Why Was the Ark Taken?


Punishment Without Sin?

Shemuel I 4 describes one of the greatest defeats of Israel in their wars against the Philistines.  After an initial loss of 4,000 men, the Israelites decide to take the Ark to battle, hoping that it will ensure their success.  Instead, 30,000 men (including the sons of Eli the high priest) die, the Ark is taken captive, and Shiloh loses its central religious status.

In Tanakh, being vanquished by an enemy is usually correlated with and caused by great sin.1 However, the preceding chapters of Shemuel do not speak of any wrongdoing by the nation, neither in the realm of interpersonal relationships nor in their worship of Hashem. They tell only of the misdeeds of Eli's sons. Why, then, did such a great catastrophe befall the people?  Was the whole nation being collectively punished for the sins of Chofni and Pinechas or was it culpable of a different crime?

Later References to the Destruction of Shiloh

Two other passages in Tanakh refer back to the destruction of Shiloh, and might shed further light on our story:

  • In Yirmeyahu 7 and 26, Yirmeyahu warns the people that Hashem can destroy the Mikdash just as He had previously destroyed Shiloh because of the "wrongdoing of Israel". Here, the prophet implicates the nation as being the cause of the disaster in Shiloh, and, in comparing it to his own time, Yirmeyahu suggests that the sins of the two periods might have been similar. It is not clear, however, which of the many sins mentioned by Yirmeyahu was perpetrated by the nation in the time of Shemuel.
  • Tehillim 78:56-64 similarly blames the destruction of Shiloh on the sins of the people, pointing in particular to their idol worship. Yet, nowhere in the introductory chapters of Sefer Shemuel is idolatry mentioned!

Additional Questions

  • "וַיְהִי דְבַר שְׁמוּאֵל לְכׇל יִשְׂרָאֵל"Chapter 4 opens by stating that the "word of Shemuel went out to all of Israel".  Does this refer back to the prophecy he received in Chapter 3 regarding the sins and impending deaths of Eli's sons, suggesting that the two episodes are connected?  Or, is the phrase connected to what follows, that it was by the word of Shemuel that the people went to battle?  If the latter, the defeat is even more surprising, considering that the nation embarked on war at the prophet's behest!
  • Taking the Ark – Why, in punishing Israel, did Hashem allow the Ark to be seized by the Philistines? Was there not a danger that this could cause a desecration of Hashem's name? What lesson were the people meant to learn from the loss?
  • "אֲרוֹן בְּרִית י"י צְבָאוֹת יֹשֵׁב הַכְּרֻבִים" – The description of the Ark as being the "Ark of Hashem Who sits on the cherubs" is unique, appearing only here and in Shemuel II 6:2.2  Is there any significance to this special title?  Why it specifically in this battle, when the Ark is taken captive, that it is so called?
  • Victory versus defeat – Shemuel I 7 describes yet another battle against the Philistines, once again in Even HaEzer.  This time, however, Israel is victorious.  What caused the change in outcome?  What can the reader learn about the original sin from the contrast between the two stories?