You know the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for you – you might get it?” Standing at Beth Shamesh, I found myself wondering if that saying had originated there; the sentiment no doubt had.
Let me back up. No biblical artifact has sparked the imagination of modern men like the Ark of the Covenant, thanks in large part to the fictional archeological adventures of Indiana Jones.
In real life, the Ark of the Covenant has been missing for 2,500 years – when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple built by King Solomon.
The Ark is said to have contained the original tablets of the 10 Commandments, a jar of the life-sustaining manna that God provided the Jews during their 40 years wandering the wilderness, and the rod of Aaron. The Ark served as the focal point of Jewish religious practices from shortly after leaving Egyptian captivity, during their 40 years waiting to enter the promised land, and through the reign of King Solomon. The Ark was the throne of God. Where the Ark was, the Jews believed, there was God.
As such, they would march the Ark into battle. On one occasion, it didn’t turn out so well for the Jews… or for the Philistines who took it. The downside for the Jews was clear enough: they felt the sting of losing the Ark more deeply than losing the battle.
For the Philistines, the Ark brought physical misery. Wherever they took it, in the camps and through towns, people fell ill to cancerous tumors and infestations of rodents among other maladies. It got so bad they sent the Ark back.
They strapped the Ark to a cart pulled by cattle through a field at Beth Shamesh, west of Jerusalem. So eager were they to be rid of this object, the Philistines shaped gold in the form of mice and tumors in the hopes of relieving their torment.
The Jews happily received the Ark, but perhaps too happily. 1 Samuel 6 notes that after a bit of revelry surrounding the recovered object, some of their men apparently decided to look inside. They were struck dead as a result.
No doubt they thought of themselves as “liberators” of the Ark, and therefore worthy of a sneak peek. Yet the Ark was returned to them not by their own power, but by God. They were no more entitled to poke around inside it than those who had run off with it in the first place.
What’s the big deal? Some tablets, old food, and a stick? The objects are less important than the point, which is that God established a rule – don’t look inside. They were to have faith that God knew what He was talking about, and to follow His commands. There is less danger from our enemies, the men learned at Beth Shamesh, than in the pride of our own hearts.
A self-governing people must know their limits, be honest about their foibles, and hold each other to high standards.