The story of the travels of the ark of the covenant is a great story. It begins with tragedy, the military loss of the Israelites, the death of Eli’s sons (as foretold by God yesterday), Eli himself, and Eli’s daughter-in-law, and the capture of the ark. It is convicting that while the death of Eli’s sons brings grief to the characters later on, it is the capture of the ark that brings the strongest reaction. Would that we felt so strongly about God’s presence among us that losing it would be worse than losing our own children or spouses.
The episode with Dagon, the Philistine god, is also a great story. That God would force the image of Dagon, who is not a god at all, to bow before Him not once but twice is a great lesson for the Philistines and for us. If only our idols were such that we could physically see them bow before God. But alas, our idols, the things we worship more than God Himself are less concrete these days.
The ark is send from town to town and everywhere it goes, it brings death to God’s enemies. Tumors arise on the people near it – modern scholars have wondered about the possibility of the ark being a cancer-causing agent – to such an extent that their guilt offering includes golden models of the tumors themselves. When finally no other town will hold the ark, it is sent back home. Yet even there, death comes to those who desecrate the ark.
It is difficult for us to think in terms of God being limited to a place or object. We believe that through God’s Holy Spirit, He is within us, with us, and everywhere present with or without a symbol like the ark. Yet we still seem to believe that He is more strongly present in some places. People always seem reluctant to swear in church, thought they have no compunction to do so outside it’s walls. And we still hold the front of the church to be more sacred than the rest, telling kids not to run and treating it with a bit more reverence. Maybe we aren’t so far away from our past beliefs that God resides in some places more than others after all.