1 Samuel 4:12-22
12A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with dirt on his head. 13When he arrived, Eli was sitting on his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. And when the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. 14When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man hurried and came and told Eli. 15Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set so that he could not see. 16And the man said to Eli, “I am he who has come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” And he said, “How did it go, my son?” 17He who brought the news answered and said, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great defeat among the people. Your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years. 19Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her. 20And about the time of her death the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or pay attention. 21And she named the child Ichabod, saying, “The glory has departed from Israel!” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22And she said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”
By the end of this reading, we have four dead family members and a newborn whose name means “God’s Glory has departed”. And the Philistines believe they have made the God of Israel a prisoner of war. What a debacle.
The evil Hophni and Phineas have died together on the same day, just as God had promised. Their hubris carried them into war carrying the Ark of Covenant like it was a talisman. While they did not believe in God’s power to save Israel, they did believe they had harnessed His power for their own uses. Eli, who allowed the Ark to be carried away, awaits not news of his sons, but of the fate of the Ark. That it had been captured was his final undoing. The text says he fell backward and died of a broken neck. I wonder if he didn’t die and then fall backward. Regardless, his life is over, and no mention is made of the nation mourning him, even though he sat as judge over Israel for 40 years. Finally we come to the wife of Phineas who is at the end of a pregnancy. Upon hearing the news of the Ark (and maybe of her husband’s death) she goes into a hard labor and dies. Her parting words name the child Ichabod, which is ripe with meaning for the nation.
All of this is incredibly tragic. But the text remains strong in leading us to understand that the treatment of the Lord is by far the greatest problem. Of course God is not held by the Philistines. The Ark may have been in their control; God never was. But we do find that He is in an adversarial relationship with Israel at this point. They have abandoned Him, under the poor leadership of the priesthood, and He has withdrawn from them as a result. The days are dark, as this dying mother points out so poignantly.
What are we to do with such a tragic tale? Who among us hasn’t walked through dark times when it seemed like God had indeed withdrawn from us? When it appears He has been captured by other people or situations that seem more important than we are? But just as the Philistines were under a delusion in believing they had captured the Hebrew God, so too are we confused when it seems God is not with us. We stand on the other side of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our sins are completely forgiven, and God does not withdraw His love or presences from us. When it seems like He has, the more likely scenario is that we have moved away from Him. We may feel like He has treated us poorly and so we walk away or simply turn our back. That is always and forever a bad idea, for then we are separating ourselves from the only One who has the power to save.