Formations 01.26.2014: Putting God in a Box

1 Samuel 5:1-6; 6:1-9, 13-16

Image by Hay Kranen

Image by Hay Kranen

We’ve all heard the expression “putting God in a box.” When people fail to consider that God might not think or act exactly like they do (or would do if they were God), they might be said to put God in a box. They’ve got God figured out, thank you very much, and there’s no point upsetting their neat little theological system by asking them to imagine a God who might surprise them.

In this week’s lesson, putting God in a box is somewhat less than a metaphor. The Israelites and the Philistines both acted as if God inhabited a box. This box was known as the ark of the covenant or, as the Common English Bible expresses it, “God’s chest.”

The ark was a box or chest that symbolized God’s presence for the ancient Hebrews. It was intimately connected with Israel’s hope that God would fight for them—that God would be on their side.

You can see why the Israelites would send for the ark when the Philistines launched their offensive. If that chest really was, in some mysterious sense, a channel of divine power, it would be awfully handy to have it with you on the battlefield!

And you can also see why the Philistines would think it such a coup to capture the ark and bring it back to their own territory. If they were able to capture the Israelites’ portable shrine, perhaps that meant that they had captured the Israelite God who lived in it.

If you’ve read the biblical story, you know that both groups were operating under false assumptions. The Israelites assumed the ark was a kind of magic charm, a heavenly lucky rabbit’s foot that would protect them in battle. They were sorely mistaken; they learned the hard way that God cannot be cajoled or manipulated into aiding the unfaithful.

For their part, the Philistines assumed that control of the ark proved that their gods were greater than the God of Israel. On the contrary, God symbolically shames their god Dagon and punishes the Philistines severely for their arrogance.


• When have you “put God in a box”?
• When people are angry with God, is it really God they have a problem with, or is it their mental image of who God is and what God should be doing?
• Why do people assume they have God all figured out? What are the dangers of such an assumption?
• How can Christians approach God with appropriate humility?

Reference Shelf

The Ark of the Covenant

The biblical text contains a number of designations for this venerated object, among them: the Ark, the Ark of God, the Ark of the LORD, the Ark of the Covenant, the Ark of the Testimony, and the Holy Ark. These varying designations…reflect differing schools of thought in ancient Israel and have assisted modern interpreters in the complex task of distinguishing the schools and assigning a relative date to them.

The Ark is first mentioned in connection with Israel’s wilderness journey after the Exodus from Egypt: elaborate instructions are given for fashioning it and the larger portable shrine (Exod 25-27). Thereafter, it headed the procession through the Sinai itinerary (Num 10:35-36) and across the Jordan into the land of Canaan (Josh 3, 4). It then was carried into battle against opposing cities (e.g., Jericho, Josh 6, 7), played a central role in worship at various shrines (Mount Ebal, Josh 8:30-35; Bethel, Judg 20:26-27), and finally resided at Shiloh (1 Sam 4:1-3).

How the Ark was removed from the ancient tribal sanctuary at Shiloh to the new monarchical capital at Jerusalem is chronicled in the account of the Philistine wars and their aftermath. Taken into battle because it was viewed as the near-embodiment of the deity’s presence (1 Sam 4:1-9), the ark was lost to the enemy but then sent away toward the hill country because of a plague, which was attributed to its presence (4:10 7:2). There it remained (at Kiriathjearim) until David brought it to Jerusalem (2 Sam 6:1-19) and his son Solomon placed it in the newly completed Temple (I Kgs 6:14-19). Solomon’s motivation was likely a mixture of piety (to provide a suitable place for the venerable relic) and desire for power (to remove it from the control of other sanctuaries and priestly lines).

Lloyd R. Bailey, “Ark,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Mercer University Press, 1990), 63.

Fallen Gods and Following God

Through tumors and plague, through falling idols and broken gods, the God of Israel made one thing very clear: When gods do battle, Yahweh wins, for he is the only true and living God. He is the only God whose hands can be heavy—or gentle—the only God whose hands can shape mountains and paint rainbows, the only God whose hands can do anything at all.

That is the primary point of our story, with emphasis. But that is not, perhaps, the most interesting thing to be learned from the account. When the cultic image of Dagon fell before the ark of Yahweh, the Philistines simply set him back on his pedestal. But what good is a god that must be propped up with a stick or held together with pitch (cf. Isa 44:9-20)? How can a god who cannot support itself offer anything to its followers?

When Dagon’s image was so thoroughly humiliated that no Philistine doubted Yahweh’s power, one might think they would give up on their false and impotent god and offer their worship to Yahweh. Instead, they propped up their false god and sent the symbol of the true God away in hopes of distancing themselves from Yahweh.

In modern English usage, the word “Philistine” describes an immoral or unmannered person who cares nothing for God or for good. Sadly, many persons who claim to follow God still live as if God does not exist. They prefer to keep the Lord at a distance, reserving religion for times of trouble.

Tony W. Cartledge, 1 & 2 Samuel, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 85.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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