The Lucky Talisman
1 Samuel 4:1-11
1And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” 10So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. 11And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
Idolatry comes in weird forms. The unraveling of Eli and his sons as priests and the actions of the Nation of Israel while under duress bring out a prime example of this phenomenon. As the story of Eli proceeds, we find the nation of Israel under attack from the Philistines. For the purposes of this study, it would serve us well to know more about the Philistines, as they are the most prominent enemy of Israel for hundreds of years.
By Cush - Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14613766
The Philistines were a pagan people who arrived on the coast of what we now call Palestine roughly around 1,200bc and were known as a seafaring people, possibly originating from Crete, although that is not certain. They were a strong and warrior-type people, worshiping Dagon. Apparently, they arrived on the coast of Palestine after having been driven from Egypt by the Pharaoh. The most famous Philistine from the Bible was Goliath, whose story we will examine later.
At this point in Israel’s history, they are inhabiting the land given them by God after their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. They have conquered the land by conquering the Canaanites with God’s help, as told to us in the book of Joshua and Judges. The Nation of Israel has occupied The Promised Land for 400 years by the time we reach the story of Samuel and Eli. Now, the Philistines gather for war against Israel, and God’s people have fallen into a place of idolatry themselves. The leadership from spiritual leaders like Eli has been weak and thus apostasy reigns. God is not pleased with the defection of His people, and allows Philistia to defeat Israel, killing 4,000 of their number in the battle. In the face of this defeat, Israel decides that they need the Ark of the Covenant” to lead them into battle. The implication here is clear; the leaders of Israel are looking to the Ark for salvation. They are looking for a talisman. They weren’t seeking help from God because they didn’t know Him. Had Eli and his sons been faithfully doing their job as priests of the Most High God, they would have offered wise council instead of going along with this foolish idea.
The text emphasizes that when the ark was retrieved from Shiloh, Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas were with it. They must have accompanied the ark as it was transported into the camp and then into the battle because they were killed on the battlefield when the ark was captured. These two unfaithful priests were complicit in the idolatrous use of the ark, demonstrating their lack of faith in Yahweh. The presence of these priests and the ark gave the Israelite army a false confidence, as evidenced by their loud shout when the ark entered the camp. The battle is related in summary fashion (4:10–11). Israel lost thirty thousand infantry, the ark, and two priests. The lack of detail as to how the battle was won once again minimizes any Philistine accomplishment in order to lead the reader to conclude that God himself controlled the outcome of the battle.
Steinmann, A. E. (2016). 1 Samuel. (p. 126-127). Saint Louis, MO: CPH.
God has used the Philistines to deal out the blow of judgment upon His people. It’s time to turn away from idolatry and turn back to God. Using His Ark as a talisman is a gross from of idolatry. No attention is paid to God at all. All of their emphasis was on what they could do if they carried that ark into battle. This wasn’t about the greatness of God and His power to save. But God will not be mocked or manipulated.
I’m fairly certain that if we spend some time meditating upon our own lives and how we treat God, we might find some similar situations. It is far easier to stroke our lucky icons rather than spend time asking God what He wants and allowing Him to shape our will to match His own. What is truly remarkable is that Jesus died for the sin of idolatry and yet we return to it all the time.