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Sermon : Sodom and Gomorrah

The Ark of the Covenant

The faith of the Israelites had become corrupt, and unfocused. Yet, in a series of events the reader of 1 Samuel is shown that, although the Ark of God is no longer among His people, it did not mean that God was no longer with His ark: God had not completely disappeared.50 The experiences recounted of the ark's 'adventures' in Philistine territory only serve to demonstrate that God is confined to neither Israel nor the ark, but instead, the ark is merely the means by which God came to the people.51 The ark was nothing but a symbolization of Yahweh's presence, not a tool to control it, and the key assertion to be noted is that the God of the ark is powerful at all times and in all places - even in a foreign land God was able to affirm His might and authority.52 Here it is taught that God is not to be an objective power that can be manipulated: a lesson learned because of Israel's tarnished faith, believing they could somehow activate Yahweh with this holy chest without in any way revealing a relationship to the covenant bond.53 A proper use of this ark is found in 1 Samuel 6:14-15, where the man named Joshua, in the village of Beth Shemesh, worships God with the gathered people upon the ark's arrival.54

The Hebrew q-d-sh, which means "to set apart," denotes a setting apart of things or persons for use in the service of God.55 These things which are made holy, in this sense, become forbidden from profane use, therefore, quite taboo for others, and other uses.56 When the Philistines place the ark on the cart, the cows and the cart consequently become holy, and are burned by Joshua of Beth Shemesh in his worship of God as a result.57 Sanctified objects become dangerous, for to mistreat them is almost always certain death.58 The ark, being so intimate with its God, had an inherent holiness.59 This holiness was not some impersonally operating power, but was, in fact, God's expression of His "otherness" through the means of the ark.60 The extreme power and holiness of God was displayed in the land of the Philistines, where the people learned to treat the ark with awe and respect as a result.61 In this light, Uzzah's death upon touching the ark is not seen as an explosion of a power-filled object, but his being struck down was that of a personal reaction.62 Numbers 4:5 clearly states that the ark is to be covered during transport, therefore, the ark on a cart is a violation of the transport procedures, displaying a general disregard for the sanctity of the ark.63 But this holiness was not always a bad thing: it also was a source of great blessing. The ark brought a good fortune to Obed Edom and his household during its journey to Jerusalem, as one example of the blessing the holiness could produce if treated with proper respect and consideration.64

In all this, the identity of Yahweh with the ark is seen as clearly intimate, and yet not quite wholly as one unit. The ark was a symbol, and as symbol it participated in that to which it represented, Yahweh.65 Symbols are of value: the ark reminds Israel of the covenant relationship with Yahweh that it possesses, but that symbol loses its value when the relationship fails, and there is no power outside that relationship with God.66 The ark was a focus for the people, a visual witness to the specificity of their God.67 God is present with the object, to whichever territory it may be found - friend or foe. The laws as written covenant to Israel were placed within the chest, for it was made as a container. Still, the presence of Yahweh with the chest led the people to view it as a type of throne, and sometimes a footstool, for their God. The ark was also taken with them onto battlefields, initially at God's command, and later by a corrupted belief of God's permanent presence with it, so that Israel believed they could control the will of God by wielding this object. The ark was more of a pledge of God's presence, bearing witness to His company, than an assertion of His unending dwelling.68 A pledge, because it conveys more than "symbol", and it avoids the association of the thought that "domicile" and "representation" bring.69 It is still an identification with Yahweh, but not a complete identification, for God was not bound to the success or failure of His people, nor was He restrained by hostile gods or men - neither was He confined by chest or tent.70 The ark was many things, but ostensibly mediator and witness were its most important roles, to the people, and for the people, by a transcendent God who chose to use a box to fulfill these purposes.

  1. Hans Wilhelm Hertzberg, 1 & II Samuel, A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), p.52.
  2. Fretheim, Cultic Use, p.247.
  3. Morgenstern, The Ark, p.86-87.
  4. Robinson, Like the Nations, p.30.
  5. Peterson, First & Second Samuel, p.48.
  6. Robinson, Like the Nations, p.39.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.49.
  11. Ibid, p.50.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid, p.52.
  15. Morgenstern, The Ark, p.90.
  16. Fretheim, Cultic Use, p.216.
  17. Robinson, Like the Nations, p.30.
  18. Peterson, First & Second Samuel, p.165.
  19. Woudstra, Conquest to Kingship, p.58.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Jackson, The Ark Narratives, p.326.