Friday, May 11

Ezekiel 32: This chapter contains Ezekiel’s final two oracles against Egypt:

The first of these (though given later than the one that follows it), is dated on March 3, 585 (verse 1). Although it was delivered during the winter that followed the downfall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, no reference is made to that event. Some of the imagery of this oracle recalls the plagues with which the Lord had long before struck the land of Egypt: the floods of blood and the great darkness (the first and ninth plagues). The great sin of Egypt declared in this oracle was pride.

The second (and earlier) of these two oracles was delivered on April 27, 586, prior to Jerusalem’s downfall. In his massive and detailed description of the nether world, Ezekiel sounds a theme from classical literature; the attentive reader can hardly fail to notice the similarities that this oracle has to the nether world descriptions in the Odyssey and the Aeneid.

Ezekiel’s description is similarly preoccupied with the thought of warfare and conquest. As Homer and Virgil portrayed the netherworld in the context of the fall of Troy, Ezekiel portrays it in the context of the fall of Jerusalem. Thus, it is in the netherworld, the realm of death, that the prophet finishes his oracles against those nations that rose up in rebellion against God’s authority over history. This second part of the Book of Ezekiel comes to an end.

First Samuel 1: It would be a comfort to think that all those who go up to the house of the Lord are led there by the Holy Spirit. It would also be an illusion. Even if experience did not testify that people sometimes attend worship with the most deplorable attitudes and for the worst possible reasons, Holy Scripture itself would caution us to realism on the point.

An early example is Peninnah, Elkanah’s “other wife,” who used the annual pilgrimage to Shiloh as an opportunity to render life miserable for barren Hannah. This latter she provoked severely, says the Sacred Text, “to make her miserable.” The provocation was not unintentional, we are assured, nor did it happen only once: “So it was, year by year, when she went up to the house of the Lord, that she provoked her; therefore she wept and did not eat” (1 Samuel 1:6-7). It is easy to picture Peninnah looking forward to that annual pilgrimage with the family; it was perhaps her favorite time of the year, providing her the forum for feeling superior and spreading discouragement.

Now, as it happened, the God who brings good out of evil caused everything to work out well for Hannah, and the story soon turns into an account of grace and divine visitation. Still, there was a serious pastoral problem at Shiloh, and I suspect more than one worshipper at the time wished the priest Eli, pointing to Peninnah, would suggest to Elkanah, “When your family comes next year, brother, why not leave Miss Picklepuss at home?” Perhaps his failure to do so should be counted among Eli’s pastoral shortcomings.

Saturday, May 12

Ezekiel 33: This chapter has four parts: In the first (verses 1-9) the prophet is portrayed as a watchman keeping vigil over a city, responsible for warning the citizens of any impending peril. It is not the concern of the watchman whether or not the citizens pay him any heed; his responsibility is simply to sound the warning. The remaining responsibility belongs to the citizens themselves. The dominant images in this part are the sword and the trumpet.

This theme of warning is what joins the first part to the second (verses 10-20). In biblical prophecy there is often an implied hypothesis: “Such-and-such will happen, unless . . .” Many prophetic predictions contain, by implication, a conditional clause: “If . . . then . . .”

In this second part of the chapter Ezekiel repeats much of the message that we saw in Chapter 18 — namely, it is not what a man was that is important, but what he becomes. Consequently, neither former good nor former evil will be credited to a man who has changed his ways.

The third part of this chapter (verses 21-22) takes up the narrative of Ezekiel’s life, broken off after Chapter 24 by the insertion of the oracles against the nations (Chapters 25-32). We recall that Ezekiel’s wife had died, leaving him struck dumb with grief. At that time the Lord foretold to him that he would recover his speech when a messenger arrived to tell of Jerusalem’s downfall (24:25-27).

This third part of Chapter 33 now tells of the arrival of that messenger on January 8, 585, narrating Jerusalem’s fall the previous summer. The walls of Jerusalem had been breached in July (cf. Jeremiah 39:2; 52:6f), and a month later the temple had been deliberately destroyed (2 Kings 25:8f; Jeremiah 52:12). When this news reaches him, Ezekiel’s tongue is loosened, and he is once again ready to be God’s spokesman.

Therewith follows the fourth part of this chapter (verses 23-33), which blames the desolation of the Holy Land on the sins of its inhabitants. Ezekiel’s fellow hostages in Babylon love to hear him for his eloquence, and they come often to listen to him. But it will do them no good, for they refuse to repent. Too late will they learn what they missed.

First Samuel 2:1-21: It is worth observing that Hannah’s prayer serves a significant purpose in the literary structure of that book. Bearing in mind that the Books of Samuel were originally a single book, not two, we readily discern that both the opening and closing scenes of that book have to do with worship.

Thus, chapter 1 of First Samuel describes the regular pilgrimages that Elkanah’s family made to the ancient shrine at Shiloh, while the last chapter of Second Samuel finishes with David’s purchase of the site of the future temple at Jerusalem. At the beginning of the book, the Ark of the Covenant is in Shiloh, but the Ark has been moved to the new site as the book ends. Sacrifices are offered in each place, whether by the priest Eli or by David.

In both places, likewise, there is a description of prayer. First Samuel starts with two prayers of Hannah, and Second Samuel closes with two prayers of David (24:10, 25).

Moreover, these prayers themselves are similar. Hannah’s petition, inspired by her great distress, takes the form of a vow; if the Lord should give her a son, she promises, she will dedicate him to the Lord. And at the end of the book, David’s prayer, made in response to the plague that afflicts the people through his own sin, takes the form of resolve to dedicate a new temple to the Lord. David’s resolve, implicit in 2 Samuel 24, is elaborated in 1 Chronicles 21 and Psalm 131(132). Thus, the Book of Samuel begins and ends with similar prayers, in the context of sacrifice.

Sunday, May 13

Ezekiel 34: Ezekiel knows that the recent disaster at Jerusalem and its dire consequences, such as the scattering of God’s people, were in large measure the fault of those appointed to care for them: the royal house and the government, the priesthood, the teachers. All of these were Israel’s shepherds, commissioned by God to tend, govern, and feed the sheep. Not only did they fail to do so, but also they used their relationship to God’s people in order to serve themselves.

Thus, unfed and without guidance, the flock had “been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” God Himself, however, will come to shepherd them, and He will do so through His Anointed One—the new David—who will inherit the promises made to his ancient forebear (2 Samuel 7; Psalm 89 [88]). This imagery and its promise will in due course be taken up by that new David who, in John 10, describes Himself as the Good Shepherd.

Ezekiel then (verses 17-22) criticizes some of the sheep themselves, who have exploited and ill-treated one another. God will judge them, not by classes, but as individuals (“sheep by sheep”) responsible for their decisions and their behavior.

The final section of this chapter (verses 25-30) describes the coming care of the Good Shepherd in terms reminiscent of paradise.

First Samuel 2:22-36: The offenses of Hophni and Phineas were not common moral failings, such as drunkenness; they were directly related, rather, to the ministry itself. That is to say, these two scoundrels used their priestly authority and position to take advantage of the very people for whom they were ordained (Hebrews 5:1). Their sins were particularly heinous. Holy Scripture mentions two abuses of Hophni and Phineas:

For one thing, they violated the trust of “the women who assembled at the door of the tabernacle” (1 Samuel 2:22). It was a sin of raw and crude exploitation: For the purpose of sexual gratification, they betrayed the confidence and exploited the vulnerabilities of those religious women, whom it was their responsibility to serve and care for. That is to say, their ministry in the Lord’s house provided the very means and context of their infidelity.

The other offense of Hophni and Phineas involved the act of sacrifice itself. Disdaining that part of the sacrificial victim assigned to the priest, these two scoundrels insisted on taking a “choice cut” from the offered meat prior to the sacrifice itself (2:12-16). Thus, instead of serving the Lord’s house, they made sure the Lord’s house served them. This will always be the mark of an unworthy priest.

Following the lead of Venerable Bede’s commentary on this story, we should regard those unworthy priests at Shiloh as foreshadowings of the later priests—chiefly Caiaphas—who condemned Jesus in the Sanhedrin and then accused Him before the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate. Indeed, it was at the home of Caiaphas that the whole plot was planned (Matthew 26:3-4). This supreme representative of the Jewish people used the very office of his ministry—the worship of God—to murder God’s Son. Even Pilate read the motive as envy (27:18; cf. 21:38).

Thus, Caiaphas remains for all time the egregious example of a genuinely rotten priest.

At the same time, the Gospel writers were aware of the irony involved in that singular betrayal of the priestly office: By condemning Jesus to death (26:63-66), this unworthy priest unwittingly provided the means of God’s perfect worship, the unique and supreme sacrifice to take away the sins of the world.

Given even the minimum standards for the ministry—” blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous”—it is not surprising that we find the occasional minister who doesn’t measure up.

Far worse, certainly, are those offenses associated with the very exercise of the priesthood, sins directly concerned with the setting and context of the ministry, such as the quest of power and absolute control: the violation of trust in matters of conscience, the cultivation of malice in place of mercy, the disposition to answer criticism with revenge, and the abuse of authority to tyrannize the hearts and minds of the Lord’s flock. Such offenses come closer to the sins of Eli’s sons, and, more ominously, the unspeakable crime of Caiaphas.

Monday, May 14

Ezekiel 35: In this chapter we find expressed toward the Edomites, symbolized in Mount Seir, that same spirit of bitter condemnation that inspired the entire prophecy of Obadiah and the last several verses of Psalm 137 (136).

The material here expands on ideas found in a seminal form in Ezekiel 25:12-14. Edom has assisted and cheered on the Babylonians in their wanton destruction of the temple (cf. 1 Esdras 4:45). Ezekiel is our witness that the Edomites hoped to annex territory left open by the destruction of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah (verse 10), but they will not do so, he tells us, because God has other plans for that land. Those plans of God form the substance of the next chapter.

The Edomites in the Bible comprised what we may call . . . well, a special case. Israel did not like them very much. Indeed, the Lord had to command Israel not to despise the Edomites (Deuteronomy 23:7), a thing they were prompted to do, perhaps, on the excuse that the Lord Himself was said to hate Esau, the father of the Edomites (Malachi 1:2; Romans 9:13). Truth to tell, the Edomites were not easy to love. They had obstructed Israel’s path from Egypt during the days of Moses (Numbers 20:21). They were known to be without pity (Amos 1:11) and engaged in international slave trade (1:6,9). For Ezekiel, as for Obadiah, however, the major sin was their attempt to exploit Babylon’s destruction of Judah.

First Samuel 3:1-21: Samuel’s lifetime–mostly the second half of the eleventh century before Christ—-was an age of transitions, in two of which Samuel himself was directly involved. These were the destruction of the shrine at Shiloh in his youth, and Israel’s establishment of the monarchy during his declining years. In both cases Samuel, the last of Israel’s Judges, was obliged to be the bearer of bad news.

He was a mere boy when, shortly before 1050 BC, Samuel was taken to Shiloh, consecrated to God, and placed under the guidance of that shrine’s last priest, Eli (1 Samuel 1:24–28; 2:11,18–20). Shiloh had been a central shrine of Israel for about a century and a half, ever since Joshua fixed it as the meeting place of the twelve tribes (Joshua 18:1). It was from there that the tribal representatives went forth to survey the Promised Land, and back to Shiloh they returned to cast lots for the division of the land (18:8–10; 19:51).

During the ensuing period of Israel’s Judges—1200 to 1050—Shiloh remained a regular place of pilgrimage (Judges 21:19; 1 Samuel 1:3, 7). At some point during that period, the Ark of the Covenant, previously placed at Bethel (Judges 20:26–27), was moved to Shiloh. It was near the Ark, within the shrine, that the boy Samuel slept, at least sometimes (1 Samuel 3:3).

One such night, indeed, provided what is perhaps the best-known scene in Samuel’s life. Three times the sleeping lad, hearing his name called out in the night, rose and went to learn what Eli wanted of him.

Eli, however, had not called him. Finally, this aged priest, suspecting the truth, instructed Samuel, should he hear his name invoked again, to answer, “Speak, Lord, for Your servant hears” (3:3–9). Samuel, yet abiding near the Ark, did so, and the Lord did speak to him, giving the boy his first experience of prophecy. It concerned the coming destruction of Shiloh and the end of Eli’s priesthood (3:11–14). Samuel was obliged to bear the bad news (3:17–18).

Tuesday, May 15

Ezekiel 36: As the previous oracle was addressed to Mount Seir in Edom, so this one (verses 1-15) is addressed to the mountains of Israel. It condemns all the nations that have set themselves against God’s people, but special attention is given, once again, to the Edomites (verse 5).

In verse 8 Ezekiel begins a series of several prophecies of the Israelites’ return to their homes. Whereas in Chapter 6 he had infallibly foretold to these same mountains the many sufferings that have since ensued, he now tells them, again infallibly, of the joys that lie ahead.

And why should God perform these mercies, in view of the fact that Israel has deserved all that it has suffered (verses 16-20)? Because of His own gracious election (verses 21-38). God will pour out all these new blessings on His people in order to testify to the gratuity and steadfastness of His choice. God will be faithful, even though Israel has not been faithful.

The most famous lines of this section are in verses 26-28, repetitious of 11:19-20 and reminiscent of Jeremiah 31:31-34. God will restore Israel, not because of the merits of Israel, but to vindicate His covenant fidelity. The gift of cleansing and a new heart is entirely God’s, but it will not be given except in the context of repentance (verse 31).

First Samuel 4:1-22: Breaking off the story of Samuel, these next three chapters are devoted to the “exile” of the Ark of the Covenant: its capture on the battlefield (chapter 4), its “captivity” among the pagans in an alien land (chapter 5), and its return to the Chosen People (chapter 6). Since its important presence at the crossing of the Jordan and the Battle of Jericho (Joshua 6—8), the Ark has been little mentioned in the biblical narrative. Nor, apparently, has it always resided in the same place. We know that it was kept for a while at Bethel (Judges 27), and now we find it at Shiloh (3:3; 4:4).

The present chapters indicate how the Ark came to be at Kiriath Jearim (6:20—7:2), whence David will move it to Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. (The reference to the Ark in the Hebrew text of 1 Samuel 14:18 is surely wrong. With the Septuagint, we should read that passage as referring to the oracular “ephod.”)

There are two parts to the present chapter: first, the loss of the Ark to the Philistines (verses 1-11); second, the death of Eli and the birth of Ichabod (verses 12-22).

After an initial defeat at the hands of their enemy (verses 1-2), the Israelite elders imagine that the Ark’s bare presence on the battlefield will assure the army of divine help in the next encounter (verse 3). Their reasoning on this point is doubtless inspired by the memory of the Ark’s significant role in the Battle of Jericho.

However, those warriors commanded by Joshua at Jericho were assured of victory by the Lord Himself (Joshua 6:2-5), and they bore the Ark, not as a lucky charm or a magic talisman, but as an expression of their faith (6:6-8). In contrast, the elders in the present text forget that the Lord bases His judgments on the content of hearts. How can they imagine that the Lord does not regard the hearts of the two scoundrels who currently carry the Ark? Ironically, the Philistines seem to have more respect for the Ark than do the Israelites (verses 7-9). In the end, Israel’s losses in the second battle (verse 10) greatly outnumber those in the first.

The second scene of this chapter (verses 12-22) opens with the arrival of the messenger who runs 18 miles from the battlefield to the city of Shiloh, bringing tidings of the disaster (verse 12). Eli, apparently waiting at a gate different from the one entered by the messenger, becomes the last person to hear the message. The scene grows in drama: blind Eli, hearing the uproar and lamentation in the city, demands to know the reason (verses 13-16). We learn much of the soul of the old man from the fact that he is anxious less for the safety of his sons than for the fate of the Ark. Hence, the full effect of the message seizes him only when he learns of the seizure of the Ark: Falling backward from a stool, he dies of a broken neck (verse 17-18).

The ironic climax of the tragedy arrives when the pregnant wife of Phineas suddenly goes into labor, in reaction to learning of the loss of her husband and father-in-law, along with the defeat of the army and the capture of the Ark. She dies after giving birth to a boy, on whom she confers the symbolic name Ichabod, “glory gone.”

This name is based on the important Hebrew noun kavod, “glory.” This is the glory associated with God’s presence with the Ark. This child, then, born on the day of Ark’s capture, will be a living reminder of the Lord’s judgment on the priestly family of Shiloh. Although some prophets continued to dwell at Shiloh (cf. 1 Kings 14:2, 4), its priesthood settled at Nob (1 Samuel 14:3; 22:11).

Samuel moves back to Ramah (7:17), his birthplace, and the Ark, though returned to Israel, will never again be installed at Shiloh. The Lord has abandoned the site, making it a symbol of the fate awaiting any city that forsakes His covenant (Jeremiah 7:12, 14).

Wednesday, May 16

Ezekiel 37: We come now to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones, unarguably the best known part of this book. It consists of a Spirit-given experience (verses 1-10), followed by an interpretation (verses 11-14). In its immediate historical sense, the valley of the dry bones represents Israel after Jerusalem’s destruction in 586.

As a prophecy to be fulfilled in the fullness of time, it refers to the resurrection of the dead, of which the principle and first-fruit is the Resurrection of Christ. (Hence it is most appropriate for us to be reading this text on the eve of Ascension Thursday, the feast celebrating the heavenly exaltation of Christ’s risen flesh.)

In this vision the dynamic principle in the resurrection of the dead is the same Spirit who brought the prophet to the valley (verse 1).

The reader should bear in mind that, all through this chapter, a single Hebrew word (ruah) is translated in different ways (“Spirit,” “breath,” “wind”), simply because no one English word expresses the fullness of its meaning (Cf. also Genesis 1:2).

This section is followed by another prophetic pantomime (verses 15-17), accompanied by an interpretation (verses 18-23), according to which all of God’s people will be rejoined, with the new David to shepherd them (verses 24-28).

First Samuel 5:1-12: The victorious Philistines now take the captured Ark of the Covenant and place it, as a votive offering, in the temple of their god, Dagon, in the city of Ashdod. Although they intended this ritual to signify the subjection of Israel’s God to Dagon, the latter does not fare well in the encounter (verses 1-5).

Dagon was a local Syrian divinity adopted by the Philistines on their arrival in the region, roughly 1200 B.C. Although the exact derivation of his name is disputed, it is generally agreed that Dagon was a god of fertility, and local legend made him the father of Baal. He had more than one temple in the region (cf. Judges 16:23; 1 Chronicles 10:10). Jonathan Maccabaeus destroyed his temple at Ashdod in 147 B.C. (1 Maccabees 10:83-84; 11:4).

The details of this story—particularly Dagon’s hands—render it curiously similar to the account of the ravished and slain woman in Judges 19:22-29). When her body is found, the woman lies at the door of the house, with her hands on the threshold, similar to the hands of the prostrate Dagon. The woman is subsequently dismembered.

The Lord of the Ark, having disposed of the Philistine god, now turns to deal with the Philistines, wreaking havoc in three cities of their pentapolis (verses 8-12). The reader is reminded of the plagues visited on Egypt—both animal pests (Exodus 7:26—8:27; 10:1-15) and bodily afflictions (Exodus 9:8-12), including death (Exodus 12:29-36). As the Ark is moved from city to city, Philistine panic intensifies. Its mere arrival at Ekron is sufficient to cause consternation, prior to any actual damage! In these descriptions, the biblical author is enjoying himself immensely.

Historians have variously identified the pestilence described here, the most severe suggestion being bubonic plague. Although interpretation would account for the rodents and the physical symptoms (buboes or glandular swellings), we should not permit a preoccupation with diagnosis to obscure the author’s literary and rhetorical intention—to portray the affliction in terms of extreme discomfort and embarrassment. The King James Version, grasping this intention, identified the swellings as hemorrhoids. That is to say, the emphasis in this account is on anal distress.

Modern readers of this passage have presumed that the victims died on a bubonic infection. However, our earliest commentator on the story, Josephus (Antiquities 6.1.3), believed that death came from “dysentery.” (Let us forego his description.)

The theological message of this chapter rests on the common biblical theme of victory arising out of defeat. The Philistines had barely time to celebrate their supposed triumph before they began to suspect their mistake: They had swallowed what they could not digest. After a single night they found their god humiliated—and after a second night dismembered— by the object they had captured. Dagon was now unsafe in his own shrine. Israel’s Lord began to show Himself the conqueror of the prematurely partying Philistines. The tables were turned. Instead of parading the Ark as the spoils in a victory parade, its transport becomes the Lord’s own victory march. The Philistines began to know how ancient Pharaoh felt, when the full force of the ten plagues made him eager for Israel to leave Egypt.

The triumph of the “defeated” Ark within Philistia was a prophecy of the victory of “defeated” Jesus over the forces of the nether world. Like the Philistines, Death had swallowed what it could not digest. St. John Chrysostom said it best: “The Savior’s death has set us free. ? He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh . . .. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven.”

Thursday, May 17

Ezekiel 38: When the obscure kingdom of Lydia (in Asia Minor) came to geopolitical notoriety in the seventh century before Christ, the man responsible for its rise was a ruthless, warring king named Gugu (c. 680—c. 648).

“Gugu” was, at least, the name by which the Assyrians called him. Indeed, the earliest extant texts mentioning this Lydian king are found in the clay archives of the Assyrian emperor Ashurbanipal (668-633), who was for a while Gugu’s suzerain lord. Now it is surely significant of Gugu’s political and military importance that a fragment of earthen tablet in distant Mesopotamia contains our first inscription of his name.

In Mesopotamian memory, in fact, the name of Gugu lingered on. Ezekiel, writing his prophecies in that area during the next century (chapters 38-39), remembered the famous Lydian king as “Gug” or “Gog” (the two forms being identical in unmarked Hebrew).

Because of Lydia’s inclusion in the greater world of the Greeks, it is no wonder that these latter also spoke of Gugu (whose name they Hellenized to “Gyges,” our own “y” and the “u” being identical in Greek). In extant sources, the first Greek to mention Gugu was his contemporary, the poet Archilochus, who referred especially to the Lydian’s great wealth. Aristotle quotes a line of Archilochus, Ou moi ta Gugeo tou polychrysou melei, oud’ heile po me zelos—“I am not bothered by the wealth of Gugu, nor did I ever envy him” (Rhetoric 1418.42b).

Gugu’s fame refused to fade. A full two centuries after his death Herodotus (c. 482—c. 425) recorded memorable tales about him. In a rather involved story, for instance, he described how the wife of Gugu’s predecessor persuaded him to kill her husband and seize the throne (Histories 1.8-12). Other versions of this narrative (for example, Plato, Republic 2.3 359C-360B) differ in the details, but most agree that Gugu murdered his predecessor and married the widow.

Gugu’s violent seizure of the Lydian throne would have led to a civil war, says Herodotus (1.13), except that the Delphic oracle confirmed the usurper in his new position. In gratitude whereof, Gugu devoted many gifts to the Delphic shrine (1.14).

No sooner had Gugu taken the throne than he began to wage war on all his neighbors. In fact, says Herodotus, “he accomplished nothing else of note (ouden gar mega) in his reign of thirty-eight years” (1.15).

Gugu’s great military success was partly purchased by his alliance with the Assyrians, nor could it long outlive that alliance. When, sometime about 648, Gugu sent forces to Egypt to help Pharaoh Psamtik I (664-610) in his rebellion against Ashurbanipal, the latter abandoned him to his local enemies in Asia Minor. That was the end of Gugu.

As we have seen, however, something about Gugu declined to die. In popular imagination he remained the very type of the barbarian warrior.

Thus, when the prophet Ezekiel, exiled in Mesopotamia a hundred years later, wanted to describe for own his contemporaries the coming judgment of God in the tumultuous events of history, all he had to do was invoke the name of Gugu, or Gog, to describe a menacing barbarian army. This coming Gog holds sway in the land of Magog, a name meaning “(derived) from Gog” (Hebrew min-Gog). He is “the head (rosh) of Meshech and Tubal” (38:2), the two sons of Japheth and the fathers of most of the world’s nations (Genesis 16:2; 1 Chronicles 1:5; cf. Ezekiel 27:13; 32:26; 39:1). This barbarian Gog represents, therefore, the hostile world arrayed for the invasion of God’s people.

Six hundred years after Ezekiel, St. John wrote another prophetic book, which he sent to-among other places-Sardis (Revelation 3:1), the ancient capital of Lydia, the very place where Gugu had seized the throne and married the queen. In this book, too, John prophesied that old Gog, along with Magog, was coming back after a thousand years, to visit devastation on the earth: “Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea (Revelation 20:7-8).

Whereas the pagan world recalled Gugu mainly as the type of a ruthless warrior, the Bible sees him more as an enemy of God and an abiding threat to God’s people. Gugu remains in this world, in either case, a very real problem.

Friday, May 18

Ezekiel 39: This continuation of the previous chapter uses the mystic number seven (the inference reached by the addition of the divine number three and the human number four [and if you multiply them, you arrive at the other mystic number, twelve]) to designate the number of years that the burning of the discarded weapons will supply the need for fuel. Seven, too, will be the number of months required to bury all the dead from Gog’s great army.

In this section, verses 11-16, we see Ezekiel’s priestly preoccupation with ritual purity (cf. Numbers 5:2; 19:16; 35:33f). So great will be the battle’s carnage that the beasts and carrion birds will be glutted with the corpses (verses 17-20; cf. Revelation 19:17-21). The chapter ends with a summary of God’s restoration of Israel, which brings this third part of Ezekiel to a close.

1 Samuel 6: This chapter chronicles the return of the Ark to Israel and the aftermath of that return.

In view of the havoc and consternation caused among the Philistines, as described in the previous chapter, its captors determine to send the Ark back to Israel. Seven months of torture have proved quite enough (verse 1).

Sensing they are out of their depth, these political leaders of Philistia—the heads of the five cities—resolve to find a religious solution to their problem. They are wary. Accordingly, they seek the guidance of the local religious experts: priests and shamans (verse 2). We recall that Pharaoh sought the counsel of such men, back in the days when Moses was a problem.

The counsel given by the priests and shamans is complex. There are two stages in the instruction:

First, a sort of reparation offering must accompany the return of the Ark. The need for this ritual gesture was perceived from the fact that the Philistines continued to be tormented by rodents and the physical malady described in the previous chapter. The Philistines fear that these problems may continue even after the Ark is returned, unless they effect some kind of reconciliation with Israel’s God (verse 3). They are advised, therefore, to fashion small sculptures—ornaments, as it were—to represent the hemorrhoids and the rodents (verses 4-5).

The narrator of this scene obviously enjoys its irony: Having endured dysentery and hemorrhoids for seven months, these Philistines now suffer from an anal fixation so severe they imagine that Israel’s God might be placated by a gift of golden hemorrhoids!

The obvious parallel here is with the account in Exodus, according to which the Israelites, when Pharaoh finally compelled them to leave Egypt, took gold and jewelry with them (Exodus 3:21; 11:2; 12:35-36; Psalms 105 [104]:37). This parallel serves mainly to heighten the improbability of jewelry shaped like hemorrhoids and mice.

The Philistines are certainly “winging it” here. They are totally confused, and they have no idea how the true God is to be honored. Their improvised liturgical experiment reminds the reader of the Ninevites, a few centuries later, who proclaim a citywide season of fasting in order to placate the wrath of Israel’s God. In this latter instance, we recall, even the livestock are forced to fast (Jonah 3:7; 4:11). Both biblical writers revel in ridiculing the clueless Gentiles—Philistines and Ninevites—who have benefited from no proper liturgical instruction. They must guess what to do: “Perhaps” (verse 5), “Who knows?” (Jonah 3:9)

The Philistines, for their part, compare their plight to that of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. In both cases, hardness of heart is the great danger, and the Philistines are resolved to take instruction from Pharaoh’s mistake (verse 6; Exodus 8:15,32; 9:34).

Second, great care must be taken in the transport of the Ark back to Israel. Indeed, this transport becomes a sort of trial to determine whether or not the Philistines are really dealing with Israel’s God or simply circumstances of chance. Accordingly, the religious authorities advise, a brand new cart must be constructed, one never used for ordinary work. This cart must be drawn by nursing cows that have never been yoked. These must be separated from their suckling calves and, of their own accord, take the correct road to the nearest Israelite town. This complicated process, the Philistines reason, will guarantee that mere chance is not involved in the outcome. It is a sort of trial by ordeal.

When the Ark arrives at Bethshemesh, however, it proves to be no less dangerous to the Israelites than it was to the Philistines. The rejoicing citizens of the place, apparently curious to learn if the contents of the Ark had been disturbed, unwisely open it and look inside. Being Levites (Joshua 21:16; 1 Chronicles 6:44), they should know better (Numbers 4:20), and they pay a heavy price for their presumption.

The tragedy at Bethshemesh is the climax in this story of the Ark’s power, which is felt by Israelite and Philistine alike. Both groups received the Ark with joy, but they are equally eager to be rid of it, once they experience their inability to control it.

The Bethshemites plead with their brethren at Kiriath-Jearim, some nine miles northeast, to come and relieve them of the Ark. To care for it, Eliezar ben Abinadab (cf. 2 Samuel 6:3) is consecrated.

The Ark’s history will be picked up again in 2 Samuel 6, where David arranges its transfer to Jerusalem. Its presence there will confer on the latter city, David’s capital, a historical connection, not only with Shiloh, but also with Bethel (Judges 20:27) and Shechem (Joshua 8:33). In the overview of the Deuteronomic editor, the Ark is the link of continuity joining Israel’s judges and kings.