Religion Gone Wrong

1 Samuel 4 tells a tragic story from Israel’s history that demonstrates the danger of relying on religion for security or power. The Israelites are at war with the Philistines, and when their armies collide the Israelites are defeated and lose 4000 men. This was terrible for the Israelites, and the discouraged people were desperate to know how such a thing could happen. The elders decided that for the next battle, they would take the ark of the covenant (a chest that contained the tablets with the ten commandments, and a symbol of God’s physical presence with his people) so that God would be with them and save them.

An envoy was sent from the army camp at Ebenezer to Shiloh (where the tabernacle was for worship), and the ark of the covenant was brought back to the great excitement of all the soldiers. It is interesting to notice that two priests accompanied the ark of the covenant – Eli’s two sons. These men have been exposed earlier in the text as self-serving and abusive of their priestly power, so they were probably not accompanying the ark out of concern for this holy relic. Maybe they were hoping for a cut from any spoils of war that might be won, or maybe they wanted to be front and center in the celebration with the ark as it came into the camp. It’s not very important, but it definitely ties in to the theme of this chapter of religion gone wrong.

So the ark arrives, and the reaction from the Israelites is “such a great shout that the ground shook.” Often when the Bible refers to the ground shaking, it is a natural response to God’s holiness, but in this case it is a reflection of the people’s emotions and excitement.

The Philistines hear the shouts from the Israelite camp and are terrified to learn that the Israelite god is there. They fight with all of the strength they can muster for fear of being conquered by the Hebrews, and they win. 30 000 Israelite soldiers were killed, the ark of God was captured, and the two terrible priests also died.

All in all, God seems so absent from this chapter, especially in contrast to 1 Samuel 3, where God calls Samuel, makes him a prophet, and continues to speak to him and, through him, to all Israel (see 1 Sam 4:1). So what’s the deal?God never promises an easy life for his people, and oftentimes setbacks or disappointments (even crises) test our relationship with him. Can we trust him even if he doesn’t intervene? Or do we threaten and manipulate to try to make him rescue us?

It is curious to me that the elders do not think to consult with Samuel rather than march the ark of the covenant off to war. Maybe he was too young to have their respect or to know about warfare. Maybe they really didn’t want to know the answer to “why did God bring defeat on us?”; they just wanted to win the battle.

It is also curious to me that the elders think bringing the ark of the covenant to battle will have a greater influence on God than the lives of his people – did they think he cared more about this ark than the soldiers who had been killed? Did they think he must not know the losses they had suffered or he would have intervened, that he needed a front row seat?

When the Philistines speak of Israel’s god, they are not afraid of a supreme being, but of a powerful spiritual force that they know based on Israel’s history. They know not of Yahweh, creator of heaven and earth, but the “mighty gods… who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues.” They are in despair to be up against such a power, but they harness their fear and fight with everything they have, and they demolish their opponents.

When religion goes wrong, it can still stir up powerful emotions, but it is disconnected from spiritual power. Often people want to equate the two, to be moved emotionally as confimation that God is there and cares. However, pursuing the thrill of intimacy with God instead of God himself can lead to confusion and destruction on a much larger scale than we ever saw coming. The Philistines did not defeat God, but they routed the Israelites who thought they could harness Yahweh’s power by putting his precious ark at stake.

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Susan 25-06-2011, 12:18

Every time I read this story in Samuel there's an emotional reaction for me. You articulated it well – the religious abuse of the priests, the Israelite army desperate for God to intervene on their behalf, the utter defeat and loss both personally and nationally. And through all this time a young boy is listening to God and God is at work to help his people surrender to him as God Most High, to experience the life and freedom they're looking for.

Thanks for writing about this 🙂

Alyssa 26-06-2011, 19:43

🙂 Thanks for such a nice comment!


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