The Dangerous Ark of the Book of Samuel
After defeating Israel in a battle, the Philistines take the ark and bring it to Philistia in triumph. YHWH, however, wreaks havoc among the Philistines, and they send the ark back to Israel, placed on an unmanned carriage pulled by oxen.
The ark ends up in Beth-shemesh at a field of Joshua (not Moses’s successor, but another man of the same name), where YHWH mysteriously strikes down many of the people for looking at the ark:
שמואל א ו:יט וַיַּךְ בְּאַנְשֵׁי בֵית שֶׁמֶשׁ כִּי רָאוּ בַּאֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה וַיַּךְ בָּעָם שִׁבְעִים אִישׁ חֲמִשִּׁים אֶלֶף אִישׁ וַיִּתְאַבְּלוּ הָעָם כִּי הִכָּה יְהוָה בָּעָם מַכָּה גְדוֹלָה.
1 Sam 6:19 [YHWH] struck at the men of Beth-shemesh because they looked into the Ark of YHWH; He struck down seventy men among the people and fifty thousand men. The people mourned, for He had inflicted a great slaughter upon the population.
The ark is then taken by the people of Kiryat-yearim, and it is placed in the home of Abinadab, who puts his son Elazar in charge of it. This story about the ark’s wanderings spans 1 Samuel 4:1b–7:2.
Jumping 30 chapters ahead to 2 Samuel 6:2–23, King David decides to bring the ark from Abinadab’s house to his new capital of Jerusalem. On the way, a man named Uzza touches the ark and is struck dead. Afraid of what might happen if he continues the journey, David leaves the ark in the home of a Gittite man named Obed-Edom.
When David is told that the man is prospering on account of the Ark, David tries bringing the ark to his city again. This time, he accompanies the procession with dancing and sacrifices and it succeeds. When his wife, Michal daughter of Saul, sees David dancing, she speaks to him contemptuously, but David says it is worthwhile to degrade himself to honor YHWH’s ark. The story ends with Michal cursed with childlessness for the rest of her life.
Taking the Ark into Battle
The first story’s bringing the ark into battle to assist the Israelite army against its enemy, reflects the tradition found in non-Priestly biblical sources (see my “The Two Arks: Military and Ritual” TheTorah 2020), most famously the following verse, which forms part of the Jewish liturgy before the Torah reading:
במדבר י:לה וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה קוּמָה יְ־הוָה וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ מִפָּנֶיךָ.
Num 10:35 When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: “Advance, O YHWH! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!”
This explains why, in our story, when the Israelites decide to bring the Ark into the war, the Philistines react in fear:
שמואל א ד:ו וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ פְלִשְׁתִּים אֶת קוֹל הַתְּרוּעָה וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֶה קוֹל הַתְּרוּעָה הַגְּדוֹלָה הַזֹּאת בְּמַחֲנֵה הָעִבְרִים וַיֵּדְעוּ כִּי אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה בָּא אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה. ד:ז וַיִּרְאוּ הַפְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי אָמְרוּ בָּא אֱלֹהִים אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אוֹי לָנוּ כִּי לֹא הָיְתָה כָּזֹאת אֶתְמוֹל שִׁלְשֹׁם. ד:ח אוֹי לָנוּ מִי יַצִּילֵנוּ מִיַּד הָאֱלֹהִים הָאַדִּירִים הָאֵלֶּה...
1 Sam 4:6 The Philistines heard the noise of the shouting and they wondered, “Why is there such a loud shouting in the camp of the Hebrews?” And when they learned that the Ark of YHWH had come to the camp, 4:7 the Philistines were frightened; for they said, “Gods have come to the camp.” And they cried, “Woe to us! Nothing like this has ever happened before. 4:8 Woe to us! Who will save us from the power of these mighty gods?....”
And yet, the ark in Samuel turns out to be more than just a weapon in Israel’s arsenal: it is far more hazardous and unpredictable.
The Ark Destroys Indiscriminately
The ark in this account is inherently dangerous and unstable. It causes death and destruction to anyone or anything in its vicinity that disrespects it wittingly or unwittingly.
- The Philistines fear the ark because of how God smote the Egyptians in the wilderness (1 Sam 4:8).
- The statue of the god Dagon is toppled by proximity to the ark (1 Sam 5:2–5).
- The inhabitants of all three Philistine cities that take the ark—Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron—are struck with plague and hemorrhoids (1 Sam 5:6–12).
- The inhabitants of Beth Shemesh are struck dead for looking at the ark (1 Sam 6:19).
- When the ark appears to be about to topple off the carriage, Uzza touches it to make sure it doesn’t fall and is struck dead on the spot (2 Sam 6:6–8).
- When Michal mocks the dance David was performing with his servants before the ark, she is struck with lifelong barrenness (2 Sam 6:20–23).
It makes little difference to YHWH whether the people violating the ark intend to honor it or insult it. The reaction of the people in Beth Shemesh, after YHWH strikes the town, captures this terror caused by the ark:
שמואל א ו:כ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אַנְשֵׁי בֵית שֶׁמֶשׁ מִי יוּכַל לַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה הָאֱלֹהִים הַקָּדוֹשׁ הַזֶּה וְאֶל מִי יַעֲלֶה מֵעָלֵינוּ.
1 Sam 6:20 Then the people of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before YHWH, this holy God? To whom shall he go so that we may be rid of him?”
Their decision to get rid of the ark is similar to the Philistines’ decision, after the plagues, to send the ark back to Israel, as well as to David’s, following the death of Uzza, to leave the ark at Obed-Edom’s house.
In short, according to this story, which now appears in two separate parts of the book of Samuel, proximity to the ark is perilous and demands extreme caution. This account is unique in envisioning the ark this way.
Adding the Philistine War into the Story of Samuel and Eli
The story of the dangerous ark is introduced in the middle of the account of Samuel’s youth. The book of Samuel opens with Eli’s adoption of Samuel, who grows up in the worship site in Shiloh, and relates how YHWH rejects Eli’s sons because of their sins (chs. 1–3). Chapter 3 ends with Samuel’s taking his place as a prophet and leader.
The text then suddenly veers into the war between Israel and the Philistines. Instead of mentioning Samuel or even Eli’s family leading the war, the protagonists are the Israelites in general, and the leaders are unnamed elders:
שמואל א ג:יט וַיִּגְדַּל שְׁמוּאֵל וַי־הוָה הָיָה עִמּוֹ וְלֹא הִפִּיל מִכָּל דְּבָרָיו אָרְצָה. ג:כ וַיֵּדַע כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל מִדָּן וְעַד בְּאֵר שָׁבַע כִּי נֶאֱמָן שְׁמוּאֵל לְנָבִיא לַי־הוָה. ג:כא וַיֹּסֶף יְ־הוָה לְהֵרָאֹה בְשִׁלֹה כִּי נִגְלָה יְ־הוָה אֶל שְׁמוּאֵל בְּשִׁלוֹ בִּדְבַר יְ־הוָה. ד:א וַיְהִי דְבַר שְׁמוּאֵל לְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל
1 Sam 3:19 Samuel grew up and YHWH was with him: He did not leave any of Samuel's predictions unfulfilled. 3:20 All Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel was trustworthy as a prophet of YHWH. 3:21 And YHWH continued to appear at Shiloh: YHWH revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh with the word of YHWH. 4:1 and Samuel's word went forth to all Israel.
וַיֵּצֵא יִשְׂרָאֵל לִקְרַאת פְּלִשְׁתִּים לַמִּלְחָמָה וַיַּחֲנוּ עַל הָאֶבֶן הָעֵזֶר וּפְלִשְׁתִּים חָנוּ בַאֲפֵק. ד:ב וַיַּעַרְכוּ פְלִשְׁתִּים לִקְרַאת יִשְׂרָאֵל וַתִּטֹּשׁ הַמִּלְחָמָה וַיִּנָּגֶף יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְנֵי פְלִשְׁתִּים וַיַּכּוּ בַמַּעֲרָכָה בַּשָּׂדֶה כְּאַרְבַּעַת אֲלָפִים אִישׁ. ד:ג וַיָּבֹא הָעָם אֶל הַמַּחֲנֶה וַיֹּאמְרוּ זִקְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לָמָּה נְגָפָנוּ יְ־הוָה הַיּוֹם לִפְנֵי פְלִשְׁתִּים נִקְחָה אֵלֵינוּ מִשִּׁלֹה אֶת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה וְיָבֹא בְקִרְבֵּנוּ וְיֹשִׁעֵנוּ מִכַּף אֹיְבֵינוּ. ד:ד וַיִּשְׁלַח הָעָם שִׁלֹה וַיִּשְׂאוּ מִשָּׁם אֵת אֲרוֹן בְּרִית יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת יֹשֵׁב הַכְּרֻבִים וְשָׁם שְׁנֵי בְנֵי עֵלִי עִם אֲרוֹן בְּרִית הָאֱלֹהִים חָפְנִי וּפִינְחָס.
Israel marched out to engage the Philistines in battle; they encamped near Eben-ezer, while the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 4:2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle was joined, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 4:3 When the people returned to the camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did YHWH put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us fetch the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH from Shiloh; thus He will be present among us and will deliver us from the hands of our enemies.” 4:4 So the people sent to Shiloh, and brought from there the ark of the covenant of YHWH of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
It is surprising that Samuel and Eli and his sons are not pictured as the leaders; this suggests that it is not composed by the same author who wrote chapters 1–3. In fact, Samuel is entirely unmentioned, while Hophni and Phinehas appear only in an awkwardly phrased parenthetical, introducing them as add-ons to the ark that the people had already brought to the battle camp in the previous verse. The phrase is almost certainly a late gloss to add them into a story in which they did not originally feature. The NJPS translation attempts to smooth out the awkwardness by moving the clause earlier in the sentence, but this only highlights how problematic the actual text is.
The story continues without the involvement of Hophni and Phinehas, and they appear at the of the battle, in another awkward parenthetical gloss:
שמואל א ד:יא וַאֲרוֹן אֱלֹהִים נִלְקָח וּשְׁנֵי בְנֵי עֵלִי מֵתוּ חָפְנִי וּפִינְחָס.
1 Sam 4:11 The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli died, Hophni and Phinehas.
Following this verse, the text detours into a long description of how when Eli finds out about his sons’ deaths and the loss of the ark, he falls backwards on his chair and breaks his neck, thus fulfilling YHWH’s curse from chs. 2–3 (vv. 12–22). After this, the story picks up with the ark:
שמואל א ה:א וּפְלִשְׁתִּים לָקְחוּ אֵת אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים וַיְבִאֻהוּ מֵאֶבֶן הָעֵזֶר אַשְׁדּוֹדָה.
1 Sam 5:1 And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod.
The verse here is a resumptive repetition (Wiederaufnahme) of v. 11a. This technique is used to mark a digression from the main storyline, and the text wants to get back on track; it often indicates that the intervening material was added by a later author. In this case, what is happening is a little more complex.
The oldest version of the Samuel story did not have this account of the battle with the Philistines and the loss of the ark. A later editor of Samuel took this once independent ark account and added to Samuel’s story, using it to serve as the punishment for the multiple wrongdoings perpetrated by Eli’s sons. This was done to emphasize how desperately the Israelites needed a competent and righteous leader, namely Samuel, in place of the failing family of Eli.
Picking up with Samuel the Judge-Savior
While the independent Ark source in 1 Samuel ends in 7:1, with the ark safely stored in the house of Abinadab on the hill. After a brief bridging half-verse (7:2a), the older story picks up again with Samuel as a Judge-Savior in the same vein as the Book of Judges. When we remove the ark story, we can see the original flow:
שמואל א ג:יט וַיִּגְדַּל שְׁמוּאֵל וַי־הוָה הָיָה עִמּוֹ וְלֹא הִפִּיל מִכָּל דְּבָרָיו אָרְצָה. ג:כ וַיֵּדַע כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל מִדָּן וְעַד בְּאֵר שָׁבַע כִּי נֶאֱמָן שְׁמוּאֵל לְנָבִיא לַי־הוָה. ג:כא וַיֹּסֶף יְ־הוָה לְהֵרָאֹה בְשִׁלֹה כִּי נִגְלָה יְ־הוָה אֶל שְׁמוּאֵל בְּשִׁלוֹ בִּדְבַר יְ־הוָה. ד:א וַיְהִי דְבַר שְׁמוּאֵל לְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל // ז:בb וַיִּרְבּוּ הַיָּמִים וַיִּהְיוּ עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וַיִּנָּהוּ כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אַחֲרֵי יְ־הוָה. ז:ג וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל אֶל כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר אִם בְּכָל לְבַבְכֶם אַתֶּם שָׁבִים אֶל יְ־הוָה הָסִירוּ אֶת אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר מִתּוֹכְכֶם וְהָעַשְׁתָּרוֹת וְהָכִינוּ לְבַבְכֶם אֶל יְהוָה וְעִבְדֻהוּ לְבַדּוֹ וְיַצֵּל אֶתְכֶם מִיַּד פְּלִשְׁתִּים.
1 Sam 3:19 Samuel grew up and YHWH was with him: He did not leave any of Samuel's predictions unfulfilled. 3:20 All Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, knew that Samuel was trustworthy as a prophet of YHWH. 3:21 And YHWH continued to appear at Shiloh: YHWH revealed Himself to Samuel at Shiloh with the word of YHWH. 4:1a Samuel’s word went forth to all Israel // 7:2b and this was for many days, twenty years in all; and all the House of Israel yearned after YHWH. 7:3 And Samuel said to all the House of Israel, “If you mean to return to YHWH with all your heart, you must remove the alien gods and the Ashtaroth from your midst and direct your heart to YHWH and serve Him alone. Then He will deliver you from the hands of the Philistines.”
The story continues with Samuel calling a meeting in Mitzpeh, offering a sacrifice to YHWH, after which the Israelites fight a battle against the Philistines and they are defeated. The story ended thus:
שמואל א ז:יג וַיִּכָּנְעוּ הַפְּלִשְׁתִּים וְלֹא יָסְפוּ עוֹד לָבוֹא בִּגְבוּל יִשְׂרָאֵל וַתְּהִי יַד יְ־הוָה בַּפְּלִשְׁתִּים כֹּל יְמֵי שְׁמוּאֵל. // ז:טו וַיִּשְׁפֹּט שְׁמוּאֵל אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל כֹּל יְמֵי חַיָּיו.
1 Sam 7:13 The Philistines were humbled and did not invade the territory of Israel again; and the hand of YHWH was set against the Philistines as long as Samuel lived. // 7:15 Samuel judged Israel as long as he lived.
The ending here shows how Samuel was originally connected to the collection of stories about saviors found in the book of Judges. In this collection of stories, heroes arise who save Israel from nations who afflict them. That is what happens here too.
Upon Israel’s repentance, Samuel guarantees divine intercession, and they are victorious. The Philistines are subdued (כ.נ.ע) just like other nations of Canaan throughout the book of Judges: Moabites in 3:30; Canaanites in 4:23; Midianites in 7:28; and Ammonites in 11:33. Finally there is peace between the Israelites and other nations, just like the quiet that occurs during the reign of each of Israelite judges.
By adding the story of Israel’s loss to the Philistines as a prequel to Samuel’s successful battle, the editor presents Samuel’s victory as a corrective for Israel’s loss under Eli’s sons, and highlights who the true spiritual leader of Israel is.
Interrupting the Philistine Wars with the Ark Account (2 Sam)
Similarly, the latter half of the ark account, in which David brings the ark to Jerusalem, interrupts the list of David’s battles against the Philistines.
This list begins with the battle of Baʿal Peratzim (2 Sam 5:17–21), and then the battle of Bakhaim (2 Sam 5:22–25). David then raises a large army (2 Sam 6:1), at which point we are told the story of the retrieval of the ark and David’s dashed hope to build a temple for it (chs. 6–7), followed by David’s defeat of the Philistines (8:1).
שמואל ב ה:כה וַיַּעַשׂ דָּוִד כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּהוּ יְ־הוָה וַיַּךְ אֶת פְּלִשְׁתִּים מִגֶּבַע עַד בֹּאֲךָ גָזֶר. ו:א וַיֹּסֶף עוֹד דָּוִד אֶת כָּל בָּחוּר בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁלֹשִׁים אָלֶף.
2 Sam 5:25 David did just as YHWH had commanded him; and he struck down the Philistines from Geba all the way to Gezer. 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand.
ו:ב וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ דָּוִד וְכָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ [בַּעֲלָה הִיא קִרְיַת יְעָרִים אֲשֶׁר לִ]יהוּדָה לְהַעֲלוֹת מִשָּׁם אֵת אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר נִקְרָא שֵׁם שֵׁם יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת יֹשֵׁב הַכְּרֻבִים עָלָיו....
6:2 So David and all the people with him set out and went to Baʿalah that is Kiryat-yearim in Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of YHWH of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim….
ח:א וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי כֵן וַיַּךְ דָּוִד אֶת פְּלִשְׁתִּים וַיַּכְנִיעֵם וַיִּקַּח דָּוִד אֶת מֶתֶג הָאַמָּה מִיַּד פְּלִשְׁתִּים.
8:1 And afterward, David attacked the Philistines and subdued them; David took Metheg-ammah out of the hand of the Philistines.
The editor places the ark story after 6:1 to imply that David musters all these men to get the ark, as opposed to the original intent, which was to fight the Philistines as told in 8:1. Moreover, placing the ark story before David’s final conquest of the Philistines offers a kind of symmetry to what we saw with Samuel, who also defeats the Philistines after the ark story.
Desire to Build a Temple: An Editorial Creation
Before returning to the main storyline, here the editor added the account in chapter 7, in which David expresses a desire to build YHWH and the ark a Temple, only to be warned by the prophet Nathan that he should not do so, but that his son would do so.
By bringing the ark to Jerusalem, David establishes it as a holy site in preparation for Solomon’s dedication of the temple, and turns David into a spiritual leader in addition to being a military one. The older Samuel text here had no reference to an ark or a temple, but simply told the story of David’s wars with the Philistines, then moved on to his wars with Moab, etc.
A Late Insertion of an Old Tradition
In sum, these two accounts (1 Sam 4:1b–7:1 + 2 Sam 6:2–23) were originally one story that the editor of Samuel borrowed and split into two. The ark, which was at the house of Abinadab in 1 Samuel, is still there in 2 Samuel. Originally, the first part led directly into the second part with no interruption as follows:
שמואל א ז:א וַיָּבֹאוּ אַנְשֵׁי קִרְיַת יְעָרִים וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה וַיָּבִאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל בֵּית אֲבִינָדָב בַּגִּבְעָה וְאֶת אֶלְעָזָר בְּנוֹ קִדְּשׁוּ לִשְׁמֹר אֶת אֲרוֹן יְ־הוָה. // שמואל ב ו:ב וַיָּקָם וַיֵּלֶךְ דָּוִד וְכָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר אִתּוֹ [בַּעֲלָה הִיא קִרְיַת יְעָרִים אֲשֶׁר לִ]יהוּדָה לְהַעֲלוֹת מִשָּׁם אֵת אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר נִקְרָא שֵׁם שֵׁם יְ־הוָה צְבָאוֹת יֹשֵׁב הַכְּרֻבִים עָלָיו. ו:ג וַיַּרְכִּבוּ אֶת אֲרוֹן הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל עֲגָלָה חֲדָשָׁה וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ מִבֵּית אֲבִינָדָב אֲשֶׁר בַּגִּבְעָה וְעֻזָּא וְאַחְיוֹ בְּנֵי אֲבִינָדָב נֹהֲגִים אֶת הָעֲגָלָה חֲדָשָׁה.
1 Sam 7:1 And the people of Kiryat-yearim came and took up the ark of YHWH, and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. They consecrated his son, Eleazar, to have charge of the ark of YHWH. // 2 Sam 6:2 So David and all the people with him set out and went to Baʿalah that is Kiryat-yearim in Judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of YHWH of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. 6:3 They loaded the Ark of God onto a new cart and conveyed it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill; and Abinadab's sons, Uzza and Ahio, guided the new cart.
As discussed, the reason the editor decided to split the story the way he did was because of his desire to use the loss of the ark and the Philistine victory as the punishment for Eli’s sons. He needed to postpone the ending of the story till later in Samuel, however, since this part explicitly features King David, who was not yet king—or even born—in the first chapters of Samuel. The editor needed to wait until the part of Samuel in which David is king and has conquered Jerusalem, to splice in the ending of the ark account.
Not Original to Samuel but Ancient
The dangerous-ark account was not part of the oldest layer of Samuel, but this does not necessarily imply that the story itself is late. Instead, I suggest that the ark tradition is old, but was not part of the repertoire of the original scribes who wrote Samuel. In this alternative tradition, the ark is a double-edged sword. It is a dangerous earthly instantiation of the power of YHWH.
In this story, the ark can destroy Israel’s enemies, and make people who behave properly toward it prosper (such as Obed-Edom and David)—yet is it is extremely dangerous. One wrong move can lead to YHWH unleashing his fury, killing any number of people, even Israelites, who behave with even a small amount of disrespect.
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April 8, 2021
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Dr. Rabbi Tzemah Yoreh has a PhD in Bible from Hebrew University, as well as a PhD in Wisdom Literature of the Hellenistic period from the University of Toronto. He has written many books focusing on his reconstruction of the redaction history of Genesis through Kings. He is the author of The First Book of God, and the multi-volume Kernel to Canon series, with books like Jacob’s Journey and Moses’s Mission. Yoreh has taught at Ben Gurion University and American Jewish University. He is currently the leader of the City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York.
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