Read 1 Samuel 6:13-21
It is now harvest time, so the end of May begins in June in the town of Beth-Shemesh. God is so detailed. The name Beth-Shemesh means “House of the Sun” or “The City of the Sun”, which seems fitting for a temporary home for the ark. Beth-Shemesh is also a Priestly/Levitical city. It is no coincidence the two cows stopped in the city that belonged to the priests. The priests were the ones responsible for taking care of the ark of God.
God led these two cows to Beth-Shemesh to the city his priests occupied and the city whose name represents the sun, a sign of God returning His glory. The entire population would have been out in the fields during the harvest season giving them full access to witness this wonderful event. Imagine, after the devastation of losing both a battle and the ark, lifting your eyes to see, off in the distance, the ark of God coming toward you.
The sounds of rejoicing began rising like a wave as person after person realized the ark of God has returned. Having the Ark return wasn’t the only glorious part of this story. Up until now, the ark was in safekeeping deep inside the holy of holies of the tabernacle. The ark was not seen by anyone other than the high priest. The high priest, Eli, was the only man pure enough to have the authority to enter the presence of the Lord and look inside the ark of the covenant. These people had only heard about the splendor and magnificence of this symbol. Until now they only had the option of imagining what it looked like.
The ark of God represented to them the divine presence of the Lord and it is restored to them once again. Here’s the thing, the Lord wants to be in the presence of His people, His children. I wondered why the Israelites didn’t crave the Lord enough to seek him out. Yet, in this passage, we see that the Lord loves His people enough to return to them anyway. The people did nothing to restore the presence of God, they didn’t pay a ransom, they didn’t go to war, they didn’t even look for Him. This story tells us way more about God’s love and devotion to us than it does about our devotion to Him.
The citizens of Bethshemesh immediately went to work. The Levites lifted the Ark of God and placed it on a large rock where the cows finished their journey. They dismantled the cart, using the wood to make a fire. In the meantime, the two cows were being prepped for sacrifice. Their purpose was for each to be burnt and sin offerings to the Lord. The Lord always provides his tithes and offerings, it’s up to us to recognize and utilize them appropriately.
The Hebrew word for burnt offering means to “ascend” or literally “go up in smoke.” The smoke from the sacrifice ascended to God, “a soothing aroma to the Lord”. This was done as an acknowledgment of sin, for the atonement of known sins, and a way of requesting a renewed relationship with God.
A sin-offering is different, it means “fault” offering. A sin-offering was made for sins committed in ignorance, or unintentional sin. It covers the times when you engage in something that later you realize was a sin. We don’t know what we don’t know, but once we do learn we need to make amends, this sacrifice covers those times, the times when we have sinned and didn’t know better.
The offerings were for the Philistines, to cover their sins, their transgressions to the Lord. Vs. 16 tells us the Philistine Lords, waited and watched until the sacrifices were given. They left after the offerings were made, they felt satisfied that they had done their part, repaired their transgressions then headed back home.
While the fire is made and sacrifices are offered the Levites place the ark and the chest on the large rock where it temporarily was housed. As the day of celebration continued something unfathomable happened. Vs. 19 the Levites allowed their curiosity to get the best of them. They did something that not even the Philistines were guilty of. They opened the ark of God and looked into it. The ark had been sealed up since it was in the wilderness with Moses. Those sacred stones secured inside had not been out of their home since they were written on by the very hand of God.
The Levites now had an opportunity unlike any they’ve ever had and were unlikely to have again. The ark of God is now exposed, sitting out in the open, with no barrier between them they do the one thing none of them had the authority to do, they opened the Ark of God. Just because the ark was exposed did not give them the right to look inside. They were curious, they desired to know what was inside, they wanted to know the secret things, the things God locked away. Adam and Eve were guilty of a similar desire, they ate the forbidden fruit because they desired to know secret things. The Bethshemites looked inside because they desired to know the secret things of God but there was one huge problem with that, they were not holy. They were not clean, pure, or without sin. They were standing before the ark as unholy men and the Lord struck them and 1170 men died instantly.
Digging deeper into the words in their original Hebrew we learn that just looking at the ark was not a sin but rather they looked at it with lust or malicious pleasure or a foolish staring, all of which goes against the holiness of the ark of God and according to Numbers 4:20 was punishable by death.
The severe judgment of so many men caused the people to be alarmed, they started asking the question, “Who can stand before Jehovah, this holy God?” They concluded the death was because of their unholiness and not any particular crime done by those specific individuals. They realize they are all unholy, that no one was any better than those struck down. They had the biggest realization of their lives, that sinners could not approach the holy God.
The Bethshemites also began to ponder the question of where can we send the ark? Where can it go from here? They weren’t necessarily trying to move the ark, they were wanting to move the presence of the Lord. They are a lot like the Philistines in that they wanted the presents the ark brought but they did not want the presence of the Lord. They too wanted to avoid any further judgment against them and their desire to continue to live in sin.
Their plan was now to move the ark to the next city, a more permanent location. They immediately sent messengers to Kirjath-jearim to let them know the ark of God was returned and they need to come immediately to collect it and take it back to their town.