Thoughts for the Day

Tuesday, 9th July 2024: Samuel: 7

1 Samuel 6 Ark of the Covenant Philistines

Reading : Verses from 1 Samuel, Chapter 6

Cows yoked

The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines for seven months. Then the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, ‘What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us what we should send with 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 return him a guilt-offering. Then you will be healed and will be ransomed; will not his hand then turn from you?’ And they said, ‘What is the guilt-offering that we should return to him?’ They answered, ‘Five gold tumours and five gold 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 tumours and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps he will lighten his hand on 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 fools of them, did they not let the people go, and they departed? Now then, get ready a new cart and two milch-cows that have never borne a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. 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 on 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 us 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.’

The men did so; they took two milch-cows and yoked them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. They put the ark of the Lord on the cart, and the box with the gold mice and the images of their tumours. 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. When they looked up and saw the ark, they went with rejoicing to meet it. The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh, and stopped there. A large stone was there; so they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt-offering to the Lord. The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the gold objects, and set them upon the large stone. Then the people of Beth-shemesh offered burnt-offerings and presented sacrifices on that day to the Lord. When the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron.

(Lectionary, New Revised Standard Version)


The Philistines had a loose federation of five city-states to the west of Israel: Ashdod, Gath, Ekron, Ashkelon and Gaza ruled by five rulers. After the Ark of the Covenant is captured it is taken to Ashdod, but it has become a liability as it seems to bring with it a plague. The mention of 'mice' and 'plague' shouldn't make us think that the people have made a connection between 'rats' and the plague, more likely they would have been concerned that the mice were eating all the grain needed to feed the people.

The Philistines knew what had happened in Egypt when Pharaoh ignored the demands of the Israelites, and have a healthy respect for Yahweh. So the Ark is moved to Gath but the plague follows and it's moved on to Ekron. However, the people have had enough and refuse to take it into the city. Instead the local priests decide to send the Ark back, along with a guilt offering to Israel's God. The Law of Moses also had the notion of compensation for a serious wrong that had been committed (Leviticus 5.14-16), and the gift has to be a precious one. Notice their reverence. They make a new cart, and attach two milk cows (as part of the sacrifice) who had never been put to the yoke. They take away the calves for the natural inclination of the cows will be to return to their calves. If they ignore them and head away from them towards Judah, then it will be a sign that their guilt offering has been accepted. So the five rulers follow the cart with its precious cargo until it gets to the valley of Sorek, south east of Ekron, in Judah, where it is greeted with great joy, and then they return home.

We don't have superstitions about touching objects used in worship, but this story should make us reflect on the care and reverence we put into our church and in particular our sanctuary (if we have one). Too many churches have stained or frayed altar cloths, candles-sticks not cleaned of their wax, or floors less than clean. We should offer to God only the best that we can - not easy in old buildings - but "Cleanliness," they say, "is next to Godliness!"


Lord God,
help us to make a special effort
keep our places of worship
as pristine as we are able,
and to value all those who
help us to care for our churches
and for items we use in worship.

Follow Up Thoughts

You might like to think about some of the sacred objects used in churches. This is a catholic site, but many are used by other denominations:

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