Read Part 1.
Judges is best read as a chronicle of the fate of the separate tribes within the narrative. There appears to be some overlapping of events within the Book so that a strict 410 year chronology from first to last is doubtful.1 Further, there is the sad report that summarizes the first two stories in the so-called “Bethlehem Trilogy” at the end of the Book,2 that,
In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes. (Judges 17:6)
This report, repeated for emphasis in Judges 21:25, does not come from the close of the era of the Judges, but most likely from the beginning. Kaiser remarks,
The events narrated in these two appendixes to the Book of Judges probably fell early in the period of the judges, since a grandson of Moses, in one case, and a grandson of Aaron, in the other, would need to be contemporaneous with the generation that came after the Conquest.3
After Judges 17 – 21 the third story involving Bethlehem is the Book of Ruth. Ruth 1:1-2 takes place within the era of the Judges, when there was a definite sense of dislocation between one tribe and another. This sense of estrangement almost, is only overcome in the aftermath of calamity, such as the decimation of the tribe of Benjamin4 retold in the last chapter of Judges (Judg. 21:1-5). It is evident that the writer of this little book wants the reader to connect Bethlehem, the place that Elimelech and Naomi originate from (Ruth 1:1-2; 4:11), to the line of David (Ruth 4:17-22); David of course, being from Bethlehem (1 Sam. 16:1-13).
Samuel is the spiritual giant who dominates the narrative at the close of the Judges period. It is difficult to imagine David without the preparatory work which Samuel did in Israel in the previous two generations. Before Saul was anointed its first king Israel,
… had no statehood, no organized government, no administrative machinery and, above all, no king.5
Yahweh was “its sole and sovereign Overlord.”6 Yet in Samuel’s day the ark of the covenant was captured by the Philistines (1 Sam. 4:11). Since it represented the Lord’s side of the Mosaic covenant and it was superstitiously brought into the camp of Israel attended by the two godless sons of Eli, it was not surprising that God allowed it to be captured. But by permitting such a thing God was in effect saying that since the people had defected from Him that He Himself would temporarily let the ark go to another people who at least would not treat the covenant disdainfully.
The Humiliation of Dagon
The story of the ark of the covenant in Philistine territory is instructional in itself. It ended up being placed in the temple of Dagon in Ashdod. Dagon was the fish-headed father of Baal and was the god of grain.7 The statue of Dagon did not fare well towering over the ark. God would not have the symbol of His Presence humbled before an idol. On two consecutive mornings the priests of Dagon came into the temple only to find the image of Dagon “fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the LORD” (1 Sam. 5:3). On the second occasion the possibility of an accident was completely discounted when “the head of Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it” (1 Sam. 5:4).
Subsequently, the widespread suffering of the Philistine cities where the ark was moved persuaded them to give it back to the Israelites (1 Sam. 5:6-6:18). Their experiences with the ark would have taught the Philistines that the covenant of Israel with its God was powerful when they were obedient to Him. Sadly, Israel was in such a sorry state spiritually that they could not handle the ark of the covenant properly for many years (1 Sam. 7:2).
Resettling the Ark of the Covenant
Apart from a passing reference to it in 1 Samuel 14:18 where Saul wants it brought into the camp, only to be distracted by the events set in motion by Jonathan’s heroics (1 Sam. 14:6-15), the ark of God is not mentioned again in the Books of Samuel until 2 Samuel 6. Even when David became king his first attempt to bring the ark to Jerusalem failed because of the inattention of the Levites to the strict instructions for transporting it. God had instructed the Levites to “bear the ark” (Deut. 10:8), not to put it on a new cart the way the Philistines had done (2 Sam. 6:3).8 Again, with the tragic death of Uzzah we are reminded that God means what He says.
Why did David bring the ark up to Jerusalem and place it in a special tabernacle? (2 Sam. 6:17). Some have suggested that this was a political maneuver. Victor Matthews muses “the ark must be controlled and hidden from the eyes of the people so that from now on they will focus only on the person of the king.”9 But this is an instance when an OT scholar becomes a psychologist and forgets what the text is telling him. Although Saul had little time for the ark, David, as a man of God, would have naturally thought about the ark’s unceremonious sojourn at Kirjath Jearim (1 Sam. 7:1-2). This was a covenant culture and David was well aware that he was God’s chosen covenant king (2 Sam. 6:21). He knew that the king was required to have the Book of God before him at all times (Deut. 17:18-20; cf. Psa. 1:1-2). Furthermore, Matthews must ascribe motives to David which the text does not (see 2 Sam. 6:12; 7:1-2). This reminds us to go carefully with scholars who don’t stay with the text.
1 See, e.g, Iain Provan, et al, A Biblical History of Israel, 162-165. I should say that I fully except an early (15th century) date for the Exodus
2 Judges 17 – 21 also include a clear theme of Levite apostasy. Waltke notices that “The refrain “Israel had no king” separates the epilogue into two parts: “The Idolatrous Levite” (17:1 – 18:31) and “The Violent Levite” (19:1 – 21:25).” (Bruce K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology, 613)
3 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., A History of Israel, 199
4 The final story concerning the moral degradation of Benjamin, from whom Saul would arise (1 Sam. 9), may be read as a kind of forewarning of his reign.
5 John Bright, Covenant and Promise, 31. This is not to say that I endorse Bright’s thesis, first presented by Martin Noth, that Israel was a league of loose tribes bound by covenant to one God (although they may have looked that way). These were descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were already in relationship with God via the (Abrahamic) covenant of the Patriarchs. The covenant at Sinai (and the whole of Deuteronomy) did act as the “covenantal word” which was to govern the people, though accompanied by interspersed with visitations from the Angel of Yahweh; some longer (the wilderness wanderings), and some very brief (e.g. Josh 5:13-15; Judg. 2, 6, 13. But see 1 Sam. 3:1)
6 Ibid, 32
7 Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, 206. “Dagon was a grain deity superimposed upon an original god of fish or fishing.”(Ibid.)
8 God would forgive those with whom He was not in covenant for mishandling the ark, but He would not overlook the Levites’ doing the same thing. To carry the ark in any other way than that prescribed by Yahweh was to show contempt for the covenant relationship. This explains the death of Uzzah in 2 Sam. 6:6-7. He was a casualty of priestly indifference
9 Victor H. Matthews, Old Testament Turning Points, 90
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.