A Horse of a Different Color

Supplement – Reader Question Answered

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1 Samuel 6:1-18

Study Tip Summary: The disease brought upon the land of the Philistines after they captured the ark of the LORD has every appearance of being bubonic plague. It is associated with “mice” or “rats” and could be just about any small furry animal. The plague is transmitted by certain fleas on small furry animals, and we see mice or rats in the story of the ark. One of the main symptoms of the plague is infected, enlarged, and painful lymph nodes, which certainly could be described as “tumors.” We learn two valuable lessons from today’s scripture passage. First, don’t handle small, furry, wild animals. Second, treat the God of Israel and the ark of the LORD with respect.

Long Answer. (8/25/2017)

You know how I’m always saying that we need to read in context? It’s my fault that our fellow reader was confused, because I didn’t supply enough context. By way of explanation, I’ll say only that the context is several chapters – even books – long. Apparently yesterday’s excerpt was too short to make sense. It’s an exciting, theologically important story – mice are a very small part of it. MWAHAHahahaha!

The story really starts back in Joshua 1:1-6, where God tells Joshua to lead the Israelites into the land God has given to them: everything between the wilderness on the south, Lebanon on the north, the Euphrates on the east, and the Mediterranean Sea on the west. God says they are to go there, and God will give it to them, with certain conditions. If you read the book of Joshua, it sounds like most of that job got done.

When you read the book of Judges, you find out that the Israelites failed to meet the primary condition of remaining faithful to God, and they failed to meet the secondary condition of not intermarrying with the peoples already in the land. So the job didn’t get done after all, and God periodically allowed the Israelites to be oppressed by one of their near neighbors until they remembered who was really God. The Israelites had no central government, just tribes, so this happened numerous times, with one or a few tribes banding together for a short time under a judge.

The Philistines, whom you’ve probably heard of in school as the Phoenicians, were the most powerful people in the area, but they stuck mostly to the coastal cities and plains. They were wealthy sea-farers, with a big military and lots of iron chariots. In Judges chapters 14 – 16 we read the story of Samson, who was born to deal with the Philistines, but instead wasted his gifts on wine, women, and song.

Now, the Philistines and their iron chariots were not too good in the hill country, and the Israelite foot soldiers weren’t too good against iron chariots, so mostly the two groups engaged in border skirmishes.

By the time of our scripture reading about the mice, the Ark of the Covenant was located at Shiloh, in the custody of a priest named Eli. He was okay, but his sons were bad, and God sent a boy named Samuel to follow Eli (1 Samuel chapters 1 – 3). In Ch. 4, we read that the Philistines and Israel engage in a battle. Israel loses. This is where they make a terrible mistake.

They decide that they lost because God wasn’t there (1 Samuel 4:3-5), apparently going through reasoning something like this: Bad reasoning!!

Anyhow, they go get the ark, and when it arrives, the Israelite soldiers celebrate. The Philistine soldiers, remembering what God did to the Egyptians, are afraid but decide they need to make a good stand anyway (1 Samuel 4:6-9).

The Israelites lose again and many of them are killed. Worst of all, the ark is captured! (1 Samuel 4:11). In Chap. 5, the Philistines triumphantly take the ark home and put it in the temple of their chief god, Dagon, in Ashdod. (By the way, dag means “fish,” and the Philistines were sea-farers, so probably their god was some sort of god of the sea.) Their god topples over a couple of times, and the plague breaks out. The Philistines – who in whole story give God a lot more respect than the Israelites do – decide that the God of Israel is upset, so the ones in Ashdod send the ark on to Gath, where the plague breaks out. Gath sends it on to Ekron, where the people are really alarmed to see it coming. The plague breaks out, justifying their fears. Although the two remaining cities of the Philistines are not named here, we learn later that all five were afflicted with the plague.

So, two books and five chapters later, we finally arrive at the mice in our current reading. The bubonic plague is carried by fleas, especially those found on rodents. The mice, the “tumors,” and the high death rate, taken together, strongly suggests that the disease inflicted upon the Philistines was the bubonic plague. The Philistines hold a meeting among their priests and diviners (1 Samuel 6:2), who propose a test to see if they really are suffering from the hand of God (vss. 1-8) or are just the victims of bad luck (vs. 9). As a guilt offering for taking the ark, the priest and diviners say that they should send five golden mice and five golden tumors back with it.

The test, loading the ark and the guilt offering onto a wagon pulled by cows not trained to the yoke and letting it go wherever it goes, shows that indeed it was God. The Philistines say good riddance, and the Israelites are happy to have it back and sacrifice the cows to God as a burnt offering.

What the story should suggest theologically is much more important: We are God’s servants; he is not ours.

More Animals Named in the Bible
Animals Named in the Bible – Part 1
Animals Named in the Bible – Part 2
Animals Named in the Bible – Part 3
Animals Named in the Bible – Part 4

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