abrupt mention of mice here constitutes a difficulty.”(F3) To us there appears no difficulty whatever. Allegations that there must have been two plagues, one of the tumors, and the other of the mice (or rats) that have been confused and mixed up by some editor or redactor are in fact ridiculous. There was one plague only, the bubonic disaster spread among the Philistines by the rats and the Cheops flea. The foolish notion that the ancients “probably did not associate the rats with the plague” should be rejected. Modern man has grossly underestimated the intelligence of ancient peoples. They even measured the circumference of the earth with a clothes pole (See the encyclopaedias under Eratosthenes)! The fact of these mice (or rats) not being mentioned earlier is due solely to the abbreviated nature of the narrative.

Whether or not the Philistines associated the rats with the tumors or not, the rats (mice) were a devastating plague in themselves, as indicated by the remark of the priests and diviners (1 Samuel 6:5) that they “ravage the land.” “Aristotle relates that in harvest entire crops were sometimes destroyed by the ravages of field-mice in a single night.”(F4)

According to the number of the lords of the Philistines (1 Samuel 6:4).

“The guilt offering here was not on the Levitical pattern; the Philistines were practicing some form of magic. The number five here and the mention of all five cities in 1 Samuel 6:17 indicate that the plague had affected all Philistia.”(F5)

It will be noted that we have considered the mice mentioned in this chapter as being, in all probability, rats. R. Payne Smith wrote that, “As the ancients used the name of animals in a very general way, any rodent may be meant,”(F6) by the word rendered `mice’ here. Our thought that the animal was really the rat is derived from that creature’s known association with the bubonic plague, which, according to all the evidence, was the particular plague that struck Philistia.

“Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh?” This indicates that the knowledge of God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt was well known all over the world. Who could have missed it? Egypt was the most powerful nation on earth at that time. As Smith stated it, “The question for the Philistines was simply this: would they restore the ark on the warning of one plague or would they hold out for ten plagues,”(F7) and then send it back!

“After he had made sport of them” The diviners clearly recommended sending the ark back after the first plague instead of waiting for ten plagues. The subject of this clause is God, the meaning being that God, in truth, had made sport (or mockery) of the Egyptians throughout ten plagues; and, of course, the Egyptians finally let the people go. Like many other figures in the Bible, this is an anthropomorphism, portraying God as a strong man laughing and making fun of some weak and bungling enemy.

There are some impressions in this chapter of what is universally held to be pleasing to God, both by pagan and by true worshippers: (1) that true religious devotion requires the giving of gifts. (2) that things new and previously unused are more properly used for sacred purposes than old or damaged things. Even from the N.T., it will be remembered that Jesus rode upon an ass whereupon no man had ever sat, and he was buried in the new tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

“Prepare a new cart” “From the evidence of archaeology, this was undoubtedly a two-wheeled cart similar to those seen in Europe today.”(F8)

“And watch… if it goes up… but if not” The device of the Philistines in sending back the ark was clearly experimental; and they had no certain knowledge as to the way it would turn out. Therefore, we should understand the statement in 1 Samuel 6:3 that they. “would be healed” as a conditional, promise. “This indicates that they were still uncertain as to whether or not God was responsible for their plagues.”(F9) The test proposed here was genuine. Normally, cows would not have left their calves. Furthermore, cows that had never been yoked would not have taken a cart anywhere, much less on a 17-mile trip down a highway.

“Beth-shemesh” “This was an ancient Canaanite city; the name means house of the sun (god) and reflects the fact that the pre-Israelite Canaanites had erected shrines to many deities in the land of Canaan. Many of these names, like this one, continued into Israelite times. There were four places which carried this name; but the one here was located on the north border of Judah, near the Philistines, and was the closest town in Israel to which the Philistines returned the ark of the God of Israel.”(F10)

Verses 10-16


“The men did so, and took two milch cows and yoked them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. And they put the ark of the Lord on the cart, and the box with the golden mice and the images of the tumors. And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went; they turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh. Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley; and when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh, and stopped there..d great stone was there; and they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box which was beside it, in which were the golden figures and set them upon the great stone; and the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrifices on that day to the Lord. And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron.”

“And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord” “The mention of Levites here poses a problem. If there were Levites in Beth-shemesh, it is difficult to see why the men of Beth-shemesh offered sacrifices that day.”(F11) This is no problem at all. The men of Beth-shemesh were Levites, that city having been designated as a city of the Levites ever since the days of Joshua (Joshua 21:16). And, if the passage means that citizens of Beth-shemesh, other than Levites, offered burnt offerings and sacrifices, then their doing so consisted merely in their bringing the animals and other offerings and delivering them to the Levites who actually performed the sacrificial ceremonies. Scholars who are hunting problems and difficulties will have to find something more difficult than this!

Furthermore, this offering of sacrifices at Beth-shemesh was no offense against the commandment to make sacrifices to the Lord only at the place of his sanctuary. The ark of the covenant was the throne of the gracious presence of God, before whom the sacrifices were offered, even when offered in the tabernacle.(F12) Also, another consideration in this connection is that, “As there was no central sanctuary, the law of Deuteronomy 12:10 ff was temporarily suspended, as various Jewish commentators have stated.”(F13)

They split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord (1 Samuel 6:14). George DeHoff has a remarkably excellent comment on this: “Everything connected with the false method of transporting the ark of the covenant was destroyed.”(F14) The Lord’s instructions for moving the ark were specific; “It was to be carried on poles resting upon the shoulders of priests (Deuteronomy 31:9).”(F15) Later on in Jewish history, David himself tried to move the ark of the covenant on a new cart; but that also ended in a disaster.

Without any good reason whatever, most liberal scholars brand 1 Samuel 6:15 as “an interpolation,” or as a “later insertion.” This is done so on two pretext’s. (1) “This verse is obviously an interpolation; the introduction of Levites is at variance with the text.”(F16) (2) “The second half of the verse merely repeats the sacrifice which had already been offered.”(F17) The first of these alleged reasons is invalid because the Levites were very much a part of Beth-shemesh. It was a Levite city (Joshua 21:16). It would have been strange indeed if they had not appeared in this narrative. The second so-called reason confuses the sacrifice of the cows, which was not provided by God’s people at all, but by the Philistines, with the second sacrifice which was provided and offered by the Levites. There was even a third sacrifice, when all the citizens of Beth-shemesh gathered together and made burnt offerings and sacrifices, resulting in what might be called a feast to celebrate the happy occasion. Payne pointed out that the casual manner in which the Levites are mentioned here is a strong argument against the passage’s being an interpolation.(F18) Willis also declared, “That this verse originally belonged to this narrative cannot be conclusively disproved.”(F19)

Verses 17-18


“These are the golden tumors which the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron; also the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages. The great stone beside which they set down the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.”

“Both fortified cities and unwalled villages” The mention of these does not indicate that each village sent a golden mouse, because. “A city with its unwalled villages and adjacent territory was commonly regarded as a unit.”(F20) Willis also agreed that, “The fortified cities and the unwalled villages’ are the subordinate regions belonging to each of these city-states.”(F21)

Verses 19-21


“And he slew some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked into the ark of the Lord; he slew seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had made a great slaughter among the people. Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us”? So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to you.”

(For a definitive comment on 1 Samuel 6:19-21, see the note under 1 Samuel 7:1.) 1 Samuel 7:1

“And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord, and brought it to the house of Abinidab on the hill; and they consecrated his son Eleazar, to have charge of the ark of the Lord.”

We have added 1 Samuel 7:1 here, because most scholars treat it as the conclusion of 1 Samuel 6.

“Because they looked into the ark… he (God) slew seventy of them” B. G. Caird criticized the rendition here, writing that, “`They looked into the ark’ is not a possible translation. The Hebrew can mean only that, `they looked at the ark.’“(F22) In this criticism, the writer overlooked the idiomatic use of language. If a man comes into his home and tells his wife that he has just `looked at’ a new automobile, neither she nor anyone else who heard it would think for a moment that he had merely glanced at it. What had he done? He had thoroughly studied it, sat in it, possibly even have driven it; and of course, he had carefully looked inside of it also! All of this is included in the idiomatic use of “looked at.”

B. G. Caird also complained that, “There is nowhere else any indication that this (looking into the ark) was regarded as an offense.”(F23) How could a Biblical commentator write something like that in the light of the word of God? “They shall not go in to look upon the holy things even for a moment, lest they die” (Numbers 4:20).

In this instance of the men of Beth-shemesh suffering death for a violation of God’s instructions regarding the ark (and other holy things), there were undoubtedly aggravating circumstances in what they actually did. What we have here is a very brief summary only.

While his words are admittedly conjectural, we appreciate R. P. Smith’s suggestion of what probably took place:

“The occasion of the calamity was probably as follows: - As the news of the return of the ark spread, the people flocked together to take part in the sacrifices, which would of course be followed by a feast. Bloated thereat by wine, perhaps, they lost all sense of reverence, and encouraged one another to look into the ark and even to examine its contents… Furthermore, the men of Beth-shemesh, a Levitical city, most certainly should have known about the prohibition in Numbers 4:20.”(F24)

The meaning of this death of 70 men of Beth-shemesh was clear enough. “The Israelites, no less than the Philistines, must reverence the presence of Jehovah their God.”(F25)

“Come down and take it up to you” Instead of praising God for the privilege of having the ark of his presence in their city, the men of Beth-shemesh were concerned only with getting rid of it. “Their reasoning was basically the same as that of the Philistines.”(F26) As Young stated it, “Their action illustrates man’s desire to free himself from the presence of God instead of seeking to make himself fit for it.”(F27)

The men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord (1 Samuel 7:1). The men of Kiriath-jearim willingly complied with the request from Beth-shemesh; and the ark remained with them for twenty years. As Willis noted, “There was a prominent priestly house at Kiriath-jearim, including Abinadab and his son Eleazar.”(F28)

Before leaving this episode, the miraculous nature of what is revealed here should be stressed. Only the direct intervention of God could possibly account for the behavior of those cows leaving their calves behind and taking that cart directly to Israel.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 6". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-samuel-6.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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