The Bible Story
Volume 3, Chapter 71 - 79
From Rebellion to Idolatry
HAVING lost his special God-given strength when his hair was cut off during his sleep, Samson finally fell into the hands of the Philistines. They didn't choose to kill him, because they wanted to show him off around the country. To make certain that he wouldn't continue to give them trouble, they intended to deprive him of his sight. (Judges 16:15-21.)
Samson's Tragic Penalty
When Samson saw the red-hot irons being pushed toward his head, he threw every ounce of his vigor into trying to snap the thick leather cords binding his arms and legs. Although his natural strength was most unusual, he couldn't even begin to break his bonds without God's help.
In that awful moment when the hot iron took away his sight, the Danite realized that it was his punishment because he had fallen for Philistine women. Too late, he finally realized he had fallen for their good looks -- their eye-appeal -- and not for character. God had warned the Israelites that they should not intermarry with the people of surrounding pagan nations, because they would lead the Israelites away from following God. The Israelites were to be a special, holy people. (Deuteronomy 7:1-6.)
Amid growing crowds of yelling Philistines, the wretched, degraded, pain-ridden Israelite was paraded out of town and southward to the city of Gaza, the gates of which Samson had previously carried away. There he was bound with chains and imprisoned. Later his chains were loosened just enough so that he could be put to work at the menial task of pushing a millstone in the grain-grinding room of the prison. (Judges 16:21.) Ordinarily several men were required to keep the heavy stone turning, but the Philistines often forced Samson to move it all by himself until his strength gave out.
In the months that followed, the Danite was a great object of interest and ridicule for his enemies. Thousands, a few at a time, came to the prison to watch him struggle with the millstone. At various times he was taken to important public gatherings so that more people would be able to see the pathetic figure who for so long had been their mighty enemy. Meanwhile, Samson's hair was again growing to an unusual length.
To show their thanks to their pagan god, called Dagon, for helping them win out over Samson, the Philistines planned a special meeting at a large temple in Gaza. The temple contained a huge image of their idol, to which they intended to make unusual sacrifices. It was to be a most extraordinary event at which all the Philistine leaders were to be present. (Judges 16:22-23.)
When the time arrived for the celebration, about three thousand spectators were gathered, including all the rulers, military leaders and other dignitaries and their wives or women friends jammed into the best viewing area. (Verse 27.)
The idol Dagon was a towering monstrosity with a human-like head and torso. From the waist down it resembled the rear half of a fish. Before it was a wide stone altar on which sacrifices were to be made. Pompous Philistine priests stood by to await their part in the ceremonies, some of which were disgustingly lewd.
Debauch and Degradation
Because the emphasis was on pleasure in this special celebration, wine flowed freely all day. By noon so many people were in some stage of drunkenness that there arose a chant for Samson to be brought before them. As the hours passed, the demand became louder and louder.
The priests of Dagon were greatly discouraged by this turn of events. They felt that the high point of the celebration should be the sacrifices and exciting ceremonial rites, and they realized that an appearance by Samson would probably upstage their part of the show. Accordingly, they sent word to the Philistine rulers present, requesting that the loud demands of the crowd be squelched.
The priests were the ones who were squelched, however. It developed that the ones who were most loudly demanding Samson's presence included the wives and companions of the Philistine leaders in the balconies, and it wasn't the wish of the leaders that their ladies should be disappointed. An official order soon went out to bring Samson to the temple.
When the Danite appeared before the crowd, a mighty surge of derisive remarks and laughter broke out. Most of the people expected their prisoner to be dragged out by several strong guards. Instead, he hesitantly came on stage with a small boy who led him by the hand!
This piece of showmanship to degrade Samson and please the audience resulted in such drawn-out clamor that a high official finally had to appear on the altar to quiet the crowd.
"Let us proceed with the ceremonies to show our thanks to our great god Dagon for what he has done for us!" he shouted. "Then we shall bring back the blind Israelite to perform a few feats of strength for us!" (Judges 16:24-25.)
This pacified the crowd. The speaker motioned for the boy to lead Samson out of sight, and festivities continued.
Samson had been in the temple once before he had lost his sight. He remembered that it was built in such a way that the main structural strength of the building depended on two huge columns.
"Lad, lead me to the two main pillars of the temple," Samson said to his young guide.
"I can't do that," the boy replied. "I was told to stay right here with you until the sacrifices are over. Then I am to take you out in the sight of the people again."
"But I am weary from working at the mill," Samson explained, "and these dangling chains on my ankles are very tiring. If I could prop myself between those two close pillars for a few minutes, I would be a bit refreshed for what I am to do later before the people." (Judges 16:26.)
Samson's Desperate Plan
Samson was hoping the boy would find that the attention of all officers and officials nearby was directed to what was happening out on the altar, so that his young guide would find it easier to do as he was asked.
"Well -- " the lad faltered, "it's really only a little way to the pillars, and I don't see anyone watching us. Maybe I could get you over there if you'll tell anyone who asks that it was your idea and not mine."
"I promise," Samson said. "And I think I can give you some very important advice in return for your favor."
The moment Samson was led within touch of the pillars, he quickly felt the distance between them. It turned out, as he remembered, only a few feet. This suited the plan Samson was devising for getting revenge on all the great Philistine leaders.
"Thank you for doing this for me," Samson said to his youthful guide. "Now I'm going to give you that important advice I promised you. I want you to leave me at once and run out of the temple as fast as you can!"
"Why must I do that?" the lad asked unhappily. "It's my duty to stay with you. If I don't, I'll be beaten!"
"It could be worse for you if you don't leave now!" Samson whispered harshly to the boy. "Go before it's too late!"
The Israelite realized the value of every second. He spent no more time talking. He bowed his head and silently and fervently asked God to once more strengthen him to the extent that he could perform a feat by which he might be avenged for the loss of his sight by the Philistines. It was God's plan that Samson should feel strongly about this personal request, so that he would make the effort and sacrifice He had in mind. (Judges 16:27-28.)
After his prayer, Samson groped out quickly for his young companion, but he felt nothing.
"Where are you, lad?" he called out. There was no response. The boy, realizing something was afoot, had quietly scampered out.
Samson waited for a few moments, then stepped back between the pillars. He spread his hands and feet out and pressed them against the columns on either side so that he was firmly wedged between the two columns. From that point he squirmed his way upward until he was several feet above the floor.
Excited shouts suddenly came to him above the rising babble of the roused crowd.
"Get Samson!" someone suddenly yelled. "He's trying to escape!"
The Danite heard the sound of frantically approaching footsteps. He knew that he had been discovered. Momentarily he expected a spear or a knife to thud into his body. He had hoped to work higher up the pillars to a point where pressure would be more effective, but there was no more time left for maneuvering. Time was fast running out for a try at one final great feat of strength.
"God of Israel, help me to bring death to these Philistines, even though I have to die with them!" Samson prayed.
A Tragic Success
Using all his natural strength, Samson strained desperately against the two pillars. He was at first unable to move them, and relaxed himself a moment for a second try. It was then that God imbued him with superhuman power. Just as some Philistine soldiers were about to reach him and jerk him down, Samson managed to move the pillars. They bowed away from each other, then buckled, the stone blocks slipping out of place to allow all that was above to come thundering to the floor. Samson and the men who were about to seize him were crushed and buried.
The two main columns having been connected directly with and supporting the rest of the structure, the whole temple crumpled and came crashing down within a matter of seconds. The wild shouts of drunken celebration abruptly turned to screams of terror as three thousand people plummeted to their deaths on hundreds more people below. Pagan priests at the altar lost their lives at the same time as the idol Dagon crashed face downward in the dust of destruction.
In those few seconds when so many of the leaders of Philistia were wiped out along with Samson, the Israelites of southwest Canaan were freed for a time from their oppressors. Without their leaders, the Philistines could do little against the Israelites. In spite of his weakness, Samson's life and his death were not in vain. God used him in a mighty manner for the benefit of his people. (Judges 16:29-30.) Word of the great destruction quickly spread, and the Israelites realized they no longer need have such great fear of the Philistines.
Inasmuch as the Israelites suddenly lost their fear of the Philistines, Samson's relatives boldly went down to Gaza to find and claim his body. They took it back to the territory of the tribe of Dan, where Samson was buried next to his father in the family cemetery near his home town. (Judges 16:31.)
Because God spoke in the Bible so plainly about Samson's weakness for pretty Philistine women, some people have misunderstood the meaning of Samson's life. Samson's accusers have forgotten that God Himself said He allowed Samson to fall prey to this weakness in order to bring Samson into conflict with the Philistines. Read it in Judges 14:1-4. Samson's accusers have also forgotten that Samson was a man of extraordinary faithfulness to God in every way except for this one major weakness -- and in a time when most of the Israelites were steeped in idolatry.
Out of his great love for God and for his fellow Israelites, Samson faithfully kept God's commandments and fulfilled all of the requirements of his nazarite vow -- except for that one major weakness which God knew he had. Because of the grief brought upon him by his love for Philistine women, Samson struggled even harder to deliver his people from oppression than he would have if no trouble had befallen him.
Samson cheerfully, without complaining, accepted the life of trouble and heartache that came upon him in God's service. He laughed at grief and made a joke of disappointment. Who among us has so cheerfully borne grief?
Samson wasn't concerned about his sufferings, because he, like Abraham and God's other faithful servants of old, was concerned about God's salvation and the heavenly city made by God, in which they shall have an inheritance after being resurrected. (Hebrews 11:10, 14-16, 32, 35, 39-40.) These men had faith that God would establish that great city on earth as the eternal home of His children. (Revelation 21:1-4.) Samson's great faith in God enabled him to overcome most of his temptations -- and he very likely overcame his fondness for pagan Philistine women and repented of that sin while he was in prison.
How Idolatry Starts
Samson was one of the last of the judges. In the period when these leaders were in and out of power in various parts of Canaan, Israel was never quite right with God. After Joshua's death the people went so far into idolatry that God gave them no leaders or deliverers for many years. Without leadership or punishment, people degenerated to the point where each person lived as he thought best (Judges 17:6), a condition which led to all kinds of trouble. God had commanded the Israelites for their own good not to do what they thought best, but to obey Him. (Deuteronomy 12:8.) The Israelites repeatedly disobeyed, doing as they pleased -- as they thought best -- to their sorrow.
For example, to go back to an era before the first judge appeared on the scene, there was a man by the name of Micah, in the tribe of Ephraim, who had stolen a sizable sum of silver from his elderly mother. Considering herself of a religious nature, Micah's mother had in her own way decided to dedicate the eleven hundred shekels to God. She was so upset when she found the money missing that she pronounced a curse on the thief, whoever he was.
When Micah heard his mother pray that some evil thing should overcome the thief, he was quite worried. He, too, in a superstitious way, feared the God of Israel, though he didn't know too much about how to please God. Because his parents had not trained him to obey God, Micah was a thief and a scoundrel. Afraid that some evil thing would befall him, however, he confessed the theft to his mother, and gave all the money back to her. She was saddened to learn that her own son would rob her, but at the same time she was so pleased to realize that her son was conscience-stricken that, still doing as she thought right, instead of obeying the scriptures, she offered the money back to him. (Judges 17:1-3.)
"I dare not take it," Micah said. "You pronounced a curse on the one who took it, and I don't want that curse to fall on me. You should use the money as you first intended -- doing something for God!"
Micah's mother agreed. Micah and his mother weren't earnestly looking to God to learn how to live. They didn't obey Him, but lived as they pleased and convinced themselves their way was all right with God, as long as they did some little physical thing religiously. Their religion had degenerated to the level of superstition -- a man-made idolatry. Micah's mother had spent hours designing a certain kind of image, or idol, that she thought would be pleasing to God, and her first act was to use some of the silver to have such a carved image heavily coated. The metal worker she hired also melted more of the silver down into a solid metal idol for her. Eager to help in this misguided project, Micah carefully created several small idols such as were found in most pagan homes. He also produced a vestment of the type he fancied should be worn by an Israelite priest.
Micah then chose one of his sons, who was full grown, to be a priest. (Judges 17:4-6.) This was another wrong thing to do because only those of the family of Aaron were to be priests in Israel. (Exodus 28:1-5; Leviticus 8:35-36; Numbers 3:10; Deuteronomy 21:5.) No one can appoint himself to God's ministry. (Numbers 16; Numbers 17; Hebrews 5:4.)
Idolatry Caused by Spiritual Neglect
What Micah and his mother were attempting to do, in their superstitious zeal, was to set up their own temple of worship, patterned slightly after what they had heard or supposed it was like at the tabernacle at Shiloh. The farther they got into idolatry, the more religious they felt. The religions of the surrounding pagan nations had been so mixed in with God's laws over the years that very few Israelites could remember what God expected of them. It was somewhat as it is today with so many church denominations that try to decide for themselves how to worship God. Most of them teach and promote ancient pagan beliefs gotten by hearsay and tradition, as in Micah's case, mixing them with a few true Christian principles -- something the Bible repeatedly states is loathsome in God's sight. (Deuteronomy 12:29-30; II Kings 17:15.)
Micah and his mother had no Bible to instruct them and made little or no effort to learn God's laws on the Sabbaths and during the festival assemblies as they should have. (Deuteronomy 6:1-12; Acts 15:21; Deuteronomy 31:9-13; Nehemiah 8:1-3.) Otherwise, they probably would have done things much differently. As it was, Micah in his paganized way felt that he was fairly successful in doing his part to revive respect for God in his part of Israel just as people in false churches do today. He wasn't aware of how wrong he was.
One day a young Israelite stranger stopped at Micah's house, explaining that he was a Levite looking for work. When Micah heard this, he became very excited.
"I've heard that Levites make the best priests!" he exclaimed. "How would you like to work for me as my priest?" (Judges 17:7-10.)
Bible Story Book Index
A Minister for Hire
THE wandering Levite who had come to the home of Micah, an Ephraimite, was warmly welcomed. Micah immediately learned from which tribe the stranger had come and that his name was Jonathan. (Judges 17:5-8.) He had heard that Levites were especially suited to be priests, though he didn't know exactly why.
Had he known God's laws, he would have realized that God had chosen them for a special purpose. In the days of Moses, God chose out of the tribe of Levi the family of Aaron to be His priests. (Exodus 28:1, 40-43.) The other Levites were to do the physical work of caring for the tabernacle. (Numbers 1:47-54.) They were all to be teachers.
A Grandson of Moses
"My son is now my priest here at our humble little shrine," Micah enthusiastically told the stranger. "If you, a Levite, would consent to replace him, I shall provide all your clothes, priestly vestments and objects, food and lodging! Besides, I shall give you ten shekels of silver a year!"
The Levite should have been terribly shocked to find such apostasy in Israel. But he wasn't. In fact, he was wandering about because he had been thrust from his office for his sins.
The stranger realized that this offer was more profitable and more to his liking than what he had been doing, even though ten shekels of silver was only a very small amount. Since most Israelites were failing to pay God His tithe, many Levites had no income. They had apparently failed to teach the people tithing. Being one who was inclined to make the most of a good thing, Micah's guest acted for a time as though he couldn't make up his mind. At last, realizing Micah wouldn't raise the offer, the Levite slowly nodded his head in silent agreement. (Judges 17:9-10.)
"Good!" Micah exclaimed happily. "Let us lose no time in consecrating you as my priest. From then on you will be the one who will conduct ceremonies and talk to God for me. Certainly your prayers will be honored more because you are a Levite, and therefore God will surely prosper me!" (Judges 17:11-13.)
This remark made it obvious why Micah was so anxious to be considered a very religious man. He superstitiously believed that the combination of images, priest and God would surely bring him material wealth. Many people today put the same superstitious confidence in using statues, beads and rituals in church services, thinking they are serving God.
As for the young stranger, whose name was Jonathan, his motives weren't any better than Micah's. He was stepping into a false office. He should have known better. The original inspired Hebrew manuscripts of the Old Testament tell us he was the grandson of Moses! At a much later date the Jews tried to hide the identity of Jonathan. They thought that by doing so they were honoring Moses. So they inserted above the line the letter "n," changing the original word from Moses to Manasseh! That change has crept into the Authorized Version. (Judges 18:30.)
At this time many of the families of the tribe of Dan were discouraged because most of their share of Canaan was still held by the powerful Amorites. (Judges 1:34-35; 18:1.) The mountainous area around Zorah and Eshtaol, which was all they had been able to conquer, did not give them enough land. They were unhappy because their small area was hemmed in so solidly by their enemies. In the broad valley below them, to the west, the many Amorite chariots had been able to hurl back every Danite attack.
The Danites didn't trust God to fight their battles as He had promised. (Deuteronomy 7:1-2.) Out of fear they decided to go somewhere else and take some weak people's land.
In an effort to learn more about territory in distant areas, Danite leaders sent five, strong, well-trained scouts from their towns of Zorah and Eshtaol. It was an expedition somewhat like the one sent many years before into Canaan by Moses. They were in search of land that would be easier to conquer.
On their way northward they came to the Mt. Ephraim region and by chance arrived at Micah's somewhat secluded home as night was coming on. When Micah saw they were Israelites, he invited them to stay until morning. (Judges 18:2.)
One Sin Leads to Another
Suddenly they heard the voice of Jonathan, whom they already knew. When they went in, they met Jonathan, who by then had become established as Micah's priest. Jonathan told them how he had come into such an office. These Danites and their whole tribe had strayed far from God. They probably didn't realize the seriousness of Jonathan's sins. When the Danites discovered that they were at a place where divination was used, they wanted Jonathan to get in touch with the god of this world.
"Find out for us if our expedition will be successful in the direction we plan to take," they eagerly asked. This is a sad example of how far the Israelites had strayed from God's law into fortune-telling. They should have remembered that God commanded them to go to only the High Priest to inquire as to whether or not they should go to battle. (Numbers 27:21.)
The Levite obligingly donned his priestly vestments and went alone into the room where the idols and other religious objects were. After a while he returned to announce to the Danites what he thought would please them. They would be safe in their journey, and God would lead them to a place such as they sought. (Judges 18:3-6.)
The five scouts were greatly pleased by this report -- which of course was something Jonathan had made up to gratify Micah's guests in the same manner that an astrologer or palm reader would seek to please patrons. Jonathan felt sure his guess was a good one because the Israelites were successful in most of their efforts.
Assured of success, the Danites continued northward for several days. Eventually they arrived at a very fertile region near the southwest corner of Syria. It was north of Lake Huleh -- which is also called the "Waters of Merom" -- and southwest of Mt. Hermon. There they noted that the people were prosperous and seemingly were not fearful of raids or attacks by neighboring nations. The inhabitants had little contact with the outside world. They carelessly enjoyed their prosperity without maintaining an adequate defense system.
The city in this area was Laish. When the scouts saw how unprotected it was, they were doubly certain that Micah's priest was indeed a sound oracle of God. This part of the land, they reasoned, was surely meant for at least some of the Danites.
They hastily returned southward to their people in the Danite cities of Zorah and Eshtaol, about fifteen miles west of Jerusalem.
"We found a spot far to the north that is a paradise!" the scouts told their people. "The inhabitants are well off and are peaceful and at ease. A surprise attack by a well-equipped force would mean quick victory. We feel sure that God intends us to take the area. Let us prepare at once to go there!" (Judges 18:7-10.)
Many Danite families decided quickly to go. Since they had not yet settled into permanent homes, because of the scarcity of land, they were able to pack quickly. When they moved out next morning, six hundred Danite men, armed as soldiers, marched northward with their families and livestock. At the end of the first day they camped by Kirjath-jearim, only a few miles to the northeast, and named the spot "The Camp of Dan." On the second day they approached the home of Micah near Mt. Ephraim. The five scouts had deliberately guided them there.
"We are near the place where the priest lives who consulted God and told us that we would be successful in this venture," the scouts told the leaders of the journeying Danites. "In that house you see in the distance are valuable sacred objects that we should own to help insure our future success and protection. If our procession will stay by the gate, the five of us will make a hasty visit to the priest to make him an offer." (Judges 18:11-14.)
"You Shall Not Steal"
The leaders agreed, and the scouts went at once to Micah's home and greeted the Levite. They then took him out to the gate and introduced him to their leaders. While he chatted with the crowd at the gate, the scouts returned quickly to the chapel. No one was there. Without waiting for anyone to show up, the scouts seized all the objects and clothing they considered sacred. The Danites were very superstitious. They thought pillaging a chapel of these silly little idols would bring success. As Jonathan stood at the gate chatting with the leaders, he turned to see the scouts running toward him with the objects of his chapel in their hands.
"What does all this mean?" the Levite anxiously inquired. "Why have you returned to steal these things? Micah is away, but if I should call for help his neighbors will come after you!" (Judges 18:15-18.)
"Don't be foolish!" the scouts warned. "A shout for help could spoil your chance to better yourself."
"What do you mean by that?" Jonathan demanded. "We mean that we want you to come with us!" they explained. "All these people you see are our fellow Danites going to a better land north of here. Why be a priest to just one man when you can be a priest to all of us? Go with us this minute, and we'll make it worthwhile for you!"
Jonathan needed no more urging. With hardly a glance backward he gladly picked up his belongings and joined the hundreds of Danites. They placed him in a position of safety in the middle of their lengthy column. Then the Danites moved on to the north. (Judges 18:19-20.)
Shortly after they left, Micah returned to his home. He was informed by a neighbor that during his absence many people had marched up to his gate, that Jonathan had joined them and that the people had moved on.
Micah was perplexed by this report. He rushed to Jonathan's quarters to find that the Levite's belongings were gone, which seemed to indicate that the priest didn't intend to return. And when Micah discovered objects missing in the chapel, he was quite upset.
"My sacred things have been stolen!" he excitedly announced to his family and servants. "Call all our neighboring men together! Tell them to come armed to help pursue a band of thieves!"
By this time the Danites were quite a distance away. But because most of them were moving afoot with their children and livestock, it didn't require long for the mounted Ephraimites to catch up to them. Micah shouted at them to halt. The Danite procession stopped, and some of the soldiers in the rear guard turned to confront the Ephraimites.
"What reason do you have to pursue us with so many armed men?" they grimly demanded. (Judges 18:22-23.)
"You have stolen my priest and my images!" Micah shouted as he rode toward them. "Why do you ask why we have been pursuing you while you are fully aware that we have come to rescue them from you?"
At a motion from their leader, all three hundred soldiers of the rear guard moved back to surround Micah and confront his men.
"Don't raise your voice against us!" the Danite leader snapped. "If you shout at us again, some of our men will probably be irritated to the point of attacking you. And after doing away with all of you, they might decide to turn back and wipe out all your homes and families. I trust this will end our conversation unless you decide to talk about matters that are more pleasant to us."
With this statement the Danites deliberately turned their backs on the Ephraimites and continued on their journey. Micah realized that his lesser number of men couldn't stand against them. There was nothing to do but return home without the priest and the images in which he had put so much confidence for a wealthy future. (Judges 18:24:26.)
The Trail of Dan
When the Danites came within sight of the city of Laish, they stopped. That night they camped behind a rise so that their campfires couldn't be seen from the city. A little before dawn the six hundred soldiers crept up on Laish. While it was yet dark they made their surprise attack. The inhabitants perished while they were still in bed. Fire was set to everything that would burn -- except valuables.
The Danites attributed their success to their priest and the little images. But their success in battle was not due to either. Success came to them because a well-trained army caught a defenseless small town sleeping.
In the months that followed, the Danites rebuilt the city and named it DAN, after the father of their tribe. (Joshua 19:47.) A chapel was built for Jonathan and his so-called sacred objects. The religion of the Danite conquerors continued permanently on this basis to the fall of the House of Israel. Jonathan, and the sons he had later, carried on as priests until many centuries afterward when God sent Assyria to take over all Israel because of idolatry. (Judges 18:27-31.)
One might think today that a half-pagan, half-Christian religion is better than none at all. God doesn't look at it that way. A half-pagan religion is really all pagan. The Israelites very quickly forgot God's Commandments. Each did what he thought was right -- or did as he pleased (Judges 17:6) -- instead of obeying God. That is the way of pagans -- the way of sin and death. God had commanded them for their own good to obey Him instead of doing what they thought was right. (Deuteronomy 12:8.) God allows people to go their own way now, but soon He will do away with all heathen religions and all the competing church denominations that observe pagan ways. (Daniel 2:44-45; Revelation 11:15; Zechariah 13:2; 14:9; Ezekiel 22:25-31.)
The "New Morality"
In that era when Israel was without a national leader, with everyone generally doing as he pleased as long as he could get away with it, another episode occurred that brought tragedy. Misery and death came to thousands because the people were living apart from their Creator. This event started near Mt. Ephraim, where another Levite lived with his common-law wife. They believed in the "New Morality" of that day. They, like so many couples throughout history, lived in sin. They didn't obey God's laws that would bring family happiness. The woman then began to live with other men. Later she left to return to the home of her parents in the town of Bethlehem in the land of the tribe of Judah. (Judges 19:1-2.)
After she had been gone four months, the man decided he couldn't get along any longer without her -- and hoped she would now be ready to come home. He and a servant set out on burros for Bethlehem, about twenty miles to the southwest. When they neared the home of the woman's parents, the man was pleasantly surprised to see his common-law wife coming out of the house and happily rushing out to meet him.
"I am sorry I left you," she told him, "and I am glad you came after me. I should be pleased to return with you to Mt. Ephraim!"
She led him into the home of her parents, who welcomed him cordially. In fact, because they were happy to see him and because they wanted their daughter to stay with them as long as possible, they kept the couple as guests for three days.
On the fourth day the Levite intended to leave for home, but the father-in-law prevailed on him to stay a few more hours. Time slipped by, and then it was too late to set out. (Judges 19:3-7.)
On the fifth day the couple prepared to leave early, but again the woman's parents treated them so well with food, drink and pleasant conversation that they were delayed into the late afternoon.
"Why start out at this hour?" the Levite's father-in-law asked. "You can't get very far before dark. It would be wiser to stay here one more night and plan to start out in the morning. Meanwhile, relax and enjoy yourselves."
"No, we must start out this afternoon," the Levite said, realizing that if he continued to give in, they would never get home.
The woman's parents knew that they had kept their daughter as long as possible.
Tearfully they saw the couple off on their trip northward. By the time the Levite, his common-law wife (called a "concubine" in the Bible), a servant and two burros reached Jerusalem, about four miles away, it was almost sundown. (Judges 19:8-10.)
"I suggest that we stop here for the night, sir," the servant remarked. "If we travel after dark, we'll risk being robbed."
"I don't prefer to stay here in Jerusalem," the Levite said. "The people here are Canaanites, and I don't trust them. It is better to spend the night among our own people. I would rather go on into Gibeah or Ramah where the people are Israelites."
It was about two and one-half more miles to the Benjamite city of Gibeah. The sun went down just before they got there. (Judges 19:11-15.) They sat down in a prominent place to wait for someone to invite them into his home for the night, since a small town like Gibeah probably didn't have an inn. Soon an elderly Ephraimite, returning home late from working in the fields, walked up to the little group.
"You look like strangers here," the old man said to them. "Where have you come from and where are you going?"
The Levite explained that he and his concubine and servant were traveling from Bethlehem to the Tabernacle at Shiloh. He mentioned that they had plenty of food and wine for themselves and feed for the animals, but no place to sleep. (Judges 19:16-19.)
Is Anyone Safe?
"Ah, but you're welcome at my home!" the old man declared enthusiastically, motioning them to follow him. "And I have plenty of food for all and provender for your burros, so keep what you have. Otherwise you might run short. Come! Let's get off the street. It isn't safe here at night!"
Later, when all of them were comfortably eating and conversing in the old man's house, there was a loud rapping on the door. The host opened it, only to be jerked outside by a group of mean-looking young men.
"We know that you have a stranger in your house!" one of them growled menacingly "Send him out here at once to us, or you'll be in for plenty of trouble! And don't tell him anything! Just get him out here!"
Bible Story Book Index
The "New Morality"
THE old man, who had invited the three strangers to spend the night at his home in Gibeah, was pulled outside by hoodlums. They demanded that he send out the Levite guest. The old fellow shook his head in fear and disbelief when he realized what these vile men wanted to do. (Judges 19:16-22.)
Willing to Compromise
"Please go away and leave us alone!" he pleaded. "This Levite is my guest along with his wife and servant! It would be a terrible disgrace to let anything happen to him at my home. Surely you can find your pleasure elsewhere!"
The old man was very concerned about his reputation. But he was much less concerned about the drift into the decaying morality of that time.
"Do as we say," the men growled, closing in more tightly around him, "or you'll never get back into your house!"
The elderly Ephraimite was sure that by now the man they wanted probably had heard the unfriendly voices, and wouldn't come out under any circumstance. In a frantic attempt to escape from this nightmare situation, the old man was moved to make a miserable suggestion. To save his male guest -- and his own reputation as a host -- he self-righteously stooped to an unthinkable compromise.
"Look, fellows," he begged, "Don't consider such a terrible perversion. I have a young daughter inside! We'll send her and my guest's wife out to you to do with as you please if you'll only forget about the man!" (Judges 19:23-24.) The miserable old man thought men were more important and more worthy of protection than women. He reasoned that what he was suggesting was a lesser perversion and would be less sinful.
"We don't care about the women!" was the angry reply. Sick with fear, the old man ambled back into the house. Hesitantly he whispered the situation to his guest, who turned pale at what he heard. Like his host, his frenzied mind quickly sought a wretched way of escape. As a Levite from the tabernacle at Shiloh, he especially should have trusted God for His promised deliverance. (Leviticus 26:3, 6; Deuteronomy 4:31; 20:4; 31:6.)
"Don't let them in!" the Levite muttered cravenly, seizing his common-law wife. To save himself, he was ready to do anything -- even sacrifice the woman he should have been protecting.
He hauled the surprised woman up to the door, yanked it open and thrust her outside. (Judges 19:25.) Quickly he closed and bolted the door, hoping the mob would be more gentle with her than depraved mobs usually are. It happened so suddenly that the poor woman hardly knew what was happening until she found herself being stared at by the depraved men waiting outside. She wheeled around to get back into the house, pounding feverishly on the door. The men stared lustfully at her, noting for the first time that she was unusually attractive.
"Let's take her and forget about the man for now!" one of them suggested.
The others nodded in agreement. The frightened, struggling woman was dragged away. Though she repeatedly screamed for help, there was no one to even try to rescue her. The men who should have protected her were hiding behind locked doors, completely lacking in the compassion and courage they should have displayed under the circumstances. Theirs was the corrupt type of character that prevailed in a time when Israel was far from God.
Hours later, just before sunrise, the woman came staggering up to the house and fell down at the door. (Judges 19:26.) In the meantime, her cowardly common-law husband was preparing to leave without her. He didn't know where she was, but he was afraid to look for her lest he run into trouble with the depraved men who had taken her.
On opening the door to leave, he was surprised to find her lying there face down. His conscience stung him because of the cowardly, brutal way he had acted. But instead of helping her up, he chose to assert himself as her master, even in the face of her pitiable circumstance.
"Get up, woman!" he barked. "I want to get going for home right away!"
There was no answer or movement. The man motioned for his servant to help the woman up. The servant tried to get her to her feet. It was then that they discovered she was dead.
A Desperate Plan
Without a word the Levite lifted the body onto one of his burros and started for home. (Judges 19:27-28.) On the way he had plenty of opportunity to consider how cruel and cowardly he had been. He regretted his terrible conduct, but at the same time he hoped that he could place the blame for his common-law wife's death elsewhere. The more he thought about the depraved Benjamites, the more he considered their guilt and the less he considered his. By the time he arrived home, his anger and desire for revenge had grown to such an extent that he conceived a gruesome plan.
The first thing he did was compose twelve copies of this message, a copy to be sent to each of the twelve tribes of Israel:
"My wife was lately seized by wicked Benjamites in their city of Gibeah. She died because of their brutal advances. I am sending proof of her death. I ask that something be done to execute vengeance on the foul men who are responsible."
The Levite immediately sent the letter to all parts of Israel by swift carriers. Wherever it arrived it was startlingly effective, but not just because of the words. With each message the angry Levite included a piece of his wife's body, having cut her up into twelve parts!
Even though most of Israel was in a state of lawlessness and idolatry at the time, people were shocked and angered to hear of the atrocity by the Benjamites. (Judges 19:29-30.) Following a hasty exchange of communication, the various leaders of all tribes, except Benjamin, soon met at the city of Mizpeh, not far from Gibeah, to decide what to do. The head men of the tribe of Benjamin did not attend because of being offended at the ghastly accusation that had come to them from Mt. Ephraim.
Representatives at this meeting asked the complaining Levite to come and give them a more concise report of the miserable event. The Levite welcomed the chance to do so, explaining in detail most of what had happened. He made no mention of how he had thrust his wife into the hands of the men of Gibeah in an attempt to save his own life.
Crime Must Be Stopped!
"It's true that I performed the awful act of cutting her in pieces, but she was dead many hours before I did so," the Levite informed his listeners. "I went to this horrible extreme to try to awaken Israel to the fact that there are such evil men in the city of Gibeah. I trust that I have moved you to do something about this shameful matter!" (Judges 20:17.)
The Israelites remembered God's command that any murderer should be executed. (Numbers 35:19-21; Deuteronomy 19:11-13.) Enforcing this law would make others fear to commit murder. (Numbers 35:33-34; Deuteronomy 19:20.)
The leaders of the eleven tribes were not long in agreeing that the matter would be investigated as soon as possible. They went so far as to claim that none of them would return home until it was cleared up. They decided that a tenth of all the capable men of each tribe would be drafted into service to supply the army with food and water in the event that force would be necessary against the tribe of Benjamin. (Judges 20:8-11.) Meanwhile, men were sent throughout the Benjamite territory to make a careful inquiry and to demand the death penalty for the murderers.
When the investigators came to the leaders of the tribe of Benjamin to ask about the matter of the Levite and his common-law wife, they were received coldly. All the Benjamites refused to punish the murderers. Instead, they stubbornly defended them.
"This sort of thing you speak of could happen anywhere in Israel these days," the Benjamites observed. "Why point to us as the black sheep of the whole nation?"
"We are not to be put off so easily," the investigators countered. "No matter where such a crime happens, the guilty ones must be punished. We have orders to demand that you seek out the offenders in this case and turn them over to us to be put to death for their crime! We expect you to act right away!"
"Go back to your leaders and tell them that we can take care of our own affairs!" the head men of Benjamin retorted angrily. "Tell them also that we shall resist any effort to force us to do anything about this matter!" (Judges 20:12-13.)
Surrounded by a growing group of hostile men, the investigators had no choice but to return to Mizpeh empty-handed. When they reported what had happened, a state of war was declared by the leaders of the eleven tribes. Men were organized into units to form an army numbering four hundred thousand.
At the same time the Benjamite soldiers gathered at Gibeah, numbering about twenty-six thousand besides the seven hundred men of Gibeah. This was only a small fraction of the size of the army of the other tribes of Israel, but the Benjamite soldiers were well trained. Besides, they were angry because of the accusation that had been made against them, and had more of a desire for battle. They felt confident also because seven hundred of their soldiers were left-handed and unusually skillful with slings. Some of them could sling a stone to hit a man as far away as six hundred feet. (Judges 20:14-17.)
Partial Obedience NOT Enough!
The army of the eleven other tribes was almost ready to march on Gibeah. But one more thing needed to be done. God should be consulted in the matter.
The Israelites went to the city of Shiloh where the tabernacle was, to ask Phinehas the priest to inquire of God which soldiers should lead the attack. Phinehas was surprised that the leaders of the tribes of Israel would ask advice of the Creator instead of going to some pagan oracle. Seeing their sincerity, he spoke to God for them, although he could see they were self-righteous.
God answered Phinehas' prayer by making it known to the priest that the soldiers of the tribe of Judah should be foremost in an attack on the Benjamites. (Judges 20:18.)
Next morning the troops of the eleven tribes marched toward Gibeah. When they were only a mile or so away, they lined themselves in fighting formation with the soldiers of Judah forming the first ranks. The commanders of the four hundred thousand men planned on surrounding the city and then demanding that the Benjamites surrender. If they refused, the large army was to close in and crush the opposition into defeat.
It didn't quite turn out that way. Suddenly the whole army of Benjamin poured out of the gates of Gibeah and rushed madly toward the would-be attackers! This unexpected event caused such confusion in the larger army that the troops fell into terrible disorder. The foremost ones broke rank and plunged backward into those following, causing a uselessly struggling, screaming mass of humanity!
By afternoon there was no more action on the field of battle. The Benjamites had withdrawn into Gibeah and most of the army of the eleven tribes had fled to the north. They had left twenty-two thousand soldiers on the battlefield, but these had no more desire to fight. They were all dead. (Judges 20:19-21.)
This unexpected victory by the Benjamites was a sobering blow to the other tribes of Israel, who had assumed that their cause was so important and just that there was no need of asking help from God. They had thought the eleven tribes could easily defeat the Benjamites. Although the people were shocked and saddened, there was still no appeal for divine aid. Instead, the Israelites went again to Shiloh to weep and merely ask Phinehas to inquire if there should be another attack against the Benjamite army. They still thought they were righteous just because they were trying to punish the Benjamites.
Through Phinehas, God indicated that another attempt should be made to overcome the Benjamites at Gibeah. Next day the troops of the Israelites pushed toward that city just as they had done in the first attack. This time the commanders felt that their men were prepared for anything, and that there would be no more frenzy and disorder.
The Benjamites didn't pour out of the city to meet their opponents as they had done before. This gave the larger army the opportunity to start surrounding Gibeah as had been originally planned. Just as their front ranks were splitting up and going to the right and left, the Benjamites rushed out through hastily opened gates to catch their enemies in such a thinned-out condition that the larger army was again thrown into a sudden state of confusion!
A Bitter Lesson Brings Results
When the action of battle had ceased and each army had withdrawn, the ground was again strewn with dead and dying. This second combat had cost the eleven tribes eighteen thousand more men. (Judges 20:22-25.)
The loss of a total of forty thousand soldiers was an awesome price to pay to try to avenge one person and punish the Benjamites. Leaders of the eleven tribes were so shaken that they all went to Shiloh, along with many other Israelites, to humbly make offerings at the Tabernacle and to ask for God's help. Tears of sorrow and repentance flowed from many eyes as the people realized that their sad losses had occurred because of their departing from God's laws.
After making their offerings and fasting for at least most of the day, they asked God through Phinehas if they should go into battle once more against the Israelite brothers or drop the idea of trying to punish them. All this should have been done in the first place. After Phinehas had made his third request at the tabernacle, God disclosed to him that one more attack should be made. Moreover, He promised that, if they sought Him in real earnest, this next attempt would result in victory for the eleven tribes. When Phinehas passed on the Creator's pronouncement to the people, they were thankful and greatly encouraged. For the time being they resolved to be more obedient so that they might receive more help from God. (Judges 20:26-28.)
Next day part of the troops of the eleven tribes again marched toward Gibeah. Those troops who didn't march had been sent during the night to a hiding place south of the city and to a palm grove to the east of it.
The Benjamites were expecting another attack. They rushed out to meet the enemy troops coming from the north when they reached a point a short distance from Gibeah. At sight of the oncoming Benjamites the attackers halted. Then they turned and fled -- just as they had been told to do!
Believing that their enemies were in the same state of fear they had shown twice before, the Benjamites pursued them vigorously in the hope of effecting a quick victory. They proved to be the faster runners. Soon the distance between the two groups was so lessened that the men with slings started hurling their missiles. About thirty of the fleeing Israelites were struck and killed before someone among the pursuing Benjamites began shouting excitedly and pointing backward.
The pursuers glanced back. They came to a quick halt when they saw the great cloud of smoke billowing up over their city. Not until then were they beginning to be aware that enemy troops had somehow made their way into the city and set it on fire. Whey they turned and saw the Israelites rushing back toward them without a sign of fear, they realized that they were the victims of well-planned strategy. (Judges 20:29-32.)
The Worm Turns
It was the Benjamites' turn to panic. Pursued by the ten thousand Israelites who had turned on them, they raced for the hilly area east of Gibeah. As they ran, they could see throngs of their people hurrying out of the city in a frantic attempt to escape the men who had rushed in as soon as the Benjamite soldiers had left. Hundreds were not able to get out.
The escaping inhabitants also headed for the hills to the east. Just as the first of their numbers topped the first large rise, they stopped, then rushed back in the opposite direction. Behind them suddenly appeared the first ranks of the largest division of the army of the eleven tribes. At the same time the troops who had raided the city came out of it from the west in hot pursuit of their inhabitants. (Judges 20:33-34.)
The people of Gibeah and the whole Benjamite army were rushing into a tremendous three-jawed trap that was closing in on them just as fast as they were moving into it!
Bible Story Book Index
"Your People Are My People"
THE ARMY of the eleven tribes of Israel had divided into three parts.
After setting the Benjamite city of Gibeah on fire, they managed to bottle up the people who had escaped from the city -- plus the whole Benjamite fighting force. (Judges 20:29-41.)
In the furious battle that followed, about eighteen thousand soldiers of the tribe of Benjamin died. With so many troops involved in such close action, a few thousand Benjamite men managed to escape. Most of these took to the roads leading northeast, hoping to reach a certain mountain hideout.
A part of Israel's massive army hadn't yet been very active that day. These soldiers set off in pursuit of the weary Benjamites, easily overtaking them. About five thousand of the fleeing men were killed in their race for freedom. Another two thousand or so were overtaken and slain in another engagement a few miles farther on.
About six hundred succeeded in reaching a place in the mountains called Rimmon Rock. This was in such a rough, cliff area that the pursuers gave up the chase. (Judges 20:42-47.)
Very few Benjamites had been killed in the first two battles. The almost-complete army of the Benjamites, still numbering almost twenty-six thousand, came to an end in one day. But the action against the rebel tribe that approved homosexuality didn't end there. After a night's rest the Israelite troops moved over all the territory of Benjamin to burn all the cities and kill all the people. (Judges 20:48.)
This destruction was so thorough that the only men left were those who had escaped to Rimmon Rock. This near-death of one of the tribes was a terrible thing, but God allowed it, as well as the deaths of at least forty thousand other Israelite soldiers, because of the disobedience of so many people in all of the tribes. God was letting Israel learn from bitter experience that carefree ways of living would lead only to grief. If the Israelites had continued obeying the laws of their Creator, who constantly warned them against falling away from those laws, their wretched civil war would never have happened.
Not long after these miserable events, the people of the eleven tribes began to be sorry that they had dealt so harshly with the tribe of Benjamin. The leaders of the tribes met to discuss what could be done to make amends, and to express to God their hope that the tribe wouldn't be wiped out. This was indeed a change in attitude.
To show that they regretted their extreme actions, they went to their meeting place at Shiloh. There, to gain God's favor, they made burnt offerings and peace offerings. (Judges 21:2-4.)
When they had met at Mizpeh before the battles to decide what to do, they had sworn that they would never allow any of their daughters to marry a Benjamite. (Judges 21:1.) This seemed to make it impossible for the tribe to survive as pure Israelites. What could they do about the six hundred soldiers who were safely holed up at Rimmon Rock? They had no wives. And if they couldn't marry Israelites, they might marry into Canaanite tribes.
The leaders carefully looked for a loophole out of this discouraging circumstance. At their council of war at Mizpeh, they had decreed that if any part of the eleven tribes failed to help with the war against Benjamin, those people would later be punished by the sword. (Judges 21:5-7.)
So many things had been taking place that there had been no opportunity to check for any family, region or city that might have failed to supply soldiers. An inquiry was made. It disclosed that the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead, a city east of the Jordan in the territory of Gad, had not joined in the civil conflict.
Wives Gotten by Violence
This seemed to present an answer to their problem. Twelve thousand troops were picked to march on Jabesh-gilead and punish the inhabitants by killing everyone except unmarried women. Following so soon after the regretful attitude toward the men of Benjamin, this was an abrupt switch by the Israelites back to their mania for rash action.
After the new senseless slaughter -- which wouldn't have occurred if the people had stayed close to God -- all the spared women and teen-age girls were carefully questioned. The questioning soon revealed those who weren't married and those who had not committed fornication. Four hundred such females were acquired. Others who didn't pass the requirements suffered the fate of the rest of the people of Jabesh-gilead. (Judges 21:8-12.)
Even though their lives had been spared, these four hundred virgins were anything but happy to be dragged away against their will so quickly. They didn't even get to attend the mass burial of their relatives and friends. They were brought to Shiloh and kept there under guard to await the outcome of a trip to Rimmon Rock by Israelite scouts.
This visit to this rugged area was a dangerous one. Those who entered it could easily be picked off by men hiding in the caves and among the rocks. It turned out that the scouts were allowed to come very close. Then a voice coming from some uncertain source commanded them to stop and state their business.
The hiding Benjamites expected to be asked to surrender or expect a mass attack by their Israelite brothers, and so were quite surprised to hear words on quite a different topic.
"Listen, men of Benjamin," one of the scouts shouted in a voice that echoed and re-echoed from one cliff to another. "We are not here to ask you to surrender. You are the only remaining men of the tribe of Benjamin. All the rest of your people are dead because they approved of sex vices.
"But because the leaders of Israel want you to continue as one of the tribes, we have come to make an offer of peace. At Shiloh we have four hundred virgins from whom you may choose brides. If you want them and want to rebuild your tribe in peace, come to Shiloh. First there will have the best choice! Don't be afraid to come. No harm will come to you as long as you are peaceable!"
At first the Benjamites thought that this was a ruse to get them out in the open where they could be attacked. They made no reply. Finally the scouts left. Benjamite lookouts reported that no enemy troops were in sight on the adjoining plains or behind nearby ridges. The six hundred survivors then began to believe that perhaps their Israelite brothers were telling the truth.
They crept in small groups to the Shiloh area. There, by cautious spying, they found out that there were indeed four hundred women being held to give them as wives.
Up to this time, it wasn't known by the eleven tribes just how many Benjamites had escaped to Rimmon Rock. When six hundred men suddenly put in an appearance to claim wives, the competition became somewhat heated. The two hundred Benjamites who emerged empty-handed complained so bitterly that the Israelite leaders felt obliged to produce two hundred more virgins. (Judges 21:13-15.)
Violence on Top of Violence!
This wasn't such a simple task, though finally someone came up with another extreme and violent plan. At this time of year there was a religious festival about to be observed near Shiloh. A part of its social life included dancing in a nearby field by a large group of young women.
It was suggested to the two hundred wifeless Benjamites that they stay at Shiloh until just before the dance was to be performed and hide in adjoining vineyards. Then they might be able to rush forth and seize two hundred of the young women when they came out to dance. (Judges 21:16-21.)
This scheme was even more fantastic than the one by which the four hundred wives had been obtained, though certainly not as bloody. Anxious as they were for wives, the Benjamites questioned the plan.
"This idea sounds good up to a point," they told the Israelite leaders "but won't the families of the girls create trouble for us if we succeed in taking away their young women?"
"Don't be concerned about that," the leaders advised. "Probably the fathers and brothers of the girls will be angry at first, but we'll stop them from any rash action. We will persuade them to let you keep their daughters and sisters without causing trouble because we took the lives of all your women. We swore that none of us should give our women to you men of Benjamin. But if you take them forcibly from us, that is another matter. The fathers will not be guilty of breaking their vow and you will have your wives."
The Benjamites considered this explanation somewhat odd. Nevertheless, they went to where this dance was about to take place and successfully concealed themselves in surrounding vineyards.
When the several hundred young women came to the field to perform, the hidden men had sufficient opportunity to observe and choose. At a planned signal, the Benjamites rushed out of the vineyards and swarmed into the mass of leaping, swaying femininity.
Shrieks filled the air as the girls realized that they were being set upon by strangers. Two hundred struggling dancers were whisked off the field and away into the vineyards almost before anyone could comprehend what was going on.
The rest of the screeching girls fled into the stunned crowd that had come to watch the dance. By the time the men in the assemblage realized that the kidnapping wasn't a new part of the dance, it was too late to rescue the young women.
The six hundred surviving Benjamites lost no time in returning to their territory with their brides. Whether or not their women were ill-gotten seemed of no great matter. No one seemed to care. The war with Benjamin was over, and the tribe was saved from extinction.
Even so, the troops of the eleven tribes didn't disband and go to their homes until the Benjamites were again safely settled in their territory and had started to repair their cities.
In this whole episode, which occurred shortly after the death of Joshua, wisdom and good judgment were rather rare. Everyone did what he thought best, instead of obeying God. (Judges 21:25; Deuteronomy 12:8.) This was a prime example of how death and suffering came to the people when they fell away from God and into idolatry. (Judges 21:22-24.)
Not All Rebelled
But even at such times there were a few Israelites who were loyal and obedient to God. Their lives were rich, meaningful and without violence, though not always without trouble and tragedy.
The story of Ruth depicts that sort of life -- the happy result of obeying God. Ruth was a Moabite, a descendant of Lot, the nephew of Abraham. She had been reared a heathen, but was converted after seeing how God's laws benefited others. She left her land and pagan training to become an adopted Israelite and obey the laws of the God of Israel. She became one of the ancestors of David and of Jesus Christ. Ruth was a type of the New Testament Church which is to come out of the world and be joined to Christ.
During the early years of the time of the judges, there was a drought which made crops especially poor in many parts of Canaan. Besides, the neighboring nations carried off much of the produce, thus helping to create a state of famine for many Israelites.
A man by the name of Elimelech lived in the town of Bethlehem, where Christ was born over thirteen centuries later. Elimelech decided to leave Canaan and try to find an area where he wouldn't be troubled by destitute neighbors. He was fairly prosperous, and had become weary of so many people coming to him for food and money.
To move out of Canaan and into a heathen land was not the best thing for Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and his two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. In fact, not long after he was settled in the pagan-populated land east of the Dead Sea, his life ended, possibly because he had been selfish. (Ruth 1:1-3.)
Later, Elimelech's two young sons married Moabite women. About ten years later both men died. Their wives, Orpah and Ruth, had become greatly attached to Naomi, their righteous mother-in-law. Although they had been taught to worship pagan gods, they had great respect for Naomi's beliefs and her desires to go according to the ways of the God of Israel.
Life in Moab, without their husbands, became increasingly difficult for the three childless widows. Not only were they very lonely, but they soon became very poor. It was evident that something would have to be done to improve their welfare. That something was sparked when Naomi heard that living conditions had been greatly improved by good weather and abundant crops in many parts of Canaan, including the territory of Judah. Immediately she decided to return to her native land.
Naomi didn't ask her daughters-in-law to return with her, but they helped pack three burros and willingly set off with her to the west. After they had gone a few miles, Naomi stopped to tell them what was on her mind. (Ruth 1:4-7.)
"Much as I want both of you to go with me back to Canaan," she explained, "I feel that it is unfair to you to move to a nation that is strange in your sight. You have been reared to believe in many things in which I cannot believe. If you go to Bethlehem with me you will probably find things so different that you will regret having left your own country.
"For this reason I'm asking you to turn back to your people and to the homes of your parents. You are yet young, and you should be married to men of your nation. I can return alone to Bethlehem. Go back, and I pray that my God will take care of both of you because you have been good wives and good daughters-in law!"
Ruth and Orpha were distressed at Naomi's words, and especially when she kissed them good-bye as though to finally dismiss them forever from her life.
Each Must Decide Whom to Serve! "We don't intend to leave you," they assured her after recovering from their tears. "We want to go back with you to your people!" (Ruth 1:8-10.)
Naomi was moved by their display of loyalty, but she felt that they really preferred to stay in their own country, though they were willing to make this sacrifice for her. She tried to make it easier for them to decide to stay, by pointing out that she had nothing more to add to their lives.
"Even if I had another husband and were to bear more sons," she told them, "you wouldn't want to wait till they were grown to marry them. You would seek other husbands long before that, so you can see why it would be wise to go back to your people. I am very sorry you have lost your husbands."
This last little speech by Naomi convinced Orpah that her mother-in-law was right. She sadly kissed Naomi and Ruth farewell and turned back with her burro and possessions toward the place where her parents lived in Moab.
"Your sister-in-law has wisely decided to return to her people," Naomi pointed out to Ruth. "You would do well to try to catch up with her." (Ruth 1:11-15.)
"Why try to talk me into doing something I don't think is right?" Ruth asked. "I want to stay with you. Wherever you go I will go. I will stay where you stay. YOUR PEOPLE SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. YOUR GOD IS MY GOD. I want to die in the place where you die, and be buried where you will be buried. If I fail in any of these things, let God deal with me as He chooses."
Naomi was so moved by these remarks that she said nothing more to Ruth about parting. She was convinced that her daughter-in-law was converted and meant all that she said, for which she was very happy. (Ruth 1:16-18.)
The two women arrived at Naomi's run-down house in Bethlehem a few days later, fortunate not to have been bothered by roving bandits. Naomi was glad to see the familiar places and faces, though at first she wasn't recognized because she had changed in appearance. When a neighboring friend realized who she was, however, a crowd of acquaintances quickly gathered about her and Ruth.
"Can it really be Naomi?" some of them asked. "Yes, it is I, returned from Moab with my daughter-in-law, Ruth," Naomi said to them. "But perhaps it would be well not to call me any longer by that name. It means BEAUTIFUL and PLEASANT, and I am not now beautiful and my life is no longer pleasant. I have aged, mostly because of losing my husband and two sons. It would be more fitting if you would call me Mara, which means BITTER."
"No! No!" some of the bystanders exclaimed. "All of us have aged, Naomi, but you are still a beautiful woman. We are sorry to hear that God has allowed your loved ones to be taken, but we are happy to have you back among us."
Naomi's many friends showed their concern by pitching in on the house-cleaning so the two women would have a suitable place to live. They were comfortable for the moment. But their meager amount of money was practically gone, and Naomi wasn't the sort to prevail on the goodwill of her friends and neighbors for her needs.
Something had to be done right away, or the two widows would run out of food.
Bible Story Book Index
"You Are A Virtuous Woman"
AFTER coming from Moab to Bethlehem, Naomi and Ruth ran very low on money. (Ruth 1:19-22.) Just when Naomi was becoming very concerned about matters of food and fuel, Ruth came to her with a most timely suggestion.
"It's spring harvest time," she reminded Naomi. "Just this morning I watched women gleaning barley in a field not far from here. Why shouldn't I go tomorrow to one of such fields and glean the barley that the reapers drop? Perhaps I could bring back much grain just for the taking!"
God Provides for the Poor
Gleaning was the gathering of any produce that was left behind when harvesting took place. It was not stealing. One of the civil laws given to Israel stated that whatever the harvesters left of value in fields, vineyards or orchards could be claimed by the poor, passing strangers, and widows. As poor widows, Naomi and Ruth had a legal right to share in the gleaning. (Leviticus 19:9-10; Deuteronomy 24:19-22.)
Naomi was pleased and encouraged by Ruth's enthusiasm. She knew this could be the difference between going hungry and having enough to eat -- at least for the present. At the same time she didn't like to see a comely young woman like Ruth venture out by herself among strange harvesters.
"Go if you wish, my daughter," Naomi finally told her with a smile. "But try to find a field not too distant, and don't follow closely behind the harvesters unless you get permission from the owner of the field or his foreman." (Ruth 2:1-2.)
Next morning Ruth took a large cloth bag and set out for a field where barley was being harvested. When she arrived, she noted that a great part of it had already been worked over, and that the harvesters were at quite a distance away. She felt that they were so far ahead of her that no permission would be necessary to pick up what she could find. Nevertheless, she sought out the field foreman to ask if she could glean, and was told that she could.
By the middle of the day she had filled her bag less than half full of barley that had been overlooked or dropped when it had been bundled. In her zeal to accomplish more, she failed to notice that the workers had stopped for the noon meal at a tent just ahead. She looked up to see some of them staring at her. One or two of the women harvesters motioned for her to join them in the shade of the tent.
At that moment Boaz, the owner of the field, rode up on a horse and eyed Ruth with even more interest than the harvesters showed.
"God be with you!" he called to the workers with enthusiasm. "May God bless you!" was the cheerful response from the people in and around the tent. (Ruth 2:34.)
Such friendly and sincere greetings showed that these men and women had a high regard for each other and for their Creator, and knew that it was God who watched over them and provided their needs. When an honest man like Boaz was a community leader, the people always had a higher regard for their Creator than when evil men were looked to as leaders.
"Who is that young woman?" Boaz asked his foreman as he glanced at Ruth. "Don't recall hiring her."
"She's not working for you," the foreman explained." She came to me early this morning to ask if she could glean, and I told her she could. She's the Moabite woman who lately came with Naomi, the widow of Elimelech. She has been working all day, except that she spent a few minutes getting acquainted with the women in the house before starting her work."
Boaz walked over to Ruth, who at first thought that he was angry with her for some reason.
"If you must glean, young woman." he said to her. "I trust that you won't go to other fields. Stay behind my women harvesters, and you won't end the day empty-handed. And don't be afraid of any of my men. You are welcome to any of the privileges that the people have who work for me." (Ruth 2:5-9)
Ruth was so overwhelmed by this unexpected treatment that she fell on her knees before Boaz and bowed her head to the ground.
"Why are you being so considerate?" she asked. "I am a stranger here, and there is no reason that I know of to show such favor to me."
"Ah, but there is," Boaz replied gently, helping her to her feet. "I have heard about how well you have treated your mother-in-law, and how you chose to come here with her instead of staying in Moab. She has told all her friends about your goodness to her. May our God reward you for what you have done, and may He protect you for looking to Him for your way of life!"
"Thank you," she murmured to Boaz. "You have made me feel as though I am as welcome here as one of your workers."
"I am happy that you want to be with us," Boaz smiled. "Now please come into my tent and have lunch with us."
Ruth was a little ill at ease among so many strangers, but she was pleased when the owner of the field sat among his workers and passed food to her. He even had one of his helpers prepare a package of food to take home to Naomi. When the meal was over, Ruth expressed her thanks and quickly slipped back to a spot well behind the harvesters. (Ruth 2:10-14.)
As soon as she was gone, Boaz instructed his foreman to tell the workers that the new gleaner should receive special privileges.
"Let her go wherever she wishes, even if she wants to glean at the heels of the harvesters," the foreman was told. "It might even be a good idea if they purposely dropped a little grain now and then."
The foreman nodded solemnly, but shook his head and grinned knowingly as soon as Boaz had turned away.
A Cheering Bounty
That afternoon Ruth surprisingly found that there were many more stalks of barley left on the ground than there had been in the morning. Close to evening she had emptied her bag several times by the threshing shed. Night being not far away, she worked hastily to beat out the grains on an unused part of the floor. To her great satisfaction the result was about eight gallons of fine barley -- enough to make many loaves of bread after the chaff was sifted out and the grains were ground. (Ruth 2:15-17.)
Ruth easily swung the tied bag of grain over her shoulder and left for home just as it was growing dusk. It wasn't difficult for her to carry in such a manner. If she tired of carrying it that way, she was quite adept at balancing a load on her head.
When she showed Naomi the grain and the package of food, her mother-in-law was pleasantly surprised.
"What welcome bounty!" Naomi exclaimed. "Where did you go to receive such special favor? May blessings come to the one who has treated you so well!"
"I went to a nearby field where barley is being cut," Ruth explained. "The foreman over the workers told me I could glean, but during the morning I was discouraged by the small amount of barley I had gathered. Then the owner of the field arrived on a handsome horse. He invited me to eat in the harvesters' meal tent. He even asked me not to glean anywhere except in his fields. In the afternoon I picked up so much barley that I was able to thresh out all the grain you see. And this package of food is especially for you from Boaz. That's the name of the owner of the field." (Ruth 2:18-19.)
Naomi was happily startled at this last bit of information. "I know who Boaz is!" she exclaimed. "He is a close relative of my dead husband, and a wealthy and God-fearing man! God has been good to direct us to him. You would indeed be wise not to be seen in any other fields but his. You can be sure that you will be safe if you stay on his property."
Ruth gladly stayed in the fields of Boaz for the full harvest time of barley and wheat, which was for a month or so. (Ruth 2:20-23.) Meanwhile, she was treated with special attention by Boaz, insomuch that there was an increasing affection between them, though neither of them expressed it very much in words. Each could see that the other was a person of very high moral standards. As for her gleaning, Ruth daily brought home so much grain that the two widows made a small income by selling part of it.
From the glowing reports Ruth brought home about Boaz, it was plain to Naomi what was taking place. She planned to do what she could to push the situation into full bloom, lest it fail to fully develop naturally.
Boaz was spending most of his time at the threshing shed, where his crew was removing chaff from the grain with the help of strong evening breezes. Naomi knew that the workers didn't go home until after midnight, and that Boaz then slept in the shed to save time in going to his home and back again to work just a few hours later. Besides, he preferred not to leave his large stock of grain unattended, what with thieves constantly prowling about.
Naomi Plans Wisely and Justly
"You know that I want what is best for you," Naomi reminded Ruth, "and continuing to live here with me in this small home isn't the best for a young woman who should have a more promising future. Boaz cares deeply for you, but he hasn't mentioned marriage because you haven't shown him that you're greatly in favor of it."
"I am very happy here with you," Ruth told Naomi. "As for Boaz, I don't want him to think that I'm too bold."
"But you should make him aware of how you feel," Naomi continued, "and the sooner the better. I suggest that you use your best perfume, you put on your prettiest clothes and go on to the threshing shed where he'll be staying tonight. Watch from outside till he has gone to bed. Then slip inside and lie down at his feet!" (Ruth 3:1-4.)
Ruth was startled at the suggestion. When Naomi saw her expression of wonder, she hastily reminded her that it was an Israelite custom and duty that the nearest eligible male kin of a dead husband should marry the widow in the event she had no children, so that she might have the opportunity to have offspring through the family that had chosen her. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6.)
"Boaz realizes just how he is related to you," Naomi observed. "I'm sure he will understand your good intentions and treat you fairly."
At first Ruth didn't want to do what Naomi suggested. To her it seemed a bit too forward, but the more she thought about the matter, the more she was convinced that this was something that should be done in accepting the right ways of Israel.
"I shall do as you say," she finally told Naomi. (Ruth 3:5.) Before midnight Ruth went to the threshing shed, careful not to be seen by anyone. The workers had gone, but there was a light inside the building. She peered inside to see Boaz finishing a late meal and relaxing with a mug of wine. She watched him wearily stretch out on the straw-covered floor, lean his head against a sheaf of barley, pull a blanket over himself and snuff out the oil lamp. Ruth patiently waited outside until she could hear the slow, deep breathing that indicated sound sleep. Then she slipped inside, lifted part of the blanket over Boaz' feet, and carefully and silently lay down with the blanket partly over her. (Ruth 3:6-7.)
Even though Boaz had fallen into a deep sleep, Ruth's presence awakened him. He was alarmed when he felt something warm and alive pressing against his feet. Could it be some kind of animal seeking a snug place, or was it some intruder who meant him harm? There was enough moonlight being reflected from the roofless part of the threshing floor to make it possible to see dimly. Boaz slowly pulled his blanket toward his head, gradually exposing the object at his feet. He blinked in disbelief when he realized that he was uncovering a woman curled up on the floor. He was even more startled when he recognized her.
"You!" he blurted. "What are you doing here, Ruth?" Ruth glanced up in embarrassment, then dropped her gaze to the floor.
Boaz -- A Man of Honor
"I'm here to remind you that you are my closest of kin among men in Israel," she answered in a quiet voice. "I understand that according to your custom, you may marry me, since my husband was your close relative. Spread your blanket over me to show if you are willing to be married!" (Ruth 3:8-9.)
Boaz was so surprised that words failed him for a few moments. This added to Ruth's discomfort.
"May God bless you for this wonderful compliment to me!" Boaz exclaimed, reaching over and putting his hand on Ruth's veiled head. "When I first met you, I thought that you were a most unusual woman because of your beauty and humility. But now I have reason to think even more of you. Everyone in our city knows you are a virtuous woman. You could have chosen younger men even among the wealthier ones."
Encouraged by these words, Ruth forgot her embarrassment and raised her eyes happily and expectantly up to Boaz.
"It's true that I am a relative of yours," he continued. "But I am not your nearest of kin here. There is another man living in this area who is more closely related to you than I am."
Ruth's smile faded. There was an awkward silence as the woman from Moab realized that in a way she was talking to the wrong man!
"But Naomi, my mother-in-law, thought that you -- " Ruth's voice trailed away as she stared at the floor.
"Don't worry," Boaz said softly. "Leave this matter to me, and I'll take care of it tomorrow. Just lie down where you are and rest until morning." (Ruth 3:10-13.)
Ruth lay at Boaz's feet till nearly daylight. When she was about to leave, Boaz spread her sheet-like veil out on the floor and poured a sizable gift of barley on it. Pulling up the corners, he tied them snugly together, thus making a bag of the veil.
"This is a big load," he said. "but I know you are capable of handling it. I also know that you are known as a virtuous woman, so there's no reason to risk spotting your good reputation by telling anyone except Naomi that you have been here to talk with me."
Ruth arrived home before anyone was stirring that morning and related everything that had happened. Her mother-in-law didn't seem too concerned about another man being more closely akin to them than was Boaz.
"I don't know the intentions of this one of whom Boaz speaks," she said, "but don't be upset. If Boaz promised you that he'll straighten matters out, then that's what he'll do."
Bible Story Book Index
Virtue is Rewarded
RUTH the young Moabite woman, had real affection for Boaz, the wealthy, elderly Israelite grain grower. She hoped that Boaz would marry her. Boaz, who himself was probably a widower, hoped that it would be that way, too.
But there was another man in Bethlehem who was more closely related to Ruth's dead husband. He had more claim to Ruth as a wife than Boaz did. (Deuteronomy 25:5-6.) However, this other man had given the matter no real thought. (Ruth 3:10-18.)
Boaz Plans Wisely
During the weeks Ruth had gleaned in his fields, Boaz had come to love the Moabitess, and he was determined not to lose her. The morning after he found that Ruth cared deeply for him, he went early to the main gate of Bethlehem, the place where most business was conducted in that area. There he stayed, hopeful of finding the unmarried man who was more closely related to Ruth's dead husband, and whose traditional duty it was to marry the widow if she were childless. Boaz was confident he would see the relative before he left town to spend the day working in his fields.
Fortunately, the man soon showed up at the busy place. Boaz sought him out and invited him to share the bench where he, Boaz, had been patiently sitting. (Ruth 4:1.)
"I have some important news that could be very good for you," Boaz told him. "If you will sit here for just a few minutes till I return, I'll tell you about it."
It was the custom then that several people be present as witnesses when business decisions and agreements were made. Boaz wanted to make certain that what he was about to do was duly witnessed. Being well known in Bethlehem, he succeeded in quickly summoning ten of the leading men of the region who were present in the crowd at the gate. They gathered around him and the man he had detained to see that matters were properly attested to.
"I'm here to inform you that Elimelech's wife, Naomi, who recently returned from Moab, has a fine field for sale at a reasonable price," Boaz explained. "Inasmuch as you are Elimelech's nearest relative, you should have the first opportunity to purchase the land. If you prefer not to buy it, then I should like to do so as the next of kin after you." (Leviticus 25:25.)
Ever since Naomi had returned from Moab, Boaz had known that she had intended to sell the piece of land. She didn't want to part with it, but her increasing needs made it necessary. Boaz' colorful description of the field caused his relative to feel that it was indeed a bargain without his even seeing it, though he knew the location.
"I'll buy it!" he exclaimed. "Tell Naomi that I'll bring her the money this very afternoon!" (Ruth 4:2-4.)
"Good!" Boaz said. "And now I have a pleasant surprise for you. The sale of this land also includes something else -- marriage to Elimelech's childless daughter-in-law, Ruth, and having an heir to Elimelech by her!"
The relative's jaw dropped. He stared unhappily at Boaz, who had hoped for just that reaction.
"Then I can't afford to buy it!" he declared disappointedly, when he knew he couldn't get just the field for himself. "From what I've heard, this Ruth would make a wonderful wife. But I can't afford to spend my money to provide an heir for Elimelech. It would be much simpler if you would buy the land, Boaz, and thereby have Ruth in marriage."
The man thereupon yanked off one shoe and handed it to Boaz, which was a custom indicating that the nearest of kin declined to carry out his obligations and left them to the next of kin after him. All this was just how Boaz had hoped and planned that matters would turn out. (Ruth 4:5-8.)
A Happy Solution
"You have seen and heard what has happened here," Boaz announced to the witnesses. "I hereby declare that I will purchase the land that belongs to Elimelech and his sons and Naomi. Besides, by this purchase, and with her consent -- I hereby acquire Ruth, the daughter-in-law of Naomi, as my wife, so that she shall not be childless even though her first husband is dead."
The ten men Boaz had chosen and even many others who had been watching and listening nodded in agreement.
"We are witnesses to what has taken place here," they spoke out. "May God cause your wife to be as fruitful as Rachel and Leah, from whom Israel came, and may you have great success in your work. We hope that your house will be like that of Pharez, from which part of the people of Judah sprang in such great numbers!" (Ruth 4:9-12.)
The tribute was graciously accepted by Boaz, who then lost little time in getting to the home of Naomi and his new wife Ruth. When Ruth saw him approaching, she was filled with anxiety, realizing that the man who was nearest of kin to Naomi's dead husband could have acquired her in marriage, even though she had never met him.
Her fears were swept away the moment Boaz entered the house. She could tell by his excited grin that he had, with God's help, somehow made matters work out right. She fell into the arms of her new husband, silently thanking God that such happiness could be hers.
Naomi slipped quietly out of the room, smiling to herself because of how well matters had turned out, though she didn't yet know what Boaz had done to make them that way.
Some who read the story of Ruth, which gives an insight into the lives of a few of the obedient people of Israel in troubled times, might question the marriage of an Israelite to a Moabitess from the heathen land of Moab.
The answer is Boaz married a woman who had renounced the pagan religion and gods of Moab. She had a desire to become an Israelite by obeying and worshipping the God of Israel. Further, the Moabites were not of another race. Their ancestor Moab was a son of Abraham's nephew Lot. (Genesis 12:5 and 19:36-38.)
God's Church has always been made up basically of Israelites, but Gentiles have been able to come into the Church and become "spiritual" Israelites by forsaking their wrong practices and beliefs and repentantly and earnestly seeking the ways and laws of the Creator, who chose Israel to help carry out His plan.
In due time Boaz and Ruth had a son. Friends suggested that he be named Obed, which means servant.
"Ruth is better than seven sons," they told Naomi, "because she has stayed with you, and now she has given birth to a grandson who will give you great happiness in your latter years. He will also become famous, a man in whom you shall be pleased."
The Ancestry of Jesus
This prediction, whether or not inspired, turned out true. Naomi became a nurse to Obed, and greatly enjoyed the privilege of helping rear a boy. Obed not only became an outstanding Israelite, but he also was an ancestor of Jesus Christ. (Ruth 4:13-17.)
The lineage of Christ at the time of Judah (see Genesis 38, especially verses 27-30) had a ! strange twist at the birth of Judah's twin boys. The midwife present, realizing that two babies were to be born, noticed that a little arm was first to appear. She hastily tied a red thread around the protruding wrist to indicate for certain which baby obviously was to be born first, inasmuch as the firstborn son would ordinarily be the one to whom the greater honor and heritage would be due. In this case, the royal line ending in Christ would be carried on through the one born first.
The baby with the red string on his wrist wasn't the first, however. The other twin was born before him, to the surprise of the midwife. He was named Pharez, the one referred to by Boaz' witnesses when they expressed their hope that all would go well with him. The other baby was named Zarah. (Genesis 38:27-30; Ruth 4:18.)
This unusual birth situation was mentioned in the Bible because it had to do with who and where Israel is today -- something that presently isn't understood by most ministers, religious leaders and Bible scholars.
There were seven generations and about four and a half centuries from Pharez to Obed. Obed was the grandfather of David (Ruth 4:19-22), and then there were twenty-eight more generations of the line of Judah to the time that Jesus was born. (Matthew 1:17.)
There were several long generations among the ancestors of David after the Israelites arrived in Canaan. Boaz was born after the arrival in Canaan. Yet his great-grandson David -- the third generation afterward -- was born about three hundred years later. The Bible tells us Jesse was very old compared to other men when his son David was a young boy. (I Samuel 17:12.) Some of these men must have been over a hundred years old when their last sons were born, just as Abraham was. (Genesis 21:5; Genesis 24:1, 67; Genesis 25:1-2.)
In those days people were healthier and had a more natural diet and got plenty of exercise. They were vigorous until they were very old. (Deuteronomy 34:7.)
God had a hand in what occurred in this matter of His Son's ancestors. This doesn't mean that people are always caused to think and act only as the Creator wills. If that were so, we would be little better than robots. But God does choose to work through certain people. Those whom He chooses don't always realize that God is leading them to decide to do certain things in certain ways insomuch that it all results in some end God had in mind.
Take the Problem to God
About a century and a half after the birth of Obed, there was a man by the name of Elkanah living in a town in the high elevations of the Mt. Ephraim region. He was a Levite, and he had two wives. This wasn't right and he, being a Levite, should have known better. But there were many things not right in Israel in those times when the people had fallen so far away from God. However, the fact that this man had two wives for so many years was part of the means through which he was used to later bring another of God's servants onto the scene. (I Samuel 1:1-2.)
Elkanah tried to obey God the best he knew how for the most part, including observing the annual Sabbaths. But still, because of his bigamy, all was not peace and harmony in his home. One of his wives, Peninnah, was jealous of the other, Hannah, because their husband showed Hannah more affection. Hannah, however, was unhappy because she had no children and Peninnah had several. To add to the trouble, Peninnah often vexed Hannah, telling her that she wasn't a good wife, and that it was obvious because she had no children. Hannah could hardly bear up under such taunts, what with it being considered a disgrace in ancient times for a woman to be childless in Israel.
Elkanah would have spared himself and his family much grief if he had wisely considered how matters were bound to turn out for a man craving and taking on two wives. On the other hand, God eventually allowed this tragic situation to serve a purpose.
The tabernacle and ark were still located at Shiloh, a town in the mountains of Ephraim about twenty miles north of Jerusalem. During one of the times Elkanah was there with his family to make peace offerings, Peninnah was especially troublesome to Hannah.
It was according to the rules of sacrificing that meat for peace offerings was in most Dart returned to the one who had brought it, if he were present. Then it was ordinarily consumed at the family meals that were prepared during the feast days. This time, as usual, Elkanah saw to it that Hannah was served twice as much of the choice meat as any other person in his family was served. (I Samuel 1:3-5.)
"Does our husband feel that you might at last be able to bear a child if you are fed especially well?" Peninnah smugly whispered to Hannah.
Hannah winced at this remark. She realized that she had trouble in being as loving and kind as she should be to Peninnah's children, but she didn't feel that Peninnah had sufficient reason for constantly making such snide statements. She arose from the table and walked away to seat herself at a distance. When Elkanah noticed what she had done, he went to her and was grieved to find her sobbing.
"Why are you crying?" he asked her tenderly. "Why did you leave the table?"
"Don't worry about me," Hannah breathed, struggling to hide her tears. She said nothing about Peninnah's cruel conduct.
"I wish you wouldn't be unhappy because you are not yet a mother," Elkanah murmured. "There is a lot of time yet. Meanwhile, don't you believe that I love you even more than ten sons could care for you?" (I Samuel 1:6-8.)
"I know," Hannah replied. "But just let me sit here by myself for a while." Elkanah understood that she wanted to be alone. He returned to the table to join the others of his family, unaware of the smirk on Peninnah's face.
Hannah sat by herself for quite a while. Then she went into the tabernacle enclosure and started to pray, though not aloud. Because her eyes were closed, she wasn't aware that she was being closely watched by Eli, the old high priest, who was sitting in an elevated seat close to one of the corner posts of the tabernacle fence.
"God of Israel, please make it possible for me to give birth to a baby boy," she fervently prayed. "If you will just do this for me, I will gladly give him to you to use in your service all the days of his life!"
Hannah kept on praying silently. Her lips were moving, and she was unwittingly bending farther and farther forward in her state of great emotion. Eli was still watching her. Finally he got to his feet and strode to where she was crouching. (I Samuel 1:9-14.)
"Young woman!" he snapped impatiently. "Young woman, straighten up! You should be ashamed of yourself! How much longer do you intend to hang around here in your drunken condition? If you want to stay around this tabernacle any longer, stop drinking before you pass out completely!"
Bible Story Book Index
God Rules His Ministry
HANNAH wife of Elkanah the Levite, was at the tabernacle praying when she was startled by the harsh voice of Eli, the high priest. He accused her of being drunk. (I Samuel 1:12-14.) Prayer was so rare in Israel that Eli did not realize Hannah was praying.
Having become lost to her surroundings because of her fervent request to God for a son, Hannah opened her eyes and looked up to see the priest frowning down on her.
"I assure you, sir," Hannah said respectfully, "that I am not in a drunken condition."
A Change of Attitude
"But you have been acting very strangely," Eli told her. "There are certain young women who stay around the tabernacle for wrong purposes. If you are one of them, I prefer that you leave."
"I am not one of them," Hannah explained. "I am sorry to have given you the wrong impression. If I seemed to have had too much wine, it was because I have been very unhappy. I am childless, and I was bringing my problem to God. I told Him that if He would give me a baby boy, I would give up the baby so that he could become God's servant for the rest of his life!"
"That is indeed a worthy purpose," observed Eli, who was not convinced that Hannah was telling the truth. "If it's a son you want, where is your husband?"
"He is the man Elkanah, sitting over there at that table," Hannah answered, pointing to a little group eating by themselves. "Unfortunately, I must share him with another wife whom you see there. The children around them are hers."
"I am beginning to understand, my daughter," said Eli. "I am sorry I spoke to you as I did. I should not have misjudged you, but there have been so many young women coming here for no good that I considered you just another one of them. Return in peace with your husband to your home. I believe that God will grant the request you have made of Him." (I Samuel 1:15-17.)
This encouragement from the high priest of Israel was a great help to Hannah. She was so inspired with hope that she cheerfully returned to her husband's table to join in the meal. Elkanah was elated to note her change of mood, but Peninnah was perplexed and troubled. She saw nothing good in Elkanah and Hannah being in such a happy state.
Next morning, after making a last offering, Elkanah returned home with his family. Although most of Israel was in an ill spiritual state, there were many such as this Levite who made a special effort to observe the annual Holy Days God had instituted. They were more obedient to God than millions and millions of English-speaking descendants of the ancient House of Israel are today, because churchgoers today are told by their leaders to have nothing to do with God's Holy Days that He set apart to be observed forever -- and that means the present day as well as back then. (Compare Leviticus 23:1, 41 with I Corinthians 5:7-8 and Acts 18:21.)
When Elkanah went back to the tabernacle a year later, Hannah didn't go with him and Peninnah and her children. It wasn't because she didn't want to go. It was because she had given birth to a son! She named him Samuel, which meant ASKED OF GOD. (I Samuel 1:18-20.)
A Good Reason to Stay Home
"I shouldn't go to Shiloh until after our son is weaned and trained," Hannah told her husband. "When he is of the proper age, I shall deliver him to the high priest for a life of service at the tabernacle just as I promised."
"If you think you should stay home, so be it," Elkanah agreed, "but I shall miss you while we are away."
Hannah was sad to see her husband leave, but at the same time she was relieved to be out of Peninnah's presence for a few days. Peninnah could no longer chide her for having no children, but this envious wife had now developed other types of caustic and unkind remarks with which to try to keep Hannah uncomfortable. In spite of these things, Hannah was happy because of her son.
Hannah didn't go to Shiloh the following year or even the year after that. In those times a child was often two years old before it was weaned, a custom that prevails today to some extent among various peoples in the Middle East.
When Samuel was at last taken to Shiloh, he was probably nearly three years old. Besides the usual meat to be offered, Elkanah took three bullocks, over seven gallons of flour and a leather bag of wine -- often called a "wine skin" in modern translations of the Bible. These extra things were to be used in the consecration offering having to do with little Samuel. (I Samuel 1:21-24.)
As soon as they arrived at the tabernacle and made an offering, Hannah took her son to Eli, who was still high priest. So much time had passed that Eli didn't at first recognize her.
"I am the woman who was here praying by myself a few years ago, and to whom you spoke because you thought I was drunk," she explained. "Perhaps you will remember that I told you that I was pleading to God for a baby boy, and that if God would give one to me, I would dedicate him for his whole life to the service of the tabernacle. God heard and answered my prayers, just as you said at the time that you believed He would. Here is the boy. I have come to the tabernacle to turn him over to you!" (I Samuel 1:25-28.)
Eli remembered Hannah. He knew that it required much courage for a mother to give up her only child. It occurred to him to refuse to accept such a young lad, so that he might spend a few more years with his parents, but he realized that it would be even more difficult for the mother to bring Samuel back again.
When the time came for the consecration offering, Hannah voiced an unusual prayer of praise. She was so thankful for what God had done for her that she was happy even for the opportunity of giving up her son. (I Samuel 2:1-10.)
After the time of worship was over, Elkanah and his family returned to their home, leaving little Samuel to be reared and instructed in the simple duties he would at first be required to perform at the tabernacle.
The Priesthood Profaned
At this time matters were anything but right at the tabernacle. Eli's two sons, priests next in rank under their father, had the same duties and authority as those of Aaron's two sons when the tabernacle was at Mt. Sinai. Those two, Nadab and Abihu, met sudden death when they overstepped their authority. (Leviticus 10:1-2.)
Hophni and Phinehas, Eli's sons, were swiftly heading for a similar fate. They were committed to serving God with fear and reverence, but they had become increasingly greedy, careless and immoral. They were careful to try to hide their evil conduct from their father, but they didn't seem to care what God thought of them. They were far from fit to be priests, but God allowed them to carry on for a time, just as He often allows sinful men to continue in their ways. If every person were struck dead the moment he first sinned, there would be nobody living. But there is always a point at which God deals with those who continue to break His laws.
According to the Creator's instructions for making peace offerings at the tabernacle, a carcass was to be divided three ways: the part for God, including the fat, the part for the priests, including the right shoulder and breast, and the portion that was left, which was to go back to the one who offered it. Only God's part was to be roasted on the altar. The rest of it was to be boiled for the priests and Levites and for the family making the offering. (Leviticus 7:11-17; 28-34; II Chronicles 35:13; Ezekiel 46:20, 24.)
Hophni and Phinehas didn't go along with such rules any more. When a carcass was brought in as a sacrifice, they seized their share of the meat before the rest of it was taken to be used elsewhere. Often they would roast their part of it before God's part was burned on the altar. Furthermore, they would go to the huge seething pots that had just been filled with raw meat to boil, and yank out as much as they wanted of it with large, three-pronged hooks. They would thus take much of the meat belonging to persons who had brought it for offerings. Everyone could see they were violating God's ordinances. Those people who were bold enough to object to this unlawful practice were told that the priests would do as they pleased, even if they had to get their way by force.
This situation was so difficult that even the most zealous Israelites came to abhor the offerings they knew they should make. (I Samuel 2:11-17.) They feared to complain, having been warned that no one should accuse a priest of doing wrong. (Exodus 22:28; Acts 23:5.) The conduct of Hophni and Phinehas was damaging to Israel, just as the disobedience of today's religious leaders is doing great harm to our people. The priests' sins within a short time led to the spread of idolatry (Judges 8:33), after the death of Gideon.
A year after Samuel had been dedicated, his parents came to Shiloh as usual. There they saw their son busy in his service at the tabernacle. He was dressed in a special shoulder garment that caused him to look very official, for a young boy.
It was a happy week for Hannah, who spent many hours visiting Samuel. She gave him a coat she had made, and for a number of years afterward she brought him a new coat each time she and her husband came to the tabernacle, which was during the fall at the Festival of Tabernacles. The parents of Samuel had no difficulty attending God's Festival each year as it was still a time of peace under Gideon, shortly before an Ammonite-Philistine invasion. (Judges 10:7.)
God Rewards the Generous
During one of the festivals, Eli asked a special blessing on Elkanah and Hannah because of their giving their only child to the service of the tabernacle.
"Reward this couple for bequeathing their firstborn son," the high priest asked of God. "Make it possible for them to have more children."
God answered Eli's request. In time Hannah gave birth to three more sons and two daughters. Having a total of six children, she no longer felt secondary to Peninnah, who by that time had given up her efforts to appear as the superior wife. (I Samuel 2:18-21.)
As Samuel was growing into a young lad who was of increasing worth at the tabernacle, Eli was reaching an age at which he realized that his life could end any day. He had hoped that his last years would be peaceful, but for a long time he had been receiving indirect reports of his sons' conduct. At first he gave little heed to these rumors, but when they began increasing, he knew he would have to speak to Hophni and Phinehas. Eli's intention wasn't turned to action, however. He dreaded the unpleasant task of reproaching his sons. As an excuse, he kept reminding himself that the rumors possibly weren't true.
That was before he received an anonymous tip that his sons were carrying on in a shameless, wanton manner with some of the women who stayed in the tabernacle area. Eli had noted evidence of this flagrant misconduct by Hophni and Phinehas, but he had chosen to overlook it. Now that the people were beginning to be aware of it, he realized that he could no longer delay rebuking his sons.
"I have been receiving some alarming reports about things you have been doing here at the tabernacle," Eli grimly announced to Hophni and Phinehas next time he saw them alone.
The two priests glanced at each other with expressions of righteous indignation.
"Who are those who dare tell lies about the priests of Israel?" Hophni demanded.
"The people have no right to judge us!" Phinehas muttered. "Both of you would probably be better off if they did," Eli told them, frowning. "However, it is God who judges us, and I know you have much to fear from Him for the outrages you have been committing. Don't you realize that you are causing the people to sin because of your bad examples and by your driving them away from the tabernacle? If your misbehavior were only against man, it would be bad enough. But you have been defying the Creator whom you have been chosen to serve! Unless you give up your evil ways now, God will take your lives!" (I Samuel 2:22-25.)
"Those who have accused us are the ones who should repent!" snapped Hophni as he turned to stride away with Phinehas.
It was plain to Eli that his sons only resented his remarks, and had no intention of changing their ways. He knew that further words would only be wasted. He was painfully aware that if he had been properly strict with them years before, this calamitous situation probably never would have occurred. There was only one course left now for the good of Israel. That was to put Hophni and Phinehas out of their capacity at the tabernacle, and replace them with two priests next in line for such offices. That, however, was something that Eli didn't quite have the courage or inclination to do.
Eli Is Warned
Not long afterward an unusual stranger came to the tabernacle to talk to Eli. When Eli saw the man, he was somehow uncomfortable in his presence. There was something about him that made the high priest feel as though the fellow could read his innermost thoughts, and that he was aware of all that had been going on at the tabernacle. When the man spoke, Eli was startled to learn that he DID know what was going on.
"When your forefather Aaron was in Egypt, God chose his family for the priesthood," the stranger reminded Eli. "At that time God gave definite instructions concerning the offerings and the manner in which the tabernacle was to function. I have been sent to tell you that God is well aware that you and your sons have failed miserably in running matters rightly. You honor your sons above God -- which is idolatry. You have allowed them to steal from those who brought offerings so that all three of you might gorge yourselves. (I Samuel 2:27-29.)
"Even though God promised that the priesthood should be in the family of Aaron forever -- and set your family in the priesthood -- the Creator can't go on using men like you as His most high-ranking servants. You will die soon, but not before you see an enemy come on the Israelites to take away their wealth. As for your sons, they will both die the same day, and not long from now. Then God will choose from among Aaron's other descendants a high priest who will be faithful. Others in your family will come and beg him for food and for work. Furthermore, all your male descendants shall die before they are of middle age. Consider these things, and how you have brought them on yourselves!" (I Samuel 2:30-36.)
When the stranger finished speaking, Eli was so upset that he was speechless. He was shaking as he watched the man stride away from the tabernacle and disappear.
At this time Samuel was probably about twelve or thirteen years old. He was of increasing help to Eli, who was a heavy man in his last years, and who needed someone in attendance because of the high priest's having difficulty in moving about. For this reason Samuel's bedroom was close to Eli's in the high priest's quarters near the tabernacle, so that the lad could quickly wait on Eli in the event he needed help during the night.
One night Samuel was awakened by a voice speaking his name. Thinking that Eli had called, the boy ran to the high priest's bedroom.
"Here I am, sir!" Samuel whispered out of the darkness. Eli's loud breathing ended with a sudden snort. "Is that you, Samuel?" the high priest muttered sleepily. "Why have you awakened me? I didn't call you. Go back to bed!"
Samuel returned to his room, puzzled as to the source of the voice. Before he could fall asleep, he distinctly heard his name spoken again. He jumped up and once more announced his presence to the sleeping priest, who again informed him that he had not called.
Samuel returned to his bed. He was too perplexed to get back to sleep. (I Samuel 3:1-7.)
"Samuel! Samuel!" a voice startled him for the third time, strangely seeming to come to him from all directions.
Bible Story Book Index
"The Ark of God is Taken!"
ONE night young Samuel, who was sleeping in a room adjacent to Eli's near the tabernacle, heard a voice calling his name. Thinking that Eli, the high priest, had summoned him, he hurried to Eli's quarters. The high priest told Samuel he didn't call him. The same thing happened a little later, and again Eli told him that he hadn't called. (I Samuel 3:1-6.)
A Call From God
After Samuel returned to his bed he heard the voice speak his name for the third time. He hesitated to bother the high priest again, but there was just the chance that this third call had come from the increasingly helpless old man. So for the third time he went to Eli's quarters and timidly asked if he could be of service.
Eli slowly sat up and peered through the gloom at the boy, who was fearful that he would be rebuked.
"If you heard someone speaking your name it wasn't I," Eli muttered thoughtfully. "What was the voice like?"
"The first time it sounded a long way off," Samuel explained. "The second time it seemed closer. The last time, just a couple of minutes ago, it sounded closer yet, as though it came from everywhere!"
Eli sat in silence for a few moments. He realized that an awesome thing was taking place. He was certain because this thing had happened to him in the past.
For some purpose God was speaking to Samuel! (I Samuel 3:7-8.)
To Eli this was a snub from God, inasmuch as the high priest was the one to whom the Creator usually spoke unless there was a leader in Israel who was unusually close to God. Eli understood why God had chosen to contact another, even one who was only a child. It was because of the careless manner in which he, Eli, had conducted matters at the tabernacle.
"Go back to your bed, my son," the high priest sighed. "If the voice comes to you again, be sure to answer, 'I hear you, Lord! Please tell me why you are calling me.' "
This instruction was puzzling to Samuel. He obediently went back to bed, but he didn't sleep because of being so curious and excited by what the high priest had told him to do about the mysterious voice. He was so keyed up that when he distinctly and closely heard his name pronounced again, he almost forgot what he had been told to answer.
"Y-yes, Lord!" he stammered, not really knowing whom he was answering. "I'm listening!" (I Samuel 3:9-10.)
"Do not be fearful," the voice went on. "I am the God of Israel, here to inform you of some important things."
Samuel was greatly startled to learn that God was speaking to him. But somehow he became at ease as the seconds passed. He listened intently as the voice continued to come to him out of the night.
"I am going to cause some very unhappy events in Israel. If I were to announce to all the people what I shall do, their ears would tingle with the dread words. First I shall bring judgment against the family of Eli. Even though you are yet very young, you should know that your high priest has been offensively careless in his high office. He has allowed his sons to do some very vile things. The sins of all three have been so great that no sacrifice or offering can atone for them. Because of their disobedience, the lives of these people will violently end at a time I shall soon choose." (I Samuel 3:11-14.)
A Very Unpleasant Duty
Samuel was stunned by what he had heard. He had never been aware of Eli or his two sons doing anything wrong. To be informed that his superiors had displeased the God they served was a shock to him. There was little sleep for him the rest of the night.
Next morning he got up as usual to open the entrance to the tabernacle. With the coming of dawn, the event of the night before became to him as a strong dream he almost wanted to forget. He had no intention of revealing it to anyone, but when Eli called him later to talk to him, he was fearful that he was going to be asked to give an account. It isn't always pleasant to be a prophet.
"I know and now you surely know that it was God who spoke to you last night," the high priest told Samuel. "He must have called you again after the third time I told you to go back to bed. He must have had some message for you. I want you to tell me everything that He told you. Don't hold anything back, or God might deal even more harshly with you than He would deal with me if I were to disobey."
Frightened by these words, Samuel related all that God had spoken. When Eli heard what God had to say about him and his sons, he almost regretted questioning Samuel. He bowed his head and stared submissively at the ground.
"If it's God's will," he murmured, "then it will surely happen the way He has planned it." (I Samuel 3:15-18.)
God hadn't revealed just when these things would happen. For the next several years Eli was in a state of fearful uncertainty for himself and his sons. Meanwhile, Samuel grew up to become a well-known young man. All of Israel knew him as one whom God had chosen as a prophet. Samuel didn't ask to be made a prophet: God chose him. He increased greatly in wisdom and intelligence, and foretold events that came true with startling accuracy because God continued to speak to him from time to time. (I Samuel 3:19-21.)
The leaders of Philistia, the coastal nation that had for several years lorded it over Israel, meanwhile had received increasing reports of the rising young leader at Shiloh. Fearing that Israel might be organizing a rebellion against them, they sent out an army to march among the Israelites and remind them that it would be foolish to rise against the Philistines.
When it was reported that a Philistine army was moving into an area about twenty-five miles west of Shiloh, the elders of Israel quickly formed a fighting force that moved swiftly to within a few miles north of where the enemy stopped to camp.
When the Philistines learned of the presence of the army of Israel, they decided to attack before the Israelite soldiers could become greater in number. The Bible doesn't state how many troops were in each army, though there were probably at least forty or fifty thousand on either side. Whatever the numbers, when the encounter was over and each side had withdrawn from the battlefield, the Israelite army went back to its camp with about four thousand less soldiers. (I Samuel 4:1-2.)
No Help for the Wicked!
The leaders were stunned by this defeat. They felt that their forces weren't meant to lose because they were part of God's chosen people! They seemed to have forgotten that Israel was chosen for an example of obedience, not for special favors. What with most of Israel being in a state of disobedience, the leaders had no sound reason to expect victory.
Nevertheless, some of the elders came to the camp with an idea they thought would insure the Israelites' winning any other encounter with the Philistines.
"We should have the ark with us," they suggested. "Our ancestors took it with them in times of war. They had it with them when they went against Jericho, and the whole city fell. God wouldn't let anything happen to the ark, and He would have to spare us to keep the ark safe!"
This stratagem was vigorously acclaimed by the troops. Men were sent at once to Shiloh to bring the ark to the camp with all possible haste so that it would be on hand in the event the Philistines attacked again.
When the soldiers arrived at the tabernacle to request the ark, Eli was greatly troubled. He felt that it would be a grave mistake for a sinful nation to rely on the presence of the ark as a kind of fetish to insure safety in battle.
"I think the ark should remain in the tabernacle," Eli resolutely informed the men. "I can hardly agree to your taking it!"
Having been awakened because of this matter, the old priest shuffled back to his bed, leaving a group of very disappointed men.
Next morning young Samuel went as usual to open the gates of the tabernacle. To his surprise they were already open. After trying in vain to find Phinehas and Hophni, he awakened Eli to tell him that his sons weren't on duty. The sightless old man groped into the tabernacle, thinking that they might be there. They were gone!
When he came back out, he was pale and shaking. "They have unwisely taken the ark!" he muttered to Samuel. "God will not deal lightly with those who have done this awful thing!"
When the ark arrived at the camp of the Israelite army, along with Hophni and Phinehas, a thunderous cheer went up from the waiting soldiers. The shouting was so loud that it was plainly heard in the Philistine camp a few miles to the south. Alarmed officers feared that it meant that powerful reinforcements had arrived for Israel. (I Samuel 4:3-5.)
"We should have attacked again instead of retiring," some of them bitterly observed. "Now it may be too late for another victory."
A little later they learned from spies just what had caused the Israelites to cheer so wildly.
"The God of Israel has come into the camp of the enemy!" the spies excitedly declared. "We learned that He is in a box, and that this box was brought from Shiloh tonight! The enemy troops were so pleased to learn that their God had come to help them that they shouted like madmen with glee!"
"I have heard of that mysterious box," a Philistine officer said. "It is said to be the dwelling place of a powerful God -- the one who long ago brought some horrible plagues on Egypt so that the Israelites could escape!"
"I have heard that when the God of Israel is angered, He is more powerful than any other god," another Philistine added. "If that is true, we might be wise to return to our country."
Fear Turned to Courage
The superstitious Philistines, filled with growing fear and futility, were on the verge of agreeing to give up their war on Israel. Then one of the leading officers demanded to be heard.
"We brought our army here for a purpose!" he shouted angrily. "Now what is all this cowardly talk about running back to our homes? Why are we imagining that we are destined to lose to Israel? We are strong, and we must use that strength to make certain that the Israelites continue to be servants to us. If we give in, we will become servants to them! We must fight! We must prove to all that we are men determined to do what we have set out to do!" (I Samuel 4:6-9.)
This short speech was so inspiring to the Philistines that they decided to set out even before dawn for Israel's camp. The Israelites were depending on the ark to keep them safe, and weren't as prepared as they should have been. The Philistines suddenly swarmed in among them with such savage force that within minutes the ground was strewn with dead and dying Israelites. Many were trapped in their own tents. Others who were out in the open foolishly tried to escape by dashing into their shelters. The shouts, the screams of pain, the clashing of metal against metal produced more noise than had gone up from the cheering men only a few hours previously.
On slashing into one of the larger tents, Philistine soldiers came upon two men crouching close to a large box-shaped object covered with a fancy cloth. Spears hurtled into the two men, killing them at once. The Philistine soldiers had no way of knowing that they had just put to death two priests of Israel -- Phinehas and Hophni. They strode toward the covered object to see what it was. (I Samuel 4:10-11.)
"Don't touch that!" one of the soldiers barked. "That must be the box where Israel's God dwells!"
The soldiers froze in their tracks, then backed off a few steps.
"Why should we be afraid of that thing?" another soldier muttered. "It didn't keep us from killing these two fellows who must have been here to guard it!"
Anxious to show his courage, the soldier stepped up and touched one of the poles by which the ark was carried.
"See?" he triumphantly asked. "Let's take this to our commander. We'll receive some special favors for being the ones to capture the God of the Israelites!"
By that time the fighting was over. The only Israelites in the camp were dead or wounded. All others, and that didn't include very many, were either fleeing or hiding.
Israel had been defeated to the amount of thirty thousand dead soldiers! If there had been obedience to God instead of reliance on the ark, matters would have turned out differently. (Leviticus 26:3-8.)
The Tragic Result of Sin!
Killing thirty thousand Israelites was a great triumph to the Philistines. But, in a way, the capture of the ark was even a greater one, inasmuch as many of them really believed they had captured a god. The ark was taken to their camp, where a noisy celebration took place. There was great curiosity and speculation as to what was inside the object, but somehow no one dared to try to open it. Most of the Philistine soldiers, having heard wild rumors about the ark, chose to stay away from it. They were superstitious.
A few hours later a tattered Benjamite soldier who had escaped from the Philistines staggered wearily into the main streets of Shiloh."
Our army has been wiped out!" he shouted as he scooped up a handful of dirt and tossed it on his head. (I Samuel 4:12.)
As the bad news spread through town the people began groaning and shrieking. The depressed high priest, sitting at his usual outdoor place where the people could easily contact him, wondered at the cause of the noise. It was then that the exhausted Benjamite trudged up to him to announce that he had run all the way from the Israelite camp to bring news.
Trembling, Eli anxiously asked what had happened. "The Philistines attacked our camp this morning," the Benjamite muttered hoarsely. "Only a small part of us escaped. The rest are dead, including your two sons. They died when the ark was captured."
This was too much for the old priest. He knew that when God removed His protection from Israel and let the ark be taken, He had forsaken His people. Eli reeled backward and toppled off his elevated chair.
The soldier ran to him, but Eli was already dead. He was a very heavy man, and the fall had broken his neck. (I Samuel 4:13-18.)
Bible Story Book Index
"Reverence My Sanctuary"
AN ANGEL had told Eli, the high priest of Israel, that he and his two sons would soon lose their lives. All three of them had knowingly failed to conduct themselves as proper servants in God's service. (I Samuel 2:27-36; I Samuel 3:11-14.)
The prediction came true when Eli's two sons were killed by Philistine soldiers. Eli fell and broke his neck just a few hours later. (I Samuel 4:10-18.) God had warned Eli and the people, "reverence my sanctuary" (Leviticus 26:2). He had warned them that only authorized persons should touch the ark, and that it should not even be looked upon except when authorized. (Numbers 4:15; Leviticus 16:2.)
Ark in Pagan Hands
To add to the family tragedy, the wife of Phinehas, one of the two slain sons of Eli, was about to give birth to a baby. Then she heard of the death of her husband and father-in-law and about the capture of the ark, which the priests had removed from God's sanctuary. She was so shocked and troubled that she died shortly after her son was born. Just before she died, she gave her son the name of Ichabod, which was meant to refer to the wretched state into which Israel had fallen. (I Samuel 4:19-22.)
While this was going on at Shiloh, the Philistine army was triumphantly marching into Ashdod, one of the chief cities near the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Ashdod was one of the places where there was a temple containing a statue of one of their main gods, Dagon. The ark was placed in front of the idol to defy the ark or whatever might be in it to try to prevent Dagon from continuing to tower over the ark. (I Samuel 5:1-2.)
Next morning the priests of the temple got up earlier than usual to gloat over the sight of the sacred treasure of Israel reclining as a sort of gratitude offering before their god. They froze in fearful amazement when they entered the main room.
Some time during the night the statue of Dagon had toppled to the floor in front of the ark! (I Samuel 5:3.)
In the next few hours there was feverish activity within the temple. The people of Ashdod weren't allowed inside or to learn what had happened. Workmen who struggled with ropes, pulleys and pry poles to haul the idol back into place were threatened and warned -- and sworn to secrecy.
It was an awkward day for the Philistine priests, who tried to convince themselves that their idol had been erected off balance, and that a slight earthquake during the night was just enough to cause it to topple. Late that afternoon the statue was hoisted back into place in time for the public to come into the temple to worship that day.
Next morning there was still a greater shock for the priests. They arrived to discover that the statue of Dagon was again on the floor. This time it was mysteriously broken off at the base part, which remained where it was. The arms and head were sheared off and scattered in pieces across the threshold of the temple.
This time the fear and consternation of the priests couldn't be hidden. Within hours it was known all through Philistia that the God of Israel had struck down the statue of Dagon in Ashdod. The disgrace was so great in the minds of the Philistines that the leaders decreed that no one should put foot on the threshold of any temple containing a statue of Dagon because of what had happened. (I Samuel 5:4-5.)
This destruction of an idol was embarrassing and unpleasant for the Philistines. But God didn't stop there in dealing with them. He brought misery to the people of Ashdod and those who lived for miles around. Overnight they became afflicted with bleeding ulcers, painful to such a degree that they couldn't even sit down without great distress. The superstitious Philistines were right in their guess that this trouble had come on them because of their treatment of the ark. (I Samuel 5:6-7.) Leaders met to decide what to do to try to escape the plague that had come to a part of the people.
"If giving that box back to the Israelites will relieve us of this miserable condition, I'm for sending it to Shiloh right away!" the ruler of Ashdod declared.
There was a chorus of disagreement. "The capture of the ark of Israel was a great triumph for our armies!" the ruler of the Philistine city of Gath exclaimed heatedly. "Without it, Israel will soon crumble, but you want to give it back! I say no!"
"You wouldn't say that if you were in my condition!" Ashdod's ruler retorted, grimacing with discomfort. "If you think that fancy box should remain in our nation, take it to YOUR city and see what happens!"
There was a chorus of approval. None of the rulers of the other cities of Philistia wanted to be responsible for keeping the ark. The ruler of Gath realized that he had spoken with too much haste. He had no choice but to agree that the ark should be transported at once to his city.
This time it wasn't put in the same room with an idol, but it was only a matter of hours before the people of Gath, several miles southeast of Ashdod, began to feel the pain of the same kind of plague that had come to Ashdod. Within a few days it had spread to every Philistine family in and around the city. Some, as in Ashdod, were so painfully afflicted that they died. (I Samuel 5:8-9.)
The people of Gath pleaded that the ark be sent elsewhere. Through various pressures and arguments, the ark was moved to Ekron, a main Philistine city about fifteen miles northeast of Gath. Almost as soon as the ark arrived there, the people of Ekron were struck by the same ulcerous condition that had come to the people of Ashdod and Gath. (I Samuel 5:10-12.)
At the same time the area was visited with hordes of mice that seemed to come out of nowhere to overrun fields, barns, homes, streets and public buildings.
All this was too much for the inhabitants of Ekron, who begged the rulers of the leading cities to meet in Ekron and consider moving the ark elsewhere.
"We have had enough!" the ruler of Ekron complained to his fellow leaders when they met. "Our people are suffering terribly. Many of them are dying. If the ark isn't taken away soon from here, we'll all be dead. Your people in Ashdod and Gath are recovering, and we want the same opportunity."
Philistines Test God
"But there is no real proof that the Israelite box is causing your trouble," one of the leaders observed who hadn't yet kept the ark in his city, but wasn't in favor of giving it back to Israel. "Before we make any rash move, let us send for our chief priests and seers and ask for their advice on this matter."
Most of those present agreed on this proposal, inasmuch as most Philistines believed that their priests, magicians, seers and astrologers had unusual wisdom. After a meeting of those revered men, a spokesman made their opinions known.
"Probably it would be wise to return the ark to the Israelites," he declared. "It shouldn't be returned without a trespass offering, however. If the Israelite God is actually punishing us because we have this box, we should at least try to make amends by doing something that might please Him."
"What should this trespass offering be?" the Philistine rulers asked.
"Because Philistia is divided into the leadership of five main cities," the spokesman explained, "it would be fitting to send an equal number of costly images of the things that have plagued us. If we return the ark to the Israelites, we should send along golden images of five mice. As you know, it is our custom to appease our own gods by making images of things that have brought trouble to us. Therefore we should even make five images of the type of sores that have come to Philistia. They should also be made of gold and included with the five images of mice. It would be well to remember the tales that have been handed down about how the God of Israel dealt with the Egyptians when they held the Israelites against their will. [Exodus, chapters 7 through 12.] To make a further effort to avoid such curses, the ark should be returned in a fine, newly built cart drawn by untrained cows whose calves have been taken so far away from them that they won't be turned aside because of sensing them in any direction. The animals should then be sent off with what they have to pull. This way we can test the God of Israel and see if He is the One who brought our troubles upon us. If the cows take the cart to Beth-shemesh, it will be a sign to show us whether the God of Israel is powerful enough to work miracles. But if the cows choose to haul the ark in any direction they choose except that of the Danite village of Beth-shemesh, then we will know that it was only by chance or by natural conditions that the sores and mice have come to Philistia." (I Samuel 6:1-9.)
Fantastic and even droll as this plan might seem, the Philistine leaders took it quite seriously. They believed in the ideas of their priests and seers.
The suggestions were carried out as soon as possible. The cart and golden images were made and the images were put into a coffer, or box. The ark and the box containing the golden images were loaded onto the cart. Two cows with calves were brought to hitch to the cart, and the calves were taken to the opposite side of the city of Ekron. (I Samuel 6:10-11.)
The Sign of the Cows
As soon as the cows were harnessed to the cart, everyone stood back to see what would happen. A few moments passed. Then the cows suddenly set out together to harmoniously pull the cart as though they had been trained all their lives as a pair to do just that.
The Philistine rulers and others present stared in amazement, but not just because the two cows had agreed on how to pull the cart. The astonishing thing was that the animals had chosen to go directly to the road that led to Beth-shemesh! This was the sign that was supposed to prove to the Philistines that the ark was the source of their trouble.
"This means that the God of Israel has been dealing with us because of our capturing the box!" one Philistine ruler exclaimed.
"I'm not convinced yet," another observed. "The animals are starting out in that direction, but they could turn at any moment and go elsewhere. I'm in favor of following them to see what they'll do."
The others agreed. It was an odd sight -- two cows lowing for their calves as they pulled the new cart along, and the five Philistine rulers and their aides and advisors following curiously on their various mounts.
The animals didn't turn to right or left from the road that led into Beth-shemesh about twelve miles southeast of Ekron. Some Israelite harvesters just outside the village caught sight of the unattended cows pulling the cart, just as they reached the field of a man named Joshua, but not the same Joshua who had many years before led Israel across the Jordan River. (Joshua 3:9-17.) They ran to the road, stopped the animals and swarmed around the cart to see what it contained. (I Samuel 6:12-13.)
When the Philistines saw this, they turned off the road and watched, unnoticed, from a nearby grove of trees. They saw the Israelites rip off the top of the box containing the golden idols, then move around excitedly when they discovered what was inside.
Many of the harvesters ran to the nearby villages to tell others that the ark had been found. It resulted in every inhabitant of that area rushing forth to see for himself. The cows and cart were taken off the road and into a nearby field. >From there they were guided up a large, rocky mound that jutted up through the field.
"God has chosen the people of our village to find the ark!" a leading citizen loudly proclaimed. "Let us show our devotion to our God by sacrificing these two cows!"
There was a chorus of agreeing shouts. The animals were immediately slaughtered and dressed by the village's Levites. The wooden cart was broken up and set ablaze under the carcasses. While thousands of the people watched with rapt attention, other thousands inspected the odd trespass offerings sent by the Philistine rulers.
Ark of the Sanctuary Profaned
Unfortunately, there were many who examined and handled the ark without proper reverence for God, even to the extent of lifting the lid and peering inside. Obviously they weren't aware of or hadn't remembered what had happened to certain other people who had touched the ark. That ark represented God's throne. Such crass disrespect was bound to bring an awful penalty.
These things were witnessed by the Philistines. They at last had seen enough to convince them that they had blundered in taking the ark away from the Israelites and holding it in Philistia for seven months. They returned that same day to their country to commend their priests and diviners for giving them proper advice concerning the ark. The rulers could never know that the God of Israel had caused matters to work out as they did, even to the extent of working through the so-called wise men of Philistia. (I Samuel 6:14-18.)
Following the departure of the Philistines, a "great calamity" fell on the village of Beth-shemesh and on all the country around. Fifty thousand and seventy men suddenly were seized with a strange, painful condition that brought death to all upon whom it came. (I Samuel 6:19.) These were thousands who had treated the ark irreverently. Not even the Philistines had done so to it! The Israelites should have known better, what with a part of them being Levites who surely realized that God had warned the Israelites that death would come to any who looked into the ark or touched it except by its carrying poles -- or showed any lack of reverence for God in their conduct toward the ark. (Leviticus 16:2; 26:2; Numbers 4:5-6, 15.)
There was loud mourning in the villages for the next few days. Some felt that God had dealt unfairly with them. (I Samuel 6:19-20.) Most of the people were anxious to have the ark taken away. Messengers were sent to the nearest town, Kirjath-jearim, to ask men there to come and remove the ark from the area of Beth-shemesh.
The officials of Kirjath-jearim were pleased at the opportunity to have the ark in their town, though some of the people there feared it. They hurriedly sent more than enough men to carry it.
At Kirjath-jearim, built on a hill, the ark was taken to the home of a man named Abinadab. His son, Eleazar, was chosen to keep and guard it. No one would have guessed then that it would remain in that place for the next twenty years. (I Samuel 7:1-2.)
Meanwhile, the Philistines continued to trouble Israel by constant raids and attacks. Life became increasingly miserable for those in western Canaan, and their complaints to Samuel increased accordingly. Always Samuel's answer was that if the Israelites would give up their worship of pagan gods and turn back to the one real God, they wouldn't be troubled by their enemies. The Israelites were so weary of grief that they did gradually pull away from idol worship.
And Finally -- Repentance
Though this change required several years, Samuel was greatly pleased. When the time for the Festival of Tabernacles came, he called the people to meet at Mizpeh, only a few miles from Kirjathjearim and the ark. There many thousands of Israelites prayed, fasted and acknowledged their sins. The assemblage was led and directed by Samuel, who spent most of his time and efforts in giving advice and instruction to those who had problems and needed help. (I Samuel 7:3-6.)
Just when the people were in the midst of this long-due event, a man rode swiftly into Mizpeh.
"The Philistines have learned that we are gathered here!" he shouted excitedly. "They have sent a huge army that will be here very soon!"
Within minutes the startling news had spread to all the people. Even though many of them were armed, a large part of the Israelites fell into a state of panic because of a fear of being slaughtered. They realized that escape to the east wasn't very probable, inasmuch as there weren't enough roads for so many of them to use.
Thousands quickly milled around Samuel's quarters, and thousands of voices joined in a thunderous plea for help from Samuel. At last the Israelites realized only God could help them.
"Ask God to save us from the Philistines!" they shouted. (I Samuel 7:7-8.)
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