Samuel was now nationally known throughout Israel as the PROPHET, but as yet he could not really be said to be the nation's LEADER because the people did not take counsel with him in face of the crisis caused by Philistine expansionism. It was on their own initiative that they went out to war instead of first repenting, and when they suffered their first serious defeat on the battlefield, they sent to take the Ark from Shilo without consulting either Eli or Samuel. They were still afflicted with the malady of the age of the Judges, doing what was right in their own eyes without seeking counsel from the wise.


The Ark was Israel 's most sacred national treasure, containing the fragments of the Tablets of Stone received by Moses on Sinai, the Second Tablets hewn by Moses, and the authoritative Torah Scroll that Moses had written. Jacob in his dream on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem had seen a SULAM ("ladder", Gematria = 130) connecting heaven and earth. 130 is also the Gematria of SINAI - for the Torah given on Sinai connects heaven and earth when we embrace that Torah and take it into our hearts and our very lives. Jacob dreamed that the Torah - the Ark of the Covenant with its precious contents given at Sinai - would eventually rest on the very spot where he had laid his head, the Foundation Stone around which the Temple Holy of Holies was built to house it. The purpose of the Giving of the Torah on SINAI was that the Torah should be at the very center and foundation of the Temple , from which it should shine to all Israel and to all the world. In the time of Eli, the Sanctuary in Shilo was the precursor of the destined Temple in Jerusalem . But before Samuel could pave the way for the building of this Temple , the Israelites first had to suffer a catastrophe in order to learn the awesome meaning of the Ark and the Covenant to which it bore testimony.

"And the people came to the camp and the elders of Israel said, Why has God smitten us this day before the Philistines.?" (ch 4 v 3). The elders pretended to be righteous, beating their breasts in mock self-recrimination, but they did not truly repent because they did not seek out the true reason for their defeat, which was their acceptance of the corruption of the priesthood and the resulting corruption of the spiritual life of the people, a malady delineated in the previous two chapters. Even though it was the people themselves who had complained about the irregularities practiced by Eli's two sons, Pinchas and Hofni, they did nothing about them, and indeed they suffered from a related malady, because it is clear from the ensuing narrative that they thought that carrying out the EXTERNALS of religion is sufficient without embracing God INTERNALLY with all their heart.

Israel had witnessed the power of the Ark of the Covenant in the time of Moses in the war against the Midianites, and again in the time of Joshua at the splitting of the Jordan and the fall of Jericho . Now in their struggle against the Philistines, they thought that it would be sufficient to take the Ark out to battle and let its "magic" "work" for them automatically without their having to break their own hearts and repent completely. However God was to teach both the Israelites and the Philistines that the Ark is not a magic box-of-tricks that does whatever you want. The Ark is testimony to God's infinite power to make or change the laws of nature at will - according to what HE wants.

When Pinchas and Hofni brought the Ark to the Israelite camp, the people sounded a great TERU'AH ("blasting" ch 4 v 5), but this was not the TERU'AH of repentance. The Philistines were disconcerted by the Israelite trumpeting, sensing that the Israelite God had come into their camp. The Philistines evidently believed in divine power, but erred in thinking that it is wielded by a plurality of forces that can be set against each other and overpowered. The Philistines thought they could beat down God by asserting their macho virility (v 9) - and God, who is very patient with sinners, allowed them to carry on thinking so by granting them victory, since the decree had already been passed against Pinchas and Hofni.

The Prophet in his unflinching reproof teaches us through our text that the responsibility for Israel 's national malady lay with its corrupted leadership, and this is why Pinchas and Hofni were killed in the battle.


The rabbis teach that this man from the tribe of Benjamin was none other than Israel 's future king Saul - who distinguished himself by his heroism this day, despite Israel 's crushing defeat at the hands of the Philistines, by snatching the Tablets of Stone from the hands of the Philistine strong-man, Goliath, who had taken them when they captured the Ark. According to tradition, Saul ran anywhere from 60 to 180 miles on this one day in order to bring the Tablets back to Shilo and to tell Eli the terrible news.

Saul had a particular interest in this struggle against the Philistines as their very power over the Israelites was rooted in Abraham's oath to the Philistine king Avimelech not to betray the latter's descendants to the third generation (Genesis 21:22-31). Abraham's gift of seven lambs to Avimelech led to a decree against seven of Abraham's righteous descendants to fall at the hands of the Philistines. These were Samson, Pinchas and Hofni, and. Saul himself together with his three sons, who were destined to fall on the battlefield at Mt Gilboa.

Saul now sought to break the news of the disaster to Eli as gently as possible, but Eli, although not perfect, was truly a Tzaddik and while he was unmoved by the death of his own sons, which had already been prophesied to him, the news of the capture of the Ark was such a shock that he fell backwards to his death - BACKWARDS to requite his having failed to look FORWARDS to the new generation of priests, his corrupt sons, whom he should have chastised.

The Philistines soon arrived in Shilo, sacking and destroying the Sanctuary, which had stood for 369 years.

Eli's daughter-in-law, Pinchas' widow, found the right term for the disaster in calling her son EE-KAVOD, "the opposite of Glory" (v 21) - since the Glory of Israel had gone into exile with the capture of the Ark of the Covenant.



Eli died of shock at the capture of the Ark because he knew that he and his sons were at fault, having been charged with its safe-keeping. However, at the crossing of the Jordan Israel had already seen that it is not man who carries the Ark but rather the Ark that carries those who carry it.

The Philistines erred in equating the One God of the Ark of the Covenant with one of their own gods. Little is written about the nature of the Philistine god Dagon except that it was represented by the form of a MERMAN, like a human from the torso upwards and like a fish from the torso downwards (DAG in Hebrew = "fish"). In this the Philistine god was apparently similar to various other mythological gods such as the Sumerian-Babylonian "Enki" and the Greek-Roman "Triton". The Philistines may have believed that their god had power over the earth and the sea. Our text suggests that they believed that there were limits to the power of the God of Israel since they evidently thought He had exhausted all His plagues on the Egyptians (ch 4 v 8).

The first time God toppled the statue of Dagon, the Philistines wanted to think it was CHANCE and they put it back in its place (ch 5 v 3). When God broke off Dagon's head and hands and cast them on the threshold, they did not cease to believe in idols but instead superstitiously attributed the "accident" to some power contained in the threshold (v 5). It was then that God showed the Philistines that His plagues were by no means exhausted on the Egyptians, and that He had the power to afflict them in their most private parts of all. Like Pharaoh in the time of Moses (who went down to the river to relieve himself at a time when nobody could see him), the Philistines liked to deny that they had human toilet needs, but now they were forced to confront their human vulnerability in the most painful way possible.

When Avimelech kidnapped Sarah, the Midrash tells that he and all his household were afflicted by having all their bodily cavities of excretion stopped up so that all the waste was held back clogged up inside them. A similar punishment now afflicted all the Philistines in the succession of towns where they tried to keep the kidnapped Ark. They kept moving the Ark from town to town, "testing" God to see if it was really the cause of their troubles.

The first blessing a Jew makes every day is ASHER YATZAR. "Who formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and hollows. It is revealed and known before Your throne of Glory that if one of them is opened [when it should be closed] or one of them is stopped up [when it should be open] it is impossible to survive and stand before You for even one hour."

The T'CHORIM - hemorrhoids or "piles" - with which the Philistines were plagued were so terrible that these virile "men" suddenly found themselves staring death in the face to the point that they wanted to send the Ark straight back to the Israelites. This was in fulfillment of Moses' words: "And it was when the Ark traveled, and Moses said, Arise HASHEM and your enemies will be scattered and those that hate You will flee from before You" (Numbers10:35).



By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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