Capture of the ark
The Capture of the Ark of the Covenant (Began::1 Bul 2883 AM–Ended::1 Sivan 2883 AM) is the only recorded instance in which an enemy power captured the most sacred object to God. More than any other single case of mishandling of the ark, this case has been the cause of much vain speculation, chiefly by skeptical historians.
In 2863 AM, Israel came under Philistine domination that lasted for forty years. Eli, descendant of Ithamar, was high priest at the time, and Ibzan, Elon and Abdon were the biblical Judges of Israel during the first twenty years of this oppression.
On or about 1 Bul 2883 AM, the Philistines and the Israelites fought a major battle near Aphek. The Israelites suffered four thousand casualties, and then the elders decided to have the ark of the covenant brought to the battlefield in the hope that the ark would save the Israelites from total defeat. No one ever actually consulted God about this strategy; instead, the elders sent for the ark, and Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, brought it. The Philistine high command at first were afraid when they saw the ark. But then they took their courage and fought even harder. As a result, they inflicted thirty thousand additional casualties on the Israelites, killed Hophni and Phinehas, and captured the ark.
One unnamed survivor, a Benjamite, escaped to bring the sad news to Eli. When Eli heard it, he fell backward in his chair, broke his neck, and died. When the wife of Phinehas heard the news, she went into premature labor, bore a son, and then died. Just before she died, she named the child Ichabod, a name meaning "no glory," because there was no more glory in the land of Israel. (1_Samuel 4 )
The Philistines possessed the ark for seven months, and that possession cost them dearly. First they brought it to Ashdod, one of the Five Cities of the Philistines. They carried into the Temple of Dagon and set it before the towering image of Dagon. The next morning the citizens found the image sprawled on its face in front of the ark. They set the statue upright, but on the morning after that the statue had fallen again, and this time its head and hands had been broken off. The temple was never repaired. (Samuel 6:1-5 )
Not long after that, the most serious problem arose: every citizen in Ashdod and its environs developed a type of tumor or boil, the nature of which has never been determined with satisfaction. The King James Version describes these as "emerods," a word that the French Louis Segond version renders as hemorrhoids. (The actual Hebrew word, טְחֹרֵ֣ or techor, usually means an inflammatory or burning lesion, not a neoplasm). Flavius Josephus says that the Ashdodites suffered from severe dysentery. In addition, Ashdod seems to have suffered an infestation of mice, as the succeeding narrative suggests.
The citizens of Ashdod then begged the Lords of the Five Cities to take the Ark away. The lords then brought the ark to Gath, and then to Ekron, and the population of each city suffered from the plagues of boils and mice, as had the population of Ashdod. (1_Samuel 6:6-12 )
Finally the advisers of the Lords of the Five Cities suggested that they return the ark. The advisers remembered the Egyptian plagues and suggested that the Five Lords should feel no shame in yielding to a God Who could wreak such vengeance. So they built a cart specifically for the errand, placed the ark on it, added a box containing one golden boil and one golden mouse (one of each object for each of the Five Cities), and sent it on the road, pulled by two milk cows that had never been yoked. The advisers even said that if the cows pulled the ark to Beth-shemesh without human direction, then they would know that God was indeed responsible for everything that had happened to them since the capture of the ark.
The cows did pull the ark onto the Beth-shemesh road, and did not deviate until they had reached that region. (1_Samuel 6:1-12 )
The ark reached the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite during wheat harvest (probably on or about 1 Sivan 2883 AM). The harvesters broke the cart into pieces and offered the two milk cows as burnt offerings. The local Levites came and took down the ark and the box containing the golden boils and mice. But now the Israelites suffered even more greatly than the Philistines had done, for their own mishandling of the ark: 50,070 people died because they had opened the ark and looked inside it. (1_Samuel 6:13-19 ) The elders of Beth-shemesh then sent an urgent message to the elders of Kiriath-jearim (a Gibeonite town) to take custody of the ark. They agreed, and the ark remained at Kiriath-jearim without further incident. (1_Samuel 6:20-21 , 1_Samuel 7:1-2 )
At about this time, Samson began his career as a judge. Twenty years later, Samson took his awesome revenge on the Philistines, and Samuel took the occasion to rally the Israelites at Mizpah and fight the battle that ended the Philistine dominion over Israel.
Erich van Daniken, in Chariots of the Gods? speculated that the Ark of the Covenant was a nuclear-powered transceiver furnished by ancient extraterrestrial expeditionaries. Van Daniken stated that the boil that the Philistines had suffered were actually cancerous, that the mass deaths of the people of Beth-shemesh were from radiation exposure, and that the occasional deaths of certain persons who touched the ark improperly were from electrocution. He also said that the Levites' garments were chosen for their capacity to block ionizing radiation.
If Van Daniken's description is accurate, then all the descriptions given in the Bible of the ark of the covenant, the sacerdotal garments of the high priest and other priests, and even the coverings of the Tabernacle, were lies. According to those descriptions, the ark was a hollow vessel that contained at least one important artifact: the tablets of law containing the Ten Commandments. But van Daniken's theory fails to explain several key facts, unless these, too, were lies:
- Ashdod, Gath and Ekron suffered rodent infestations in addition to the plagues of boils. Radiation poisoning would kill rodents rather than causing them to proliferate.
- The Philistines had the described lesions of the pudendum, while the Israelites died with no external lesions on their bodies.
- The lesions involved, according to the Hebrew text, are inflammatory, not neoplastic as one would expect from radiation poisoning.
- The placement of the ark near a statue caused that statue to topple from its plinth twice in two days. Radiation alone would not have so weakened the plinth to topple the statue.
- Two milk cows knew exactly where to travel with the ark, though the Philistines could not have received any instruction on how to attach any sort of homing device to the cows.
Kenneth Simonelic has more recently speculated that the Ark was a storage battery with a very large electromotive potential. Thus the 50,070 deaths were due to electrocution, like the death of Uzzah decades later during the reign of David. But the objections to the van Daniken explanation apply equally well to Simonelic's speculation, and perhaps with even greater force, because electric fields have never been known to attract large numbers of rodents and cause their population to increase to dangerous levels.
The consequences of mishandling the ark were vastly different for the Philistines and the Israelites. The Philistines suffered a broken idol, three outbreaks of hemorrhoids or some other inflammatory lesion, and three infestations of mice. The Israelites lost thirty thousand soldiers when the ark was captured and more than fifty thousand civilians when the ark was returned and the people treated it like a vulgar tourist attraction.
Of course this raises yet another objection to secular theories that the ark was a portable power station or transceiver of some kind: why didn't the Philistines have the same volume of accidental deaths as the Israelites had? If the danger was simply from unsafe handling, then the Philistines ought to have suffered fifty thousand civilian casualties in each of the three cities that hosted the ark, and yet the worst that happened to any Philistine was a medical problem that today is treatable by a topical preparation sold without prescription!
The important difference between the two populations is that the Israelites had the benefit of centuries of instruction on how to handle the ark and how not to handle it, whereas the Philistines had not. So while the Philistines suffered a punishment sufficient to hint to them that they ought to return what did not belong to them, the Israelites suffered the much more severe punishment appropriate for an offender who ought to have known better.
The large number of casualties that the Israelites suffered might also explain why the Philistine dominion continued for another twenty years, despite all the reprisals that Samson was, from time to time, able to inflict upon them.