In the biblical period of the Judges, when Eli was High Priest and judge, God allowed the Philistines to defeat apostate Israel, even allowing the Philistines to capture the ark of the covenant. But as the Philistines gloated over their “prize” they were stricken with plagues. This continued as the ark was moved from city to city; they were getting severely sick, and some died.
The Philistine leaders then decided to try an experiment to determine whether this was some strange coincidence or if in fact they were objects of the wrath of the God of Israel. They took two cows, each of which had a calf, and harnessed the cows to a new cart. They secured the calves in their stalls. The natural inclination of the cows would be to go to their calves. So the Philistine leaders reasoned in this manner:
Take the ark of the LORD and place it on the cart; and put the articles of gold which you return to Him as a guilt offering in a box by its side. Then send it away that it may go. Watch, if it goes up by the way of its own territory to Beth-shemesh, then He has done us this great evil. But if not, then we will know that it was not His hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance (1 Samuel 6:8-9).
The Philistines placed the ark on the cart along with offerings to the Lord. The text continues, “And the cows took the straight way in the direction of Beth-shemesh; they went along the highway, lowing as they went, and did not turn aside to the right or to the left. And the lords of the Philistines followed them to the border of Beth-shemesh” (v.12).
Can you imagine those cows mooing and crying as they made a bee-line from Philistia to Israelite territory, against their instinct but forced to yield to the hand of a Sovereign God? Our photo above shows the ruins of biblical Beth-shemesh, the site referenced in the text.
From Beth-shemesh the ark was moved to Kiriath Jearim, where it would remain until the reign of David (2 Sam. 7:1).
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