Thursday, January 06, 2005

1 Samuel 4

When a nation does evil, God deserts it. But primarily because that nation's hubris leads it into optional wars, possessed by an arrogant belief that God can be confined in a box and pressed into military duty. People intoxicated with the notion that they own God forget that one can lose wars as well as win them. This is exactly what happens in this chapter of Samuel.

The chapter begins as a continuation of the preceding chapter, followed by an abrupt shift after one line. We are told that Samuel's word came to all Israel. Then the scene moves to battle.

We are told that the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines, not that the Philistines attacked Israel, so this was a war of choice. The Israelites camp by "Ebenezer", the "stone of help," ( near Mizpah. This echoes the stone that Jacob set as a witness between himself and Laban (Gen. 31:45ff). "Aphek", where the Philistines camped means "fortress" or "strength." In the first skirmish, the Philistines kill 4,000 Israelites, a stunning victory on Israel's home court. But rather than ask the Lord for aid, the Israelites decide to bring the ark. Hophni and Phinehas were the bearers.

The appearance of the ark heartens the Israelites, so much so that they cheer and make the ground shake. The Philistines are shaken but resolve to "be men." They defeat the Israelites, killing 30,000 including Hophni and Phinehas. More importantly, they capture the ark, cutting Israel completely off from worship of God.

The news arrives to Eli by means of a Benjamite. The tribe of Benjamin, the smallest, was the one from which Saul would come. The cascade of disaster proceeds out. Eli is so concerned about the ark of God (but not about his sons) that he falls out of his chair and breaks his neck. The wife of Phinehas goes into premature labor and dies, but not before naming her son "The glory has departed from Israel," to commemorate the capture of the ark.

Consider how many times this theme, of optional wars leading to disaster, recurs throughout the Bible. Examples: The Israelites invade Canaan without God's command (Num 14:39ff), Amaziah's attack on Jehoash (2 Kings 8ff), Zedekiah's defensive war against the Babylonians (Jeremiah 21:1ff). The latter very much parallels 1 Sam. 4, since Israel loses control of the Temple, where the ark rested.