top of page

5.4 1 Samuel -- the Philistines

Israel's main enemy throughout the time of the judges and early monarchy was the Philistines.  They were concentrated in 5 cities along the coast to the west of Judah:  Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, and Gath.


          "The Philistines long held a monopoly on ironsmithing ...and the biblical description of Goliath's armor is consistent with this iron-smithing technology.  This powerful association of tribes made frequent incursions against the Hebrews.  There was almost perpetual war between the two peoples" (Wikipedia: Philistines).


Indeed, there was never any hint of toleration or peaceful co-existence between the two nations.  Elsewhere in the prophetic books, God may have had a good word to say occasionally about Egypt or Assyria, but the Philistines were outside His redemption.  This is because they were Canaanites, and inhabited portions of the land allotted to Israel.    


In one of the numerous battles between the two peoples, the Philistines managed to capture the Ark of the Covenant (1 Sam 4).  This was considered a mortal wound against Israel, a national tragedy.  In fact, it was probably the worst defeat Israel suffered psychologically until the Assyrian invasion and captivity of Israel.  The Ark was seen as the dwelling place of God, His home -- not just by Israel, but by their enemies:  

          When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp,  the Philistines were afraid. "A god has come into the camp" (1 Sam 4:6-7).

Capturing the Ark "proved" the superiority of the Philistine god Dagon over Yahweh.  The immediate effects in Israel were devastating:  

        -- 30,000 Israelite soldiers died
        -- Eli's sons were killed
        -- Eli fell over and died
        -- Eli's daughter-in-law died in childbirth
        -- she named her son Ichabod:  "The glory has departed from Israel."

        On the other hand, Samuel assumed the leadership of the nation.


This defeat was the "payback" for years of complacency and neglect of devotion during Eli's priesthood. The ritual observances were only that -- rituals -- which existed for the benefit of Eli's house.  Like crows, the priest's sons lived off the carcasses of the offerings, but they had no sense of God's majesty or holiness. Their actions and attitudes profaned the sanctuary and mocked the Law (1 Sam 3:12-14).  The idea of bringing the Ark of the Lord into battle was a holdover from Joshua's days.  But back then, God was the One who gave the orders.  In this case, it was just a human strategem, an act of superstition at a time when the fighting was going badly for Israel.  But God's hand cannot be forced: Israel was defeated and the Ark was captured.


Chapters 5 and 6 form a comic interlude as the Philistines attempted to capitalize on their stunning victory.  At first they treated the Ark as a trophy of Dagon, but the statue of their god toppled over before the Ark and broke.   The Ark also caused sickness among the people of Ashdod.  The Philistines decided to move the Ark from Ashdod to Gath to Ekron, but no city would receive it:

          "Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people."  For death had filled the city with panic; God's hand was very heavy upon it (1 Sam 5:11).

           There is a principle here that applies beyond this one incident.  The very Presence of God which is life to the believer is death to the outsider.

          For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing.  To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life (2 Cor 2:15-16).   


The exultation of the Philistines was turned into terror, and a desperation to be rid of the holy box at any cost. But that was easier said than done:  the Israelite God had been offended, and He had to be pacified.  The best peace offering they could come up with was 5 golden mice and 5 golden tumors, images of the plagues He had inflicted on their land.  They put these figures with the Ark on an oxcart, and set the cows on the road to an Israelite border town (Beth-shemesh, due west of Jerusalem).  The "five lords of the Philistines" followed its course anxiously until it was received by the people of the town.


But the Lord had no more patience with the irreverence of the Israelites than that of pagans.  The townspeople peeped into the Ark out of curiosity, and the Lord killed 70 men.  Now it was the Israelites who could not wait to get rid of this "hot potato," and they passed it along to the town of Kiriath-jearim, where it stayed for 20 years (1 Sam 7:2).

bottom of page