“And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, What shall we do to the ark of the LORD? tell us wherewith we shall send it to his place.” (I Samuel 6:2)
The Philistines had kept the Ark of God for seven months. Every time they moved it into a city there was an epidemic of plague, besides other disasters. While they didn’t really believe in God, the Philistine leaders were convinced there was a connection between the Ark of God and the disasters. They called in the experts of their day in the field of religion and asked what they could do to return the Ark to it’s proper place that would free them of the consequences.
“And they said, If ye send away the ark of the God of Israel, send it not empty; but in any wise return him a trespass offering: then ye shall be healed, and it shall be known to you why his hand is not removed from you.” (I Samuel 6:3)
Their priests and shamans did not believe in God, but they had a respect for religious things. They warned that simply sending the Ark back would not be sufficient if they had offended a god. They would need to send some token of an apology as well. If the problem was some pathogen the Ark harbored, sending it back should solve the problem, but if it was the result of God’s anger, it might not satisfy him. By sending the Ark back with a proper evidence of apology, they would find out whether the problem was in fact their keeping the Ark or not.
“Then said they, What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him?
They answered, Five golden emerods, and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines: for one plague was on you all, and on your lords. Wherefore ye shall make images of your emerods, and images of your mice that mar the land; and ye shall give glory unto the God of Israel: peradventure he will lighten his hand from off you, and from off your gods, and from off your land.
Wherefore then do ye harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? when he had wrought wonderfully among them, did they not let the people go, and they departed?” (I Samuel 6:4-6)
The priests and experts recommended sending five golden copies of the lumps or emerods, and of the mice that infested the land as signifying they apology to God. Since Bubonic plague is usually carried by fleas on rodents and small animals, this instruction would seem to indicate it is probably the disease involved, and that they had at least a rudimentary understanding of how it was spread.
People were dying and it would be pretty stupid to delay in hopes that the problem would go away and they could keep the Ark as a symbol of their domination over Israel. Six hundred years before, Pharaoh had tried the same thing and it hadn’t worked then. It would be foolish to repeat his mistakes. Stubbornness would only result in more deaths. There was no question that the plague was in some way related to the Ark.
“Now therefore make a new cart, and take two milch kine, on which there hath come no yoke, and tie the kine to the cart, and bring their calves home from them: And take the ark of the LORD, and lay it upon the cart; and put the jewels of gold, which ye return him for a trespass offering, in a coffer by the side thereof; and send it away, that it may go.
And see, if it goeth up by the way of his own coast to Bethshemesh, then he hath done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us: it was a chance that happened to us.” (I Samuel 6:7-9)
The priests and shamans then recommended a scientific approach to learning whether it was God or some pathogen the Ark harbored that was causing the plague. Anyone who has worked with cattle knows that unless they have a particular destination in mind, cows amble along wandering from one clump of grass to another. When separated from their calf, they become quite protective and will fight almost anything to get to it.
Cows that had been worked might from habit or experience work together and go to a certain destination in hopes of being released, but cows that had not would never do so. Taking away their calves would further frustrate them. To go against all their natural instincts and follow a road away from their calves without wandering around would clearly indicate that God had to be directing them, and they would know it was
God causing the plague.
“And the men did so; and took two milch kine, and tied them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home: And they laid the ark of the LORD upon the cart, and the coffer with the mice of gold and the images of their emerods.
And the kine took the straight way to the way of Bethshemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left; and the lords of the Philistines went after them unto the border of Bethshemesh.” (I Samuel 6:10-12)
The cows went straight down the road, responding to their calves cries verbally, but not turning back, and not swerving to grab a bite along the way. The Philistine lords were convinced it was God, not just some pathogen that caused the plague after following the ark about ten miles. It was totally abnormal behavior.
“And they of Bethshemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley: and they lifted up their eyes, and saw the ark, and rejoiced to see it.
And the cart came into the field of Joshua, a Bethshemite, and stood there, where there was a great stone: and they clave the wood of the cart, and offered the kine a burnt offering unto the LORD. And the Levites took down the ark of the LORD, and the coffer that was with it, wherein the jewels of gold were, and put them on the great stone: and the men of Bethshemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices the same day unto the LORD.” (I Samuel 6:13-15)
When the men of Bethshemesh saw the Ark, they were thrilled. Some of the Levites among them unloaded the ark and box of gold pieces and placed them on the large rock. They then killed the milk cows as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to God, using the cart for fuel.
“And when the five lords of the Philistines had seen it, they returned to Ekron the same day.
And these are the golden emerods which the Philistines returned for a trespass offering unto the LORD; for Ashdod one, for Gaza one, for Askelon one, for Gath one, for Ekron one; And the golden mice, according to the number of all the cities of the Philistines belonging to the five lords, both of fenced cities, and of country villages, even unto the great stone of Abel, whereon they set down the ark of the LORD: which stone remaineth unto this day in the field of Joshua, the Bethshemite.” (I Samuel 6:16-18)
Each of the five Philistine city-states had contributed an offering, and sent a representative to see what would happen. When they saw the Israelites offering the cows as sacrifices, they reported back to their cities what had happened.
“And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.
And the men of Bethshemesh said, Who is able to stand before this holy LORD God? and to whom shall he go up from us? And they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kirjathjearim, saying, The Philistines have brought again the ark of the LORD; come ye down, and fetch it up to you.” (I Samuel 6:19-21)
Not trusting the Philistines to leave everything in the Ark, or trusting god to prevent their taking something out, the people of Bethshemesh looked inside to see if everything was there. Fifty thousand and seventy men died as a result. Just imagine what the Philistines reaction would have been if they’d still been watching.
The men of Bethshemesh had no doubt as to why the Philistines sent the Ark back. They contacted Kirjathjearim and asked them to come get it.
“And the men of Kirjathjearim came, and fetched up the ark of the LORD, and brought it into the house of Abinadab in the hill, and sanctified Eleazar his son to keep the ark of the LORD.” (I Samuel 7:1)