Thursday of Week 1 of Ordinary time – First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 4:1-11

Today’s story digresses somewhat with this reading, which is really centred on the Ark of the Covenant. It is linked with what we have read so far from Samuel by the mention of Shiloh and Eli and his sons. Samuel does not appear. The overall context, including the Philistines, is more like that of the Samson story.

It introduces the Philistines as the ‘bad guys’ who are having it all their own way – at this stage. Although, as usual, there is an implication that the Israelites are only getting their deserts for their infidelities before Yahweh.

The passage begins by our being told that the Israelites had encamped at Ebenezer to repel a planned attack on them by the Philistines who were encamped at Aphek. The location of Ebenezer (the name means ‘stone of help’) is not now known, but it is presumed that it was probably not very far to the east of Aphek. This is not to be confused with the place of a stone, called Ebenezer, erected by Samuel to commemorate a victory over the Philistines (see 1 Sam 7:12). Aphek was in the northern Philistine territory, about 20 km (12 miles) northeast of the coastal city of Joppa (Jaffa). Philistine presence this far north suggests they were attempting to spread their control over the Israelite tribes of central Canaan.

A fierce battle between the Philistines and the Israelites near Aphek ended in a disastrous defeat for the Israelites in which thousands were killed. The leaders immediately see in the defeat a message from God:

Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines?

The elders understood that their defeat was more an indication of God’s displeasure than it was of Philistine military superiority. Israel’s pagan neighbours also believed that the outcome of battle was decided by the gods. Things – both good and bad – never happen simply by chance in the Bible.

In an attempt to secure the Lord’s closer presence with them in the struggle against the Philistines, the elders sent for the Ark of the Covenant. They were correct in thinking there was a connection between God’s presence with his people and the Ark, and no doubt they remembered the presence of the Ark at notable victories in Israel’s past history. But they incorrectly believed that the Lord’s presence within the Ark would also produce the results they wanted. They reflected the pagan notion that the deity was fully identified with the symbol of his presence and that God’s support could automatically be guaranteed by manipulating the symbol.

The Ark of the Covenant was brought from the sanctuary in Shiloh:

…ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim.

We know that on each end of the atonement cover of the Ark were golden cherubim with their wings spread upward over the Ark (see Exod 25:17-22). In the space between these cherubim God’s presence with his people was localised in a special way, so that the atonement cover of the ark came to be viewed as the throne of Israel’s divine King (see 2 Sam 6:2; Ps 80:1; 99:1).

The Israelites carried the Ark with them into battle. They were fully confident that with God’s presence among them, they would not be defeated this time. It did not actually help that the Ark was accompanied by the two wicked sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas. Among other misdemeanours, these had been in the habit of appropriating sacrificial offerings in the Temple for themselves (1 Sam 2:12-17). Here too, they are using the Ark in a way which reduced it to the level of a pagan charm. For such desecrations they would pay a high price.

When the Ark arrived among them, the people sent up such a war cry that the Philistines were alarmed. Such a war cry was, in fact, part of the Ark ritual. And when the Philistines realised that the Ark was actually present, they were even more afraid and said:

…gods have come into the camp….Woe to us!

Like the Israelites, they identified the Ark with the actual presence of a god. They knew well that it was the God of Israel which had brought on the plagues in Egypt and rescued the Israelites from slavery:

Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?

Their only hope was to fight with everything they had. If they lost they would become the slaves of the Israelites as the Israelites had once been their slaves. In spite of the presence of the Ark, there was another disastrous defeat for the Israelites in which 30,000 died (probably an inflated figure to emphasise the calamity of the defeat). And, what was worse, the Ark of the Covenant was carried off by the victors. This phrase, or a variation of it, occurs five times in the full story, making this the focal point of the narrative. Both this and the deaths of Hophni and Phinehas, the wicked sons of Eli, were cryptically foretold to Samuel (1 Sam 3:11-12). It is perfectly clear that the defeat was punishment for sins which even the presence of the Ark could not avert.

There is a frankness about this story that is refreshing. The expected, stereotyped, triumphalistic ending does not materialise. Perhaps the mistake of the Israelites was to identify the presence of God with the Ark itself so that they used it as a kind of charm or talisman to scare their enemies. Superstitious though they were – the Israelite’s ruse nearly worked – the Philistines in desperation set aside their superstitious fears, used the resources they had and won the victory.

It is possible for us Christians (and especially Catholics) to behave like the Israelites. We can identify the statue, or the picture, or the medal with the person they represent and endow them with a kind of magic power by which we think we can manipulate not only events and other people, but even God himself. But God must always remain utterly free. It is not for us to manipulate him but to know what his will is and to accept it, on the principle that God always wants what is best for us (although it may not, in the short term, seem like that).

We pray to Our Lady and the saints, not to tell them to twist God’s arm on our behalf, but to help us to be like them and to accept God’s will in all things.

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