This is a long story. Eli was High Priest of Israel, at Shiloh where the Ark of the Covenant dwelt. He had become Israel's judge when Samson died, in the same year that Samuel was born. Eli had two sons, powerful priests, who by force took for themselves the meat offerings brought for the Lord, and disported themselves with many women who came to the Tabernacle. So it was with the nations and their temples, where all women were made to be prostitutes. Eli knew all this, and used only words to rebuke his sons, of which they took no notice, for the Lord desired to kill them.
A prophet came to him and said that more than God, Eli honored his sons, making themselves fat with the best of the offerings. “Therefore the Lord God of Israel says: ‘I said indeed that your house would walk before me forever.’ But now the Lord says: ‘Far be it from me, for those who honor me shall I honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.’” It is good to notice that hardly any promises are without conditions. “Behold the days are coming when I will cut off your arm, so that there will not be an old man in your house, forever.”
And to the child Samuel, last of Israel’s judges, came the words in the night, loud enough to wake him by the calling of his name, that Eli’s house would be judged forever, not atoned for nor forgiven, forever. When Eli at his own command heard this from the child, he answered, “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.” It is good to accept the will of God. But had not Eli already been told that God can change his mind? It is hard to know when to be strong, and when to be weak. Curses, too, must have conditions.
At this time, when revelation from the Lord was rare, Israel went out to war with Philistia, and the Philistines prevailed, killing 4000 men. The elders of Israel called for the Ark to come down from Shiloh, to save them from the enemy. When it arrived a great cry rose up in the camp, the men shouting so that the earth moved. Perhaps some of them thought of Jericho. Perhaps the leaders preached on it: “We shall prevail with the Lord going before us! The Ark and our great cry and the moving of the earth!”
The Philistine army heard and learned the meaning of the noise, and they were very afraid. “God has come among them! Never has such a thing happened before! Who will deliver us from the hands of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with plagues!” Idolaters would not be clear on the details, on the history of Israel, on the theology of monotheism, but even as legend the curses upon Pharaoh were known. God had not ceased, between these times, to harden the hearts of those whom he would destroy. Free will is a matter of timing, after which it is too late.
But God was on the side of the idolaters, who conducted themselves like men, and Israel lost the battle, 30000 killed. Among the dead were the wicked sons of Eli. The Philistines captured the Ark and removed it to Ashdod. When God has forsaken a cause, victory is the difference between weapons of iron and weapons of bronze. And the Philistines acted like men, while Israel fled, every man, to his tent. A messenger raced straight from the battle to bring the news, and the men of Shiloh wailed. Eli, blind with age, seated by the wayside, heard the cry with dread. The messenger came and told him, “There has been a great slaughter. Your sons are dead. The ark has been captured.”
And Eli must have thought: a slaughter, but Israel will survive. And he must have thought: my sons, dead, but I have known it would come. But when he heard the Ark was taken it was too much too bear. He was a priest to whom God would not come, but he served God, and was forsaken. Eli fell backwards out of his seat, his arms flailing uselessly. He was a very fat man, and his neck broke, and he died. He was ninety eight years old, and had judged Israel for forty years.
The victorious Philistines placed the Ark in the Temple of Dagon at Ashdod, next to the idol itself. When the priests came into the temple early the next morning, the Idol was toppled onto its face before the Ark. The priests set it in its place again.
The Lord God does not push idols over. He does not knock down city walls, nor kill firstborn, nor bring boils and frogs. His angels do such things. There is a great war ongoing in the heavenlies, sometimes hot and violent, sometimes watchful and crafty. Lucifer, called Satan, is the leader of the rebellion, and his army is half that of the Lords. But much or most of the Lord’s army, is hard and ever at work sustaining the world, the turning of the spheres, the light of the stars, the heat of fire, the changing of tides, seasons, the growth of seed and the song of birds and the mind of bees. These things do not tend themselves. Dust is not alive and there is no intelligence in the wind by itself.
It was the proud and least wise, but powerful, angels who rebelled -- those who by nature could be warlike. What adversary, in the earliest days, was there to contend against? The universe had been built. It was inevitable, part of the plan, that there be a rebellion. Each being has its nature for a reason, that it may be expressed.
So the celestial and fallen army of Lucifer is more vast. The days of creation are over, and the Lord sees fit not to enhance the number of his host. He recruits soldiers from humanity, a different order than the angels, brief and frail, but God will prevail, and not because his army is larger, and not because he himself intervenes. What is it then that tips the scale? The dead are resting. Only the living can fight.
Dagon, not just an idol but an entity, the angelic Prince of Ashdod, assembled with the gods of the Philistines, all were celebrating the humiliation and devastation of Israel. They would not have expected so soon and sudden an attack. But some great angel of the lord came in the deep night, descended like lightening upon the temple and blasted the idol from its platform. Perhaps a winged cherubim, or perhaps in the form of a man, wingless of course, armored in radiance, terrible in countenance, enraged with righteousness at the affront to God’s symbol and abode on earth. Michael is the Prince of Israel, who battles the gods of the nations -- striding into the House of Dagon, sudden and unopposed, shocking and terrifying, this unvanquished force, and unopposed imposed upon Dagon his humiliation. Bow before the Lord.
The priests came in the following morning. It was an age of earthquake and hailstones, but they did not expect to find their god fallen. A great wailing and flapping of hands, and the idol was remounted. Offerings, of propitiation and purification, of course, all day.
That night, Michael came again to Dagon’s throne room, wherein remained captive the Ark of the Lord. This time there was a battle. In war, advantages are won and lost. How angels fight we do not know. It may be there are swords, light and fire and fear and rage, and something of spirit. What wounds these beings can sustain is not known. The nature of their power and force is outside our physical understanding. There will be laws to their metabolism. We know that demons and gods are sustained by blood offerings and by the emotions of worship. These must be a replacement of their first sustenance, and necessary after the Fall -- as parasites do not sow or reap, hunt or graze, but merely and always suck.
Michael prevailed again. He broke off the head and hands of the idol and dropped them at the portal of the sanctuary. Had human eyes seen it, it would have seemed an earthquake, the idol spilling down like Eli, forward though, neck snapping, hands unable to break the fall, snapping as well, rolling or bouncing in what seems randomness but with the inevitability of water flowing in a channel, to the threshold. The wounds symbolic on the statue would be manifest upon Dagon himself. We know such things only through symbols, and how Dagon appeared ever afterwards, bearing what wounds, we leave for his worshipers to know. But in history Ashdod of the Philistines never again prevailed.
Nations are judged through their princes. When spiritual princes are judged, the people suffer, and in Ashdod the Philistines were stricken with tumors. What plague, canker or cancer it was remains dark, but the land was infested with rats, so we may surmise. The elders believed the curse was from the Ark, and sent it out of their city, eastward to Gath. The plague grew even worse in that city, a very great destruction, and they sent the Ark to Ekron. “They have brought us the Ark to destroy us!” cried out the people of that city, and already the destruction was great. What to do, what to do. To Ekron were summoned the leaders of the Philistines, who determined to send it back into Israel. The Ark and its plague had been in Philistia for seven months.
The Ark, so strange and deadly an object, like gravity, like lightning. The man who put out his hand to prevent it from falling to the dirt was struck down instantly, dead. God is not fair. Holy intentions must be matched by proper ritual. To live in portentous times is to be a pawn and a symbol. Because Moses had struck a rock with a stick, 40 years later he was made to die outside the Promised Land. Because Ham saw his father naked, his house was cursed. God uses men like game pieces. It must be what we are made for. That the God of the universe should dwell between the figures of two cherubim in a space two handspans wide, above a wood and golden box, among a tribal people in the hills, is implausible. Those who deny its possibility most likely go to hell.
The priests and seers of Philistia determined to return the Ark along with trespass offerings. Their theology was narrow, as it must be, but they knew that the gods of Israel were powerful, untrustworthy, severe. Five golden tumors, and five golden rats, were cast and placed upon a newly made cart; the offerings are very logical -- gods have symbols, and the god of the Hebrews has much to do with plague. Two milk cows would pull the cart, their calves left behind in the fields. “Then watch, and if the cart goes up the road to Israel, then God has done us this great evil. But if not, then we shall know that it is not His hand that struck us, it was by chance that it happened to us.” Milk cows will turn back to their calves, unless driven by some force more powerful than instinct. Some lesson about free will, in this.
The cows went lowing along the highway, followed by princes, straight to the land of Israel at Beth Shemosh. There the Levites sacrificed those same two cows on a large flat stone. But the people of the city had looked into the Ark. It is an understandable temptation, whereas holiness is hard to understand. Because of this, God killed 50,070 men. Plague, again, or earthquake, or fire from heaven. The times were unsettled.
And that’s the end of the story, almost. The Ark was moved again, to Kirjath Jearim and the house of Abinadab, which the Lord appears to have found sufficient. We are told of no more slaughters.
The priests of the Philistines knew that life is largely random, and just as the earth is sometimes but rarely upset with quaking, the lives of men are rarely but catastrophically visited by the will of gods, demons and fallen angels, wicked -- or pure, not gods but angels in direct service to God. The pagan priests determined the case of the Ark with an empirical test, the instinct of nursing cows to turn homeward rather than away. Very wise.
In every instance we have seen, the greatest peace would seem to come from having no contact with divinities. We are not given a choice, though. To be noticed by gods is almost never a blessing. Consider how many princes there are, and how many slaves.