“A god has come into the camp” – 1 Samuel 4:7b (ESV)
In the fourth chapter of the first book of Samuel, as part of the story by which Israel understood itself, defined itself, and presented itself to the nations, we read that “Israel went out to battle against the Philistines” (4:1b). The battle did not go well. “Israel was defeated by the Philistines” (4:2b). It is said that four thousand men of Israel were killed. Naturally, the elders of Israel were quite distraught about this situation, and they wondered why the battle went the way that it did. They asked, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines?” (4:3b) Such an interesting question. They understood themselves to be God’s covenant people, with an internal understanding of promises of victory in battle as they gained and maintained dominion over their land of promise, so the cause for loss in battle was to be searched for outside of the sheer strength of their enemies. For that reason, they speak of their defeat as having been wrought by the Lord, rather than by the Philistines themselves.
The question is followed by a declaration, as they said, “Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies” (4:3b). At first glance, this seems like the correct response, and the right thing to do; but if we look carefully, we’ll notice that they are not necessarily on the right track, which will be borne out by what we find happening in just a few verses. Though they rightfully put things in the Lord’s hand by asking why it was that the Lord had defeated them before the Philistines, when they shift to speaking about the next steps to take, the language subtly shifts. They talk of bringing “the ark of the covenant of the Lord” to this place of battle, but then say that they are going to do this, not so that the Lord of the covenant will be with them and save them, but that “it,” that being the ark itself, that “it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
“So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, Who is enthroned on the cherubim” (4:4a). Here, we can’t help but make a note of the fact that great, swelling words are used to describe the ark, and speak of the Lord of hosts, but in the midst of that, we cannot forget the words that were previously spoken. In bringing the ark, they have plainly said that they expect the ark to save them from the power of their enemies, rather than the Lord Whose faithful and covenant fulfilling power the ark represents. Also, the fact is almost comically mentioned that “the two sons of Eli. Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God” (4:4b). Right there, we have a clue that things are not going to go well for Israel here, because these two guys are not spoken of very highly. In fact, they are referred to as “worthless men,” who “did not know the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:12). They “treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt” (2:17b), and they would “lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting” (2:22b). We are told that “it was the will of the Lord to put them to death” (2:25b), and that “both of them shall die on the same day” (2:34b). The men going to battle, with the ark or without the ark, would have been well-advised to keep these two far from them.
So, “As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout” (4:5a). They were so excited that the ark had come into the camp. Not the Lord, but the ark. Now, the ark may have been thought to be, as the ultimate focal point of Israel’s portable temple, the actual resting place of their God. Therefore, in a sense, the bringing of the ark into the camp may have been, in their mind, the same as bringing the Lord into the camp, but it seems that the text as a whole does not want to convey this idea.
The Philistines heard this and said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” (4:6b). Making inquiries, “they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp” (4:6c), and “the Philistines were afraid” (4:7a). Why were they afraid? Reinforcing the “resting place” concept, they thought “A god has come into the camp” (4:7b). They were right. A god had come into the camp. Not the God, but a god. The ark had come into the camp, and the Israelites looked to the ark, rather than looking to or remembering the Lord of the ark. The Philistines were right in saying that a god had come into the camp, because Israel had reduced the ark of the Lord into nothing more than an idol. Because of this, and bearing out the idea that the author wants to convey the idolatry and its associated problems that would lead to Israel being defeated by its enemies, “the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died” (4:10-11).
In the first battle, only four thousand died. Once the idolatry of Israel in regards to the ark was manifest, which is that which always brought God’s judgment upon them and upon all of His covenant people in accordance with the promises of His covenant faithfulness, thirty thousand died and Israel was stripped of that which had become little more than an idol.