LECTURE 167: THE HISTORY OF THE USE OF THE ARK (III)

  • Rav Yitzchak Levy

            In the previous shiur, we examined the instances where mention is made of the ark in the book of Yehoshua. In this shiur, we will continue our survey of the history of the ark, focusing on the period of the Shoftim and the book of Shmuel.

 

The location and Role of the Ark in the book of Shoftim

 

            The book of Shoftim makes almost no reference to the Mishkan or the ark found in Shilo.[1] The only time that the ark is mentioned is when it is found in Bet-El during the war between the tribes of Israel and the tribe of Binyamin in the wake of the incident of the concubine in Giv’a:

 

Then all the children of Israel and all the people went up, and came to Bet-El, and wept, and sat there before the Lord, and fasted that day until evening, and offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the Lord. And the children of Israel inquired of the Lord (for the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days, and Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aharon, stood before it in those days), saying, “Shall I yet again go out to battle against the children of Binyamin my brother, or shall I cease?” And the Lord said, “Go up, for tomorrow I will deliver them into your hand.” (Shoftim 20:26-28)

 

            The first question is where the ark was taken to.[2] According to the simple understanding, Bet-El is Luz, in the northern part of the tribal territory of Binyamin. The Radak (ad loc.), however, thinks differently:

 

"And they came to Bet-El [the house of God]" – It seems to me that this refers to Shilo, because the ark was there, and so it was called the house of God, the house of the Lord. This is similar to: "I am now going to the house of the Lord" (Shoftim 19:18). For we do not find that they brought the ark to Bet-El, which is Luz. And for the first inquiry, they also went to Shilo, as it is stated, "And they arose and went up to the house of God, and asked counsel of God" (ibid. 20:18). And after their inquiry, they arose and encamped against the Giv'a to battle. And the reason that it is mentioned a second time that they came to Bet-El is to inform us that the second time they turned to God with all their heart, and fasted, and offered burnt-offerings. And all this took place in Shilo, and the second time He heard their prayers. It is also possible to understand that they brought the ark to Bet-El, as Bet-El is close to Shilo. As it is stated at the end of the story, "In Shilo, which is on the north side of Bet-El" (ibid. 21:19). And they brought it there in order to pray there, and God answered them there, by the merit of Yaakov, whom God had blessed there, with Binyamin being born at that same time. But the plain sense of the verse is not that they brought the ark there, for the verse states, "For the ark of the covenant of God was there in those days," implying that the ark was there permanently, and not that they had brought the ark there, and the ark was in Shilo in those days. And they offered many prayers, and Pinchas who was also there with them also prayed on their behalf, and they were answered this time.

"[And Pinchas…] stood before it in those days” – For he was the High Priest in those days, and through him they inquired of the Urim and Tumim, and on that day he stood before the ark and the Tumim were with him.

 

            The Radak offers two explanations as to why the ark was in "Bet-El." According to the first explanation, the great assembly was at the Mishkan in Shilo, and the term "Bet-El" refers to the house of God that was located in those years in Shilo. The reason that Bet-El is mentioned a second time is that the second time the people turned to God with all their heart, fasted, and brought offerings.

 

            According to the second explanation, the ark was brought to Bet-El because Bet-El is close to Shilo, and God answered Israel's prayers in the merit of Yaakov, whom God had blessed there, but the ark was ordinarily at Shilo during this period.

 

            In my opinion, the reference is to Bet-El, i.e., Luz, in the northern part of the tribal territory of Binyamin. The Radak emphasizes the importance of Shilo as the site of the Mishkan, but in my opinion, Shilo did not play an important role during the period of the Shoftim. From a geographical perspective as well, there is topographical logic to bring the ark specifically to Bet-El, which was closer to Giv'a.

 

            The uniqueness of Bet-El stems from the fact that it has independent sanctity already from the time of the Patriarchs. Bringing the ark to Bet-El reflects a desire to renew the sanctity of the place from the time of the Patriarchs.

 

The location and Role of the Ark IN the book of Shmuel

 

            Shmuel I reports that Chofni and Pinchas, the sons of Eli, took the ark out to the battle fought at Even-ha-Ezer, after Israel's first rout at the hands of the Pelishtim. In this framework, we read about how the ark was taken captive by the Pelishtim, and how it passed through several stations until it was returned to Bet-Shemesh. We are also told about how many of the people of Bet-Shemesh were smitten because they had looked into the ark of God. In the wake of this slaughter, the people of Bet-Shemesh transfer the ark to Kiryat-Ye'arim, where it remains for twenty years.

 

            After David is crowned king of all Israel in Hebron, he conquers Jerusalem, and the first thing he does after establishing his rule in that city is transfer the ark from Kiryat-Ye'arim to the city of David (by way of the house of Oved Edom the Gittite, following the fall of the ark and the death of Uzza). The ark remains in the city of David (according to the author of Seder Olam Rabba, for 37 years) until the completion of the building of the Mikdash by Shlomo.

 

            In the continuation, Yoav takes the ark out to war to Rabbat Bnei Amon; David decides to leave the ark in the city of David during Avshalom's uprising, despite the fact that he himself flees the city; and in the end, Shlomo brings the ark up to Mount Moriya.

 

Eli and his sons' understanding of the Ark[3]

 

            Scripture describes how the ark was brought out to the second battle waged at Even-ha-Ezer and how it fell captive to the Pelishtim:

 

And when the people had come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord smitten us today before the Pelishtim? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the Lord out of Shilo to us, so that, when it comes among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies.” So the people sent to Shilo, that they might bring from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who sits upon the keruvim; and the two sons of Eli, Chofni and Pinchas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 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 trembled. And when the Pelishtim heard the noise of the shout, they said, “What is 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 Pelishtim were afraid, for they said, “God is come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us, for there was not such a thing before now. Woe to us! Who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods that smote Egypt with all the plagues in the wilderness. Strengthen yourselves and act like men, O Pelishtim, lest you fall slaves to the Hebrews, as they have been slaves to you; quit yourselves like men, and fight.” And the Pelishtim fought, and Israel was beaten, and they fled every man to his tent; and there was a very great slaughter; for there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers.  And the ark of God was taken; and the two sons of Eli, Chofni and Pinchas, were slain. And there ran a man of Binyamin out of the army, and came to Shilo the same day with his clothes rent, and with earth upon his head. And when he came, Eli sat upon a seat by the wayside watching; for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city, and told it, all the city cried out. And when Eli heard the noise of the crying, he said, “What is the noise of this multitude?” And the man came in hastily and told Eli. Now Eli was ninety eight years old; and his eyes were dim, and he could not see. And the man said unto Eli, “I am he that came out of the battle line; indeed, I fled today out of the battle line.” And he said, “What has happened, my son?” And the messenger answered and said, “Israel is fled before the Pelishtim, and there has been also a great slaughter among the people, and your two sons also, Chofni and Pinchas, are dead, and the ark of God is taken.And it came to pass, when he made mention of the ark of God, that he fell from off the seat backward by the side of the gate, and his neck broke, and he died; for he was an old man, and heavy. And he had judged Israel forty years. And his daughter-in-law, the wife of Pinchas, was with child, near to be delivered; and when she heard the tidings that the ark of God was taken, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed herself and gave birth; for her pains came upon her. And about the time of her death, the women that stood by her said to her, “Fear not; for you have born a son.” But she answered not, neither did she regard it. And she named the child Ichavod, saying, “Honor is departed from Israel,” because the ark of God was taken, and because of her father-in-law and her husband. And she said, “Honor is departed from Israel, for the ark of God is taken.” (I Shmuel 4:3-22)

 

            Following Israel's first defeat at the hands of the Pelishtim at Even-ha-Ezer, it might have been expected that the people would engage in a process of soul-searching. The rout in itself could have been understood as a sign that God wanted them to change in some way. At this stage, however, there is no turning to a prophet, no inquiry is made through the Urim and Tumim, and no assembly of all of Israel is convened to examine their actions and repent. The solution suggested by the elders is to take the ark out to battle. This is a wholly superficial solution. It does not obligate the people in any way, and it is relatively easy.

 

            The suggested solution reflects the idea that the ark has some inherent power and that bringing it to the battlefield will decide the war in Israel's favor. It is as if the ark has magical power and there is no connection between the ark and Israel's behavior and conduct. It becomes evident (based on Shmuel I 7:3-4) that the people of Israel bring the ark out to a camp which is full of idolatry, and therefore Shmuel orders them as follows:

 

Put away the foreign gods and the Ashtarot from among you, and direct your hearts to the Lord and serve Him only; and He will deliver you out of the hand of the Pelishtim. Then the children of Israel put away the Be'alim and the Ashtarot, and served the Lord only.

 

            In other words, the people of Israel bring the ark into their camp that is full of idolatry in the belief that it is some kind of unconventional weapon that will decide the battle. Indeed, both the people of Israel and the Pelishtim relate to the ark with great seriousness. At first, the Pelishtim seem to identify the ark with God, and attribute to it the victory over Egypt.

 

            The result is that the people of Israel do not wage war properly, as they rely on the great power of the ark, and for the very same reason, the Pelishtim fight even more strongly, killing thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel. In Shilo, Eli waits, his heart trembling for the ark of God, and when the messenger reports to Eli, he describes the events as he understands them from the relatively light to the relatively severe. The fact that Eli falls off his seat in the wake of the news regarding the ark reinforces our understanding that from his perspective, the capture of the ark is more serious than anything else that has happened, worse than the rout, worse than the great slaughter, and worse than the deaths of his sons, Chofni and Pinchas.

 

            When Pinchas' wife gives birth, she calls her child Ikhavod, saying, “Honor is departed from Israel; because the ark of God was taken.” From here we see that for her as well, the most tragic aspect of the story is the capture of the ark of God, and she names her child in commemoration of that event.

 

            When we read these chapters, a question arises. How is it possible that, on the one hand, Scripture describes the disgraceful behavior occurring in the Mishkan (as is depicted in Shmuel I 2) – how the sons of Eli would seize the sacrificial meat before the fats were burned, with Scripture referring to their conduct as "a very great sin" – while on the other hand, there is such an intensification of the power of the ark, which expresses the presence and appearance of God, and the ark is taken out to war based on the belief and feeling that it will deliver Israel from their enemies?

 

            In a certain sense, there is a common denominator to these two phenomena. The sons of Eli seize control over the Mishkan and turn it into a type of estate where they determine the rules regarding the ritual and service. To a certain degree, the service is meant to serve them, and the same is true of the Mishkan and its vessels. When the ark is turned into a vessel with unique strengths and powers, it becomes a vessel that serves them, but it is detached from them in the sense that it does not obligate them to mend their ways and live a moral life towards God and towards man.

 

            The belief in the special power of the ark brings the people of Israel to relate to the ark as a means that can help them reach their goals. At the first battle, they did not take the ark, and afterwards, no collective or individual reckoning was made in the wake of the rout. Their method of dealing with their defeat was to take the ark out to battle. They do not turn to a prophet or make inquiry through the Urim and Tumim. No honest attempt is made to fix the problems that caused the rout or to ask what to do or how taking the ark out will lead them to victory by way of its inherent power regardless of their actions. We have here a sanctification of the framework, both in Chofni and Pinchas' violent conduct in the Mishkan and in their taking the ark out to war. They distort both the purpose of the Mishkan and the purpose of the ark. They have this idea that it is possible, as it were, to attain Divine revelation without any personal obligation, by maintaining only the superficial framework. They trust that this superficial framework will guarantee God's presence, actions, and involvement, without any obligation whatsoever on their part, their actions proving the extent to which they lack any obligation.

 

            It is not by chance that at the end of the First Temple period, in the days of King Yehoyakim, the prophet Yirmiyahu describes a similar reality and admonishes the people as follows:

 

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. Trust not in lying words, saying, “The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, are these.” For if you thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if you thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor; if you oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt; then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, forever and ever. Behold, you trust in lying words that cannot profit. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery, and swear falsely, and burn incense to the Ba'al, and walk after other gods whom you know not; and come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, “We are delivered,” that you may do all these abominations? Is this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, says the Lord. But go now to My place which was in Shilo, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of My people Israel.  And now, because you have done all these deeds, says the Lord, and though I spoke to you, from morning till night, but you did not listen; and I called you, but you did not answer; therefore will I do to this house, which is called by My name, and in which you trust, and to the place which I gave to you and to your fathers, as I have done to Shilo. And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brethren, the whole seed of Ephraim. (Yirmiyahu 7:3-15)

 

            There is great danger in exaggerated trust in a framework that will protect the people, as it were, without any obligation on their part. There can be a total detachment from the behavior of the people – shedding of innocent blood, mistreatment of widows and orphans, robbery, murder, adultery, idolatry, false oaths, burning incense before the Ba'al – and at the same time coming to the Templeto offer sacrifices. In this way, the people turn the Temple into a den of robbers, because they relate only to its superficial framework. The Temple becomes a type of insurance policy, which by its very existence enables their actions.

 

            This is very similar to what we saw with the sons of Eli in the Mishkan in Shilo. It is not by chance that the prophet Yirmiyahu turns our attention to the days of the Mishkan in Shilo. This is not only to tell us that the end of the Temple will be like the end of the Mishkan in Shilo, but rather to point to the similarity in the circumstances that caused the destruction of Shilo which repeat themselves at the end of the First Temple period. As in Shilo, here too, the existence of the Temple has no inner meaning; it obligates nothing. The sanctity of the ark and of the Mishkan can turn into an empty shell, and this portends their destruction, as there is no substance to the people's beliefs and conduct.

 

The Ark by the Pelishtim

 

            Following Israel's defeat and the slaughter at Even-ha-Ezer, the ark is taken captive by the Pelishtim and it remains in their hands for seven months (Shmuel I 5-6).

 

The parallel to the plagues in Egypt

 

            When the ark of God appears in the camp of Israel, we read:

 

And the Pelishtim were afraid, for they said, “God is come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us, for there was not such a thing before now. Woe to us! Who shall deliver us out of the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods that smote Egypt with all the plagues in the wilderness.”

 

            After the ark is captured by the Pelishtim, it indeed smites them and their gods. They bring the ark to Beit Dagon in Ashdod, where Dagon falls to the ground before the ark of God. At the same time, the ark smites the Pelishtim themselves with swellings, first in Ashdod, and after the ark is moved to Gat, the people of Gat are smitten as well.

 

            The Pelishtim then consult with their priests and magicians, who advise them to return the ark to Israel:

 

“Why harden your hearts, as Egypt and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After all the inflictions He wrought among them, did they not let the people go, and they departed?” (Shmuel I 6:6)

 

            This situation, in which the ark smites the Pelishtim and their god, is similar to what took place with the plagues in Egypt. As the Torah states: "And I will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast: and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments" (Shemot 12:12).

 

            There is an interesting parallel between the plagues that struck the Egyptians and the plagues that struck Israel and the Pelishtim because of the ark. It would seem that the plagues come to prepare them all to recognize God's kingdom. In Egypt, the plagues are directed at the Egyptians, and they come to prepare Israel in anticipation of the parting of the sea, God's kingship, and then the giving of the Torah. Here, the capture of the ark and its wanderings come to prepare Israel for full repentance and for the revolution that Shmuel brings about in chapter 7, which includes total destruction of idolatry, assumption of responsibility, and prayer and fasting before going out to war.

 

            Why do the people of Israel not try to retrieve the ark and get it back from the Pelishtim? The Midrash notes this question:

 

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: Were a chicken belonging to one of them lost, would he not search for it in several alleyways until he finds it? And My ark is in the field of the Pelishtim and you are not concerned about it? So too, His right hand and His holy arm have gained him the victory. (Midrash Shmuel 14)

 

            The Midrash is critical of the fact that the people of Israel do not concern themselves with the fate of the ark or try to get it back all seven months that it is found in the hands of the Pelishtim. According to the Midrash, the efforts they would have made for recovering a missing chicken would have been greater than the efforts they made for getting back the ark. Why didn't the people of Israel try to get the ark back?

 

One possibility is a direct continuation of Israel's attitude toward the ark when they brought it out to battle. As we have shown, Israel's attitude toward the ark was superficial, both in times of deliverance and when the ark was found in the hands of the Pelishtim.

 

A second possibility is that they feared the ark. The people of Israel learned that the ark not only protects them, but it also kills them and causes great damage to the Pelishtim, both in the swellings and in the damage to Beit Dagon. In light of this, they are afraid of the ark and therefore do not show interest in it.

 

A third possibility is that their indifference stemmed from an attempt to live their lives even without an ark.

 

The transfer of the ark to Kiryat-Ye'arim

 

            Following the smiting of the people of Beit-Shemesh, we read:

 

And the men of Beit-Shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? And to whom shall it go up from us?” And they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiryat-Ye'arim, saying, “The Pelishtim have brought back the ark of the Lord; come down and fetch it up to you.” And the men of Kiryat-Ye'arim came and fetched up the ark of the Lord, and brought it into the house of Avinadav in the hill, and sanctified Eliezer his son to keep the ark of the Lord. (Shmuel I 6:20-7:1)

 

            It is possible that when the people of Beit-Shemesh saw that the ark kills, they did not want the ark to be in their midst, and they therefore transfer it to Kiryat-Ye'arim. In other words, what moved them to action was the continued smiting of the people around the ark, and their solution was to transfer the ark to Kiryat-Ye'arim, a city in Benyamin, and to appoint a person to watch over the ark and sanctify it.

 

(Translated by David Strauss)

 



[1] We expanded on this issue in the shiurim dealing with the Mishkan in Shilo.

[2] It should be noted that Scripture does not explain why the ark was removed from the Mishkan. Was this meant to symbolize that God was with them, or was the ark taken out as it was taken out for any war, or was this connected to Pinchas's inquiring of the Urim and Tumim relatively close to the expected site of battle?

[3] In this framework, we will not discuss the Mishkan as a whole in the period of Eli and his sons.