1 Samuel 4.1-11 – The danger of unintended idolatry
Posted: 10 January 2013 in 1 Samuel

Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle….. And the Philistines put themselves in array against Israel: and when they joined battle, Israel was smitten before the Philistines: and they slew of the army in the field about four thousand men. And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Wherefore hath the Lord smitten us to day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shiloh unto us, that it may save us out of the hand of our enemies….. And when the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again. And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shout, they said, What meaneth the noise of this great shout in the camp of the Hebrews? And they understood that the ark of the Lord was come into the camp. And the Philistines were afraid, for they said, God is come into the camp….. And the Philistines fought, and Israel was smitten, and they fled every man into his tent: and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand footmen. And the ark of God was taken.

When Israel suffered defeat at the hands of the Philistines, their first thought was to ask why God had brought such a thing upon them. Today we would probably be inclined to blame the generals, or the politicians, and the thought that the Lord of all history might have something to do with it would not even enter our heads. The Israelite’s second thought, though, was to conclude that they had been defeated because God had not been present in the camp – as if God is not always and everywhere present. So they sent to Shiloh to “fetch God” in the form of the Ark of The Covenant, and therein lay a piece of superstitious and naked idolatry. It was treating a material object, sacred though it may have been, as if it was God himself. It was really no better than the worship of images practised amongst the pagan nations. Consequently the Israelites were rewarded with a second defeat, and not only that, but the Ark of The Covenant was taken by the Philistines.

Nevertheless, it is clear from the next few verses that the Israelites felt the loss of the Ark to represent a rupture in their relationship with God, and about that they were right. Both Judaism and Christianity are austere religions in the absolute ban they place upon any physical representation of the transcendent and ineffable God.

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