By Dane Neufeld

A Reading from 1 Samuel 4:12-26

12 A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line, and came to Shiloh the same day, with his clothes torn and with earth upon his head. 13 When he arrived, Eli was sitting upon his seat by the road watching, for his heart trembled for the ark of God. When the man came into the city and told the news, all the city cried out. 14 When Eli heard the sound of the outcry, he said, “What is this uproar?” Then the man came quickly and told Eli. 15 Now Eli was ninety-eight years old and his eyes were set, so that he could not see. 16 The man said to Eli, “I have just come from the battle; I fled from the battle today.” He said, “How did it go, my son?” 17 The messenger replied, “Israel has fled before the Philistines, and there has also been a great slaughter among the troops; your two sons also, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured.” 18 When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backwards from his seat by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and heavy. He had judged Israel for forty years.

19 Now his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, was pregnant, about to give birth. 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 labor pains overwhelmed her. 20 As she was about to die, the women attending her said to her, “Do not be afraid, for you have borne a son.” But she did not answer or give heed. 21 She named the child Ichabod, meaning, “The glory has departed from Israel,” because the ark of God had been captured and because of her father-in-law and her husband. 22 She said, “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

Meditation

There are not many easy contemporary parallels for the ark of the covenant and its relationship with the people of Israel. It strikes us as superstitious that they would bring it into battle with them, but the ark really did have power. Only it would seem the people occasionally misjudged its power. The wicked sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, made this mistake, and they perished with the capture of the ark by the Philistines. Eli, somewhat comically, does not seem disturbed by the death of his sons, but at the news of the ark’s capture he reels backward in his chair and dies. The chapter ends with Eli’s daughter-in-law soberly declaring: “The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

We might wonder, what kind of glory is this that can be contained in a box that was roughly four feet long and two feet high and wide? Never mind that it could be captured and hauled off by Israel’s enemies. Clearly the people of Israel thought they could drag it around and use it like a weapon if needed, even if their own lives clearly defied the contents of the ark which anchored its power. Though the ark of the covenant can seem to us like a strange form of ancient magic, its place in Scripture helps to illustrate a fairly straightforward parameter for our relationship to God’s power. This power is not available to us to use as we please, but it is constrained within the form of life that has been given to us, first in the law, and then in its fulfillment, the life of Jesus. The disastrous campaign of Hophni and Phinehas failed not because the ark had lost its power, but because they had long abandoned the source of its power. I would imagine that there are obvious parallels to the contemporary Church here. How might we prayerfully draw our conclusions, and begin to repent?

The Rev. Dane Neufeld currently serves as the incumbent of St. James, Calgary, after serving seven years in Fort McMurray in Northern Alberta.

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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer

Today we pray for:

Christ Church Episcopal, Tulsa, Okla.
The Church of North India (United)