In this chapter, the ark of the LORD is returned to Israel.
The basic premise of this chapter is the Philistines asking their “priests and diviners” what they should do to return the ark to Israel, because everywhere they keep it in their own lands brings nothing but death. The ritual involves bringing a “guilt offering” for the LORD, and sending it back on a new cart with two cows that have never pulled a yoke, and then they should just let it go and see what happens. When they do this, the cows behave exactly as the priests and diviners expected, delivering the ark back to the town of Beth Shemesh. God “strikes down” some people for looking into the ark, but other than that everyone lives happily ever after.
Is it just me, or does this whole story seem a little strange? In particular, how is it possible that the priests and diviners of the Philistines, who worship false gods, would know what things they could do to bring the ark back to Israel? Can anyone guess what a “cow that has calved” would behave if her calf is taken away and penned up? And these are two cows that have never pulled a cart before, so they have no training or experience doing this kind of work. The natural expectation is that the cows would not pull the cart, they would turn around and go in search of their calves. They would not pull in the same direction, and even if they weren’t searching for their calves, they would probably walk to a field somewhere and start eating grass. It simply doesn’t make sense that they would pull the cart to Israel, “keeping on the road and lowing all the way”.
That’s the point, of course. The diviners set this up as a test, because it would take some sort of supernatural intervention for the cows to behave completely contrary to their nature, delivering the ark up to Israel. (With some irony, the cows also delivered themselves up as a burnt offering.) What I find more peculiar about this story is that the diviners knew how to test the LORD’s will in this matter. I’m not sure how exactly to express this. By one interpretation, we could say that it was the wisdom of the diviners that they knew the correct test. By another interpretation, we could say it’s like Gideon’s fleece, that the diviners simply could have done anything and the LORD would have responded to get them to bring back the ark to Israel.
I think there are two things about this that are interesting. The first is to draw a parallel between this story and the story of Balaam. By all regards, Balaam was also a pagan prophet/diviner and not a follower of the LORD. However, the story of Balaam (Num 22-24) also contains references to Balaam speaking to the LORD at some times and having the “spirit of God” come upon him before he prophesied at other times (Num 24:2). I would not otherwise have envisioned such a close interaction between a pagan prophet (who was later killed by Israelites because he helped to lead Israel into sexual immorality) and the LORD. This story isn’t quite the same, but it also contains the notion of the LORD interacting in some ways with idolatrous priests.
The second is to observe how the LORD relates to people outside of the covenant. Almost all of the OT is about how the LORD relates to Israel, or how Israel relates to other nations. In the cases where the LORD does speak to other nations, it is almost always through an Israelite prophet who is himself under the covenant. In this case (and in the case of Balaam), we can read about how the LORD interacts directly with the people from other nations.
To be clear, I think the OT was written by Israelites and for Israelites. In so many ways, it is a story about Israel, and that is what it is meant to be. The text is biased towards Israel for this reason, and generally omits anything that does not relate in some way to Israel, so the rarity of passages that describe the LORD speaking directly to other nations is in large part a result of this bias.
However, every nation has a story; every person has a story. Not every story is told in the OT, but that doesn’t mean those stories don’t exist. And every story, in one way or another, contains the LORD, who is the creator of the universe and everything within it. It should not surprise us, then, to find the LORD interacting with people outside of the covenant. Even more, it is those interactions that bring us into the covenant in the first place. When the LORD first spoke to Abraham in Genesis 12, Abraham was not under the covenant. And when the LORD speaks to every man or woman in our present age, and guides our hearts to him, we are not at that time under the covenant. The covenant itself is an act of God brought to strangers who did not previously know him.
Therefore, I do not find the contents of this chapter surprising, but I do find it unusual, because there are not many passages like this where pagan priests mediate between the LORD and other people. I believe that God has spoken to unbelievers in many times and many ways, but it's not frequently described in the OT due to a sort of selection bias implied by the Israelite authorship of these books.
We also discover from this chapter that rats were part of the plague. This wasn’t mentioned in the previous chapters, but golden rats form part of the guilt offering, so by implication it must have been part of the curse as well.
Lastly, when the ark gets to Israel, verse 19 says that 70 people died “because they had looked into the ark of the LORD”. There are two notes I want to make about this verse. First, the covenant does not explicitly condemn looking into the ark. However, only Levites would be permitted to carry it, and even then I’m not sure if they were permitted to touch it. Opening and looking into it is, in this case, a kind of sacrilege. What’s interesting is that Samuel (who is not a Levite or priest) slept in the room with the ark. I think this shows more than anything else the importance of intent, and not just action. Samuel could touch the ark and live because he did so respectfully; the 70 who died were killed because they looked into the ark out of curiosity and not respect. Or at least, that’s what I would guess. In the end, the people decide that the LORD is too holy to remain in their presence, so they send messengers to Kiriath Jearim to move the ark there.
The second point is about the number 70. Is it 70, or is it 50070? This is a really minor point, but it’s got a surprisingly long story behind it. The reason why this is even an issue is that some manuscripts contain the Hebrew number 70, and some contain the number 50070. The Septuagint also contains the number 50070, and the majority of extant Hebrew manuscripts (a.k.a. the Masoretic Text) contain the number 50070. But God killing exactly 50070 people is both impractical and unrealistic. It’s impractical because most estimates would not even put the entire town’s population at 50000, and it’s unrealistic because it doesn’t make sense why God would kill such a precise number of people.
From what I’ve read, the textual difference in Hebrew between 50070 and 70 is very small, so it could have been a typographical error that happened somewhere early in transmission, and the error was reproduced for generations until it got into the Masoretic Text. Its presence in the Septuagint means that such an error (if that is the source) had to have occurred before the 1st century BCE.
This is the simplest and most likely explanation. However, to many people it raises important issues about the meaning and fidelity of the biblical text. Especially to people who believe in scriptural infallability, it can be hard to accept the idea of an error in transmission.
After all of the time that I have spent studying biblical archaeology and translation methods, I don’t think there is any inconsistency here. This is something I discussed more in my introduction to bible translations at the beginning of this commentary, but to summarize, the world has many thousands of extant bible fragments. Some of these are short, and some of them contain the entire text of the old and new testaments. Some of them are old, and some of them are very new. Even the bibles of our day will at some point become an “extant bible fragment”, just like the Septuagint and Vulgate of earlier periods are the source manuscripts of our day. As one would expect, there are thousands of differences between all of these manuscripts, and nearly all of them are minor (many don’t affect the meaning at all, like if I forgot to put a period or comma somewhere). Scholars produce unified manuscripts by taking all of these fragments and reconciling the differences. It’s a complicated process, but the essence is that they are trying to identify what the original source text would have contained (the original source is called the “autograph”).
So it is meaningless to say that every manuscript that exists is “infallible”. There are too many differences to do that. Some people will say that the original autographs are infallible, but that errors can sometimes emerge in derived copies. That leaves me wondering what it even means to say that the originals are infallible if we no longer have them. Infallibility was not one of the criteria used to select the canonical books of the bible, and even further, different churches have different bibles (the Catholic bible includes a few books that Protestant bibles do not, and Eastern Orthodox bibles have a few extra books on top of that): are all of these infallible? Only some? If so, which ones?
My personal opinion is that these kinds of questions have no satisfying resolution. Further, I do not think these are the right questions to ask. The only way the bible could have ever gotten down to us is if God shaped and controlled its transmission, not just the original authorship. But what does any of this mean to me? I think the right question to ask is, “does God use the bible to teach us about himself, about ourselves, and about how to live in the world?” I don’t find pedantic arguments about the technical definition of “infallible” to be constructive.
I am very pragmatic: if God uses the bible to teach me about life, the universe and everything, then I should read it. To me, that is the true measure of authenticity. If God speaks through some text, then that text becomes the word of God in that moment and in that way. In other moments and other ways, it might not be the word of God, just as much as people use the bible to justify e.g. violence or slavery. I believe the LORD can speak through many things. One day he might speak through the bible, another day he might speak through a dream, another day he might speak through a newspaper article or science fiction or anything else. In a more ephemeral sense, everything can be the word of God to someone and not be the word of God to another. Romans 1:20 says that “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” The way that I would rephrase this is that all of creation exists to testify to the “invisible qualities” of God, and in that sense everything is the word of God.
But to the people who do not understand, it might not be the word of God, insomuch as God does not speak to those people through these things. There is something powerful about the word of God. There have been times where I felt the word of God acting upon my life like an external force; something concrete, real and very, very powerful. These times form the minority of my experience. Most of the time I pass through life hearing very little from God on a day to day basis. But everything that I hear, I value. I believe that this is a good way to live.
From all this, it should be obvious why I am not personally concerned about 70 or 50070 dead Israelites from a bygone era that may or may not be allegorical depending on whom you ask. What I care about is the reality of God’s voice speaking into my life from anything or everything in creation. If the LORD chooses to honor the bible by speaking through it, who am I to gainsay him? But if he speaks through the natural world or anything else, who am I to contradict? The only thing that I know for sure is what Moses said in Deuteronomy 8:3, that “man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” I can’t afford to choose what words I want and what I don’t. I need every word. For several years when I was first learning about Christianity, I had a pervasive fear about “what if I miss a word”. What if God is speaking something to me, but I am not mature or wise enough to discern it, or I’m distracted or anything else happens. I think this is similar to the issue of mistranslation: what if God created some original infallible bible, but it has been corrupted over time (as some people believe) and no longer corresponds with the original message. God might be speaking, some would say, but we are no longer capable of hearing it.
What I eventually realized is that God understands me. He knows what I am capable of hearing and what I’m not. He knows how to speak to me in a way that I understand, and if there’s something he wants me to know, he won’t just throw it out there and leave me to figure it out on my own. If God speaks, he has the power to both bring a message to us and also enable us to understand it. I have never felt that this relieved me from the importance of trying to understand, but it relieved me from the fear of failing. It works the same way with the bible. He isn’t going to just “throw out there” an autographical text sometime between 1100 and 300 BCE and leave it up to the world to ponder over it and mine it for lessons about life. The whole reason why I talked so much about the “word of God” as distinct from the bible is because God is capable of actively empowering the bible to speak messages to us. God speaks the message, but he also gives us the ability to understand it if we are sincere and willing to hear it.
I am still growing in wisdom and discernment, and I hope to continue growing in these for a long time. But I do not depend on my wisdom to perceive the word of God; I depend on the Spirit of God enabling me to understand. As 1 Corinthians 2 beautifully explains it, “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him - but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” God reveals all things by his Spirit, and how much more does he reveal the things of God, those words that he speaks to our hearts to guide us to him.
In summary, I feel like in some ways it is God’s responsibility to speak to me in a way that I can understand, and it is my responsibility what I decide to do with it.