By Dane Neufeld

A Reading from 1 Samuel 6:1-16

1 The ark of the Lord was in the country of the Philistines seven months. 2 Then the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us what we should send with it to its place.” 3 They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed and will be ransomed; will not his hand then turn from you?” 4 And they said, “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to him?” They answered, “Five gold tumors and five gold mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines; for the same plague was upon all of you and upon your lords. 5 So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel; perhaps he will lighten his hand on you and your gods and your land. 6 Why should you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? After he had made fools of them, did they not let the people go, and they departed? 7 Now then, get ready a new cart and two milk cows that have never borne a yoke, and yoke the cows to the cart, but take their calves home, away from them. 8 Take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart, and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off, and let it go its way. 9 And watch; if it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm; but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance.”

10 The men did so; they took two milk cows and yoked them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home. 11 They put the ark of the Lord on the cart, and the box with the gold mice and the images of their tumors. 12 The cows went straight in the direction of Beth-shemesh along one highway, lowing as they went; they turned neither to the right nor to the left, and the lords of the Philistines went after them as far as the border of Beth-shemesh. 13 Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. When they looked up and saw the ark, they went with rejoicing to meet it. 14 The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh, and stopped there. A large stone was there; so they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box that was beside it, in which were the gold objects, and set them upon the large stone. Then the people of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and presented sacrifices on that day to the Lord. 16 When the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron.


After having been terrorized by the ark of the covenant for seven months, the Philistines decide that this spoil of war is no longer worth it. They are also still unsure if their suffering was an act of Israel’s God or just a random coincidence. So they strap the ark to a cart pulled by a couple of milk cows and make a wager: if the cows go to Beth-shemesh, it was the God of Israel, if not, it was all just a coincidence. Well, not only do the cows go straight to Beth-shemesh, they do so happily, “lowing as they went.”

I am not entirely sure if I would recommend such wagers in general, but in this case it seems to lead to a reasonable resolution. The Philistine lords are satisfied with the outcome and closure, while the Israelites are excited for the ark’s return, which comes to rest by a great stone. The poor cows are caught up in the festivities, having completed their task without complaint. The whole episode seems to have taught both parties to fear and honor the God of Israel.

We all have ways of searching for signs, one way or another. Entrusting a decision to something that seems random and beyond our control appears to open the choice to a spiritual power. But the surest way for the Philistines to have discerned God’s will would have been to obey the law, the one thing they did not want to do. Likewise, for us as Christians, all discernment begins with obedience to Christ and the way of life he has shown us.

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:

The Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast
The Diocese of Christ the King (Anglican Church of Southern Africa)