The Philistines Return the Ark
The Philistines had captured the ark of the Lord in the battle with the people of Israel. They took the ark and brought it from Ebenezer, where the battle had been fought, up to Ashdod, their own heathen city. There they brought it into the temple of their heathen god, and set the ark by the side of Dagon.
In the morning when the people arose early to go into their temple, they were astonished to see Dagon, their heathen god, fallen down on his face before the ark of the Lord. No one knew how it had happened, and there was much talk among the people. They took Dagon and set him in his place again.
The next morning the people again arose early to go into the temple, and again they saw Dagon fallen down before the ark of the Lord. This time his head and his hands were broken off, and only the body of the heathen god was left.
So greatly were the people and priests frightened at this strange occurrence that none of them would afterwards walk over the place where the idol had fallen, though they set him up again the best they could.
Now the hand of the Lord was heavy upon the people of Ashdod. He smote them with sickness and many of them died, not only in Ashdod, but in the country around. When the people saw the calamity upon them they cried out: "The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us, for His hand is sore upon us and upon Dagon, our god."
They sent to the lords of the Philistines and asked them: "What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?" and they answered: "Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried to Gath. "Gath was one of the cities of the Philistines, and so the ark was carried there and placed in sight of the people.
At Gath the people were no better off than at Ashdod, for the hand of the Lord smote the people of that city with sickness, and there was a great destruction. Therefore, they hastened to move the ark from Gath to another place called Ekron, but when the people of Ekron saw the ark coming they cried aloud: "They have brought the ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay us and our people."
By this time the Philistines were afraid to have the ark in any of their cities, for wherever it went there came sickness and calamity to the people. So they gathered the lords of the Philistines and said to them: "Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go again to its own place, for there is destruction wherever the ark goes among us." And the cry of the cities of the Philistines was heard everywhere, for many people were dead with the sickness, and others were smitten.
The ark was in the country of the Philistines seven months. There was not a city that wanted it to abide among the people, and something had to be done to relieve the people of their suffering. The lords of the Philistines called the priests and the diviners together, saying to them: "What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we shall send it to its own place."
The priests and diviners then told the lords of the Philistines: "If you send away the ark of the Lord, you must not send it away empty, but you must send with it a trespass offering."
"What shall this trespass offering be that we must send with the ark of the Lord?" asked the Philistines of the priests. And the priests told them to make five golden images, to represent the sickness with which the people had been afflicted, and also five golden mice, and to send these as a trespass offering.
The priests also said: "Make a new cart, and take two cows that have never borne a yoke, and tie them to the cart, and keep their calves at home. Then take the ark and put it upon the cart, and put all the golden images in a box by the side of the ark, and then turn the cows loose that they may draw the cart, in whatever way they will, without any one to drive them."
Then the priests told the people: "If the cows leave their calves at their homes, and of their will draw the cart into the land of Israel, then the people will know that it was the hand of the Lord that brought them all their troubles and that he was angry with them for having captured the ark from the Israelites.
"If, however, the cows do not leave their calves and their homes and do not take the ark back into the land of Israel, then the people would know that the Lord was not punishing the Philistines, and that they might keep the ark, for all their trouble had come upon them by chance."
The men did as the priests directed them to do. They made a new cart, and tied two cows to it that had never borne a yoke, and shut up the calves at home. They laid the ark upon the cart, and the box with the golden mice and the golden images representing the sickness. Then they turned the cows loose to go their own way without any guidance or any hand to drive or to lead them.
The cows took the straight way to the land of Israel, and went along the highway, drawing the cart behind them, and lowing as they went. They did not turn to the right hand nor to the left, nor did they seek to find their own homes nor their own calves. The lords of the Philistines went after them until they came to the borders of the land of Israel.
The men of Israel were reaping their wheat in the valley and they raised their eyes and saw the ark of the Lord coming in a new cart drawn by two cows. The men stopped from their labors and gave a great shout of joy. The cart came into the field of a man named Joshua, and stood there, where there was a great stone. The men of Israel broke up the cart and slew the cows and made a burnt offering to the Lord for restoring them the ark that had been in the hands of the Philistines for seven months.
Then the Levites took the ark of the Lord, and the box that held the golden mice and set them upon the great stone. All the men of Israel continued to offer burnt offerings, while the lords of the Philistines returned to their own homes.