Israel hits rock bottom: Judgement on the Levites of Beth-shemesh. 1 Samuel 6:12-7:2

The literary structure of 1 Samuel 6:12-7:2

This morning we come to the fourth of the four ark stories in 1 Samuel. It’s been a little while so let’s remember together:

  • In the first, the ark was taken to the battle of Aphek, thinking that God would help them against the Philistines if the ark was there, even if they didn’t deal with their sin and unfaithfulness.
  • In the second, the ark was captured and the high priestly family of Eli was judged; he and his two sons died.
  • In the third, the ark wreaked havoc on the Philistines and their gods, as Yahweh took matters into his own hands and defeated the Philistines. They begged for it to leave because of the plagues on them.
The journey of the ark of the covenant

Today, we have the story of how the ark came back to Israel.

Remember from last time the Philistine test. They were sure that their plagues were from Yahweh, but just to be doubly sure they said – if the cart with the ark on it went straight to Beth-shemesh, that would be a sign for them.

And they stacked the deck against this happening by having no one lead the cart, by picking two milk cows that had never carried a cart before, and by locking up their calves in the barn so that the cows would have to overcome their instincts not to go to them, but to Beth-shemesh in Israel.

And then our story begins . . .

The ark returns to Israel

12And the cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went. They turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh.

Yahweh takes control of the situation and leads the cows to the right city – even though the cows were lowing for their calves. Now the Philistines know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Yahweh was the one who judged and defeated them, since the Philistine lords are sneaking around to see what  would happen, and saw this.

A cause for celebration

13Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted up their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it. 14The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there.

This harvest would have been in May or June. And this is why so many people are out in the fields to see this cart with two cows and the ark on it. Can you imagine? The ark of God pulling up next to your field with no one leading it?

And they gave thanks and gave offerings to God.

And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15And the Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the Lord.

And then the humorous scene of the Philistine lords sneaking around Beth-shemesh comes to an end.

16And when the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron. 17These are the golden tumors that the Philistines returned as a guilt offering to the Lord: one for Ashdod, one for Gaza, one for Ashkelon, one for Gath, one for Ekron, 18and the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both fortified cities and unwalled villages.

V. 18 goes on . . .

The great stone beside which they set down the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh.

The stone is a witness to these amazing events, of how God single-handedly defeated the Philistines and brought the ark back to Israel.

But then disaster strikes. 

 19And he (the Lord) struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon/into the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow.

If before they rejoiced about the ark, now they mourn.

According to Numbers 4:15, 20 no one was to touch the ark, and only priests were allowed to look at it. Here it appears that some of the men of Beth-shemesh were looking it over or even looked into it, which would have involved touching it. And so they are judged for failing to obey the Law of Moses.

Now, this might seem harsh but consider this. This was a Levitical town, that is, a place where Levites lived (Joshua 21:16; 1 Chronicles 6:54-59).And not only that, they were from the clan of the Kohathites, which was in charge of transporting the ark and the other holy things of the tabernacle (Numbers 4:4). And they were specifically instructed that the priests must cover the ark, and “after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, lest they die” – Numbers 4:15.

So they knew, or certainly should have known that what they were doing was very wrong (For a similar incident see 2 Samuel 6:6-9) (The LXX or Greek Old Testament has an alternative explanation for the judgment. It says, “the descendants of Jeconiah did not rejoice with the people of Beth-shemesh when they greeted the ark of the Lord, and he killed seventy men of them.”) (70, and not 50,070 seems to have been the original number in the text.)

20Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?”

Instead of acknowledging their wrong, they blame God, as if God is arbitrary. And then they are like, ‘how do we get rid of this thing?’ And so they look for a new town for the ark.

21So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the Lord. Come down and take it up to you.” 7:1And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord.

As we saw, Kiriath-jearim is 9 miles north of Beth-shemesh. The ark was put in a house, not out in open view. It appears that Eleazar was a priest (it was a common priestly name; 2 Samuel 6:3-4 and 1 Chronicles 13:7-11 portray his brothers as priests), so he could rightly care for the ark.

Then the story ends.

2From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.

Things were just really bad for Israel.

  • Despite God’s punishment of the Philistines, militarily and politically they were still dominating Israel and causing great suffering.
  • There was not a functioning high priestly family to lead the people.
  • The tabernacle at Shiloh was destroyed and things were in disarray.
  • And now the Levites of Beth-shemesh, who were the ones who should have known how to care for the ark are judged. Even when God gave them something to rejoice about, they are so disconnected from God that they also offed God, just as the Philistines had done, and were judged.

And so now the ark is in Kiriath-jearim, with Israel afraid of it and it has been there for twenty years and nothing is changing. And this is where they hit rock bottom. They can’t take it anymore. Something has to change.

And so finally it says, “all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.” They knew what could be from their history as a people when God blessed them. But they saw where they were and they mourned. This is what Paul calls godly sorrow that leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).

They moved from blaming God, ‘you didn’t help us at Aphek, you judged us at Beth-shemesh’ to taking responsibility for their sin and unfaithfulness. And this is what we will see in the next story, the whole nation repents and begins to follow the Lord under Samuel’s guidance.

Here’s a question –


Why as individuals or even as a congregation, do we so often have to hit bottom to come to our senses? Why does it have to get so bad before we make the difficult choices that need to be made to set things right? So that we submit to God and walk in his ways? Why are we so stubborn, or as Scripture sometimes calls it, “stiff necked”?

And finally an exhortation –


 If this is where you are, or where you are headed (you don’t actually have to hit rock bottom) act! Right now! Act to make things right!

Set aside your sin and unfaithfulness and come back to a right relationship with God and serve him with your whole heart. Stop blaming God or others or life circumstances, and take responsibility for your own choices and repent.

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