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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 6

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verse 1

C. The Ark Returned to Israel by God 6:1-7:1

The writer added further evidence of the Philistines’ reverence for Yahweh and the Israelites’ spiritual blindness in this section.

Verses 1-9

1. The plan to terminate God’s judgment 6:1-9

The Philistines acknowledged Yahweh’s superiority over Dagon, but they believed they could manipulate Him (1 Samuel 6:3). Guilt offerings were common in ancient Near Eastern religions.

"Ancient religious protocol mandated that the worshiper not approach his god(s) empty-handed (cf. Exodus 23:15; Deuteronomy 16:16)." [Note: Youngblood, p. 604.]

Evidently the reason the Philistines fashioned images of mice (1 Samuel 6:4) was that there was some connection between rodents and the swellings the Philistines suffered. [Note: John B. Geyer, "Mice and Rites in 1 Samuel V-VI," Vetus Testamentum 31:3 (July 1981):293-304.] This connection has led many interpreters to conclude that perhaps the Philistines had experienced something such as bubonic plague, which fleas living on rodents transmit. Bubonic plague causes swollen buboes or tumors. [Note: See Nicole Duplaix, "Fleas: The Lethal Leapers," National Geographic 173:5 (May 1988):672-94, for more information on bubonic plague.] Josephus diagnosed the problem as dysentery, which may have been an accompanying symptom. [Note: Josephus, 6:1:1.] Probably the Philistines intended that the models would trigger sympathetic magic, that is, that they would accomplish what they wanted when they did a similar thing. By sending the models out of their country they hoped the tumors and mice would depart too.

Yahweh had reduced the fertility of the crops of the Philistines as well as afflicting the people and their gods (1 Samuel 6:5). The Philistines remembered that this is what Yahweh had done to the Egyptians earlier (1 Samuel 6:6). The priests counseled the people not to harden their hearts as Pharaoh had done. Hardening the heart only brings divine retribution (cf. Joshua 7:19).

"Milch" cows (1 Samuel 6:7; 1 Samuel 6:10) are cows that are still nursing their calves. It would be very unusual for nursing cows to leave their young and head for a town some 10 miles away. Indeed the Philistines regarded this behavior as miraculous and indicative that Yahweh had been punishing them.

Verses 10-18

2. The return of the ark to Bethshemesh 6:10-18

Bethshemesh was the closest Israelite town to Ekron. It stood about 12 miles east-southeast of Ekron. To get there the cows walked east up the Sorek Valley, Samson’s home area. Evidently the Israelites, who were reaping their wheat harvest (in June) when the ark appeared, remembered that only Levites were to handle the ark (Numbers 4:15-20; 1 Samuel 6:15). Bethshemesh was a Levitical town (Joshua 21:13-16; 1 Chronicles 6:57-59), so Levites were perhaps nearby. Even though the ark had been absent from Israel for seven months God had not removed His blessing of fertile crops from His chosen people during that time. This indicates His grace.

3. The removal of the ark to Kiriath-jearim 6:19-7:1

Not all the people who later assembled to view the returned ark were as careful as those from Bethshemesh, however. The Mosaic Law specified that no one was to look into the ark or that person would die (Numbers 4:5; Numbers 4:20; cf. 2 Samuel 6:6-7). The number of the slain (50,070, 1 Samuel 6:19) may represent an error a scribe made as he copied the text [Note: See John Davis, Biblical Numerology, pp. 87-89.] , though there is strong textual support for the large number. Several Hebrew manuscripts omit 50,000, and Josephus mentioned only 70 fatalities. [Note: Josephus, 6:1:4.] Perhaps 70 men died, as the NIV and several other modern translations state.

"The basic point at issue in this verse is that God will brook no irregularity in his people’s treatment of the sacred ark (cf. 2 Samuel 6:6 f.). [Note: Gordon, p. 103.]

"The power of God was not something that Israel somehow tamed and confined in a box, any more than modern man can banish God to the churches, chapels and cathedrals they take care never to frequent." [Note: Payne, p. 35.]

Why did God strike dead some Israelites who touched the ark inappropriately (1 Samuel 6:19; 1 Chronicles 13:10; cf. Leviticus 10:2) and not deal with the Philistines in the same way (1 Samuel 4:17)? God was merciful to the Philistines. He will be gracious to whom He will be gracious, and He will show compassion on whom He will show compassion (Exodus 33:19). The reason for His patience with the Philistines was partially to teach the Israelites and the Philistines His omnipotence. Also, the Israelites’ greater knowledge of God’s will placed them under greater responsibility to do His will.

The Israelites came to a fresh appreciation of Yahweh’s holiness because these men died (1 Samuel 6:20). The last part of this verse indicates that they wished God would depart from them, because they were sinful and He was holy (cf. Isaiah 6:5). Thus the capture of the ark resulted in the Philistines recognizing that Yahweh was the true source of fertility and blessing. The Israelites’ also rededicated themselves to investigating and following the revealed will of God in the Mosaic Covenant.

Archaeologists believe they have located the remains of Kiriath-jearim about 10 miles east and a little north of Bethshemesh. Why did the Israelites not return the ark to the tabernacle at Shiloh? One possibility is that the Philistines had destroyed Shiloh (cf. Psalms 78:60; Jeremiah 7:12; Jeremiah 7:14; Jeremiah 26:6; Jeremiah 26:9). The ark did not reside in an appropriate place of honor until David brought it into his new capital, Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). Kiriath-jearim was not a Levitical city nor is there any reason to believe Abinadab and Eleazar were priests or Levites. Perhaps the Israelites kept the ark there for convenience sake. It evidently remained there for many years (cf. 2 Samuel 6:2). Wood calculated that it was there about seventy years. [Note: Wood, Israel’s United . . ., p. 23, n. 8, and p. 190. For a study of the complex history of Kiriath-jearim, see Joseph Blenkinsopp, "Kiriath-jearim and the Ark," Journal of Biblical Literature 88 (1969):143-56.] Baale-judah (2 Samuel 6:2) may be a later name for Kiriath-jearim. [Note: Youngblood, p. 868.]

"The certainty of God’s presence is always a sign of hope, however dark the circumstances may be." [Note: Payne, p. 37.]

This whole major section of 1 Samuel (1 Samuel 4:1 b to 1 Samuel 7:1) advances the fertility motif. Dagon, the chief god of Israel’s chief rival, proved incapable of preventing Yahweh’s curse from falling on the Philistines. Yahweh Himself appears as sovereign and all-powerful. Whereas the ark was the symbol of God’s presence, it was not a talisman that would secure victory for its possessor. The Israelites’ attitude reveals that they did not appreciate the importance of obeying the Mosaic Law. Some individuals probably perceived that God’s presence was essential to Israel’s blessing. Perhaps Eli and Phinehas’ wife did. When God’s presence was near again, there was rejoicing. In spite of Israel’s unfaithfulness, God gave the nation some blessing and returned the ark to His people. He evidently did this so they would be able to rediscover the true nature of worship at a future time, under David’s leadership.

In this second major section of Samuel, as in the others, there are conflicts and reversals of fortune. These include Israel and the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:1-22), Dagon and the ark (1 Samuel 5:1 to 1 Samuel 6:9), and the people who did not rejoice and those who did (1 Samuel 6:10-16). [Note: Martin, p. 138.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 6". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-samuel-6.html. 2012.
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