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Throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites faced many adversaries. When Joshua was close to the end of his life, he warned the Israelites that the land of the Philistines was one of the areas they still needed to defeat (Josh. 13:1–3). Because the Philistines were not completely removed as God had commanded, Israel faced them as constant enemies.
The long history of wars between the Israelites and Philistines makes it unsurprising to read the account in 1 Samuel 4 of a battle between the two nations. But this particular battle launches a series of events that seem very confusing at first.
At the beginning of the battle, Israel loses 4,000 men and decides to bring the ark of the covenant to the battlefield. This was a significant decision because they did so without God’s direction or permission. The ark was where the presence of the Lord rested (Ex. 25:21-22).
By bringing the presence of God into battle with them without God’s agreement, they lost both the war and the ark. First Samuel 4:5-11 says:
When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook.Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?”
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,” they said. “Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before.We’re doomed! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness. Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!”
So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died. (NIV)
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