God-Users: When we Treat the Divine Lord as a Talisman or Trophy

The Ark Narrative of 1 Samuel

In the early part of 1 Samuel, Israel is in a violent standoff against the Philistines. News hits that the Philistines are over at Aphek. In haste, the men of Israel gather arms, commence battle… and are swiftly defeated. 4,000 men lay dead. “Why God?! How could you let this happen?! Aren’t we your people?!

But wait minute…

Some them have a brilliant idea. Let’s go up to Shiloh, get the ark of the covenant, and bring it here. Then we’ll show these Philistine scum a thing or two. The story provides us an important detail about this ark: the LORD of Hosts sits enthroned above it (1 Sam. 4:4). In the OT, God associates his presence with this ark.

It is his throne.

Fall_of_DagonWith the arrival of the ark in their camp, the Israelite soldiers shout and yell with such fury that the Philistines start quaking in their sandals. What is going on in the Israelites’ camp? Then they realize—The ark of the God of the Hebrews has entered the camp! The Philistines have heard the rumors about this god, the biggest, baddest god of the land who took down Pharaoh and the mighty gods of Egypt. We are doomed!

The battle begins with Israel valiantly charging bearing the ark of God… and then they are brutally defeated. To the 4,000 corpses are now added another 30,000.

The ark is taken by the victors. Congratulating themselves, the Philistines take it home, a trophy of war.

They place the ark of Adonai in the presence of their own god, Dagon. When they wake up, Dagon’s statue is lying flat on its face before that little gold box of the Hebrews. Now that’s odd. They replace Dagon and go about their day.

The next morning, what they find is not just curious, but macabre. Dagon has been beheaded in the night. His hands have been amputated. The Philistines have awakened to find an amputee god knocked to the ground before that box, the throne of Adonai.

Using God

What we find in this great “ark narrative” is that Israel wanted to use the throne of God as a talisman. They brought God into their camp like a good luck charm. Let’s bring our God into the camp and he will sort things out for us! Let’s go get him from Shiloh and bring him here where we can put him to good use. They are treating the ark of God like a genie’s lamp, as if they could whistle a deity who would show up ready to do their bidding.

The Philistines, however, have used God as a trophy. Look at what we caught! Look at what has fallen into our mighty hands. Stick him over there by Dagon. Let’s use his pretty little god-throne as a decoration.

Here is the point: Our God, the Living God of the Hebrews, the Adonai of Hosts, the Creator-King who crushed the gods of Egypt and shares no space with Dagon, CANNOT BE USED AT OUR DISCRETION. We cannot stick him where we please. We cannot keep him in Shiloh or in our pocket and bring him out whenever a deity would come in handy. We do not pick up God and carry him with us wherever we fancy. He is not portable.  He cannot be packed and stored away. And he cannot simply be a decoration in our lives, something to put on show to others because it looks good to have a little religion sprinkled in. God will not be dragged around and he will not stay up on the shelf like a trinket or a trophy…

Except when he let Roman hands grip his flesh, drag his body, and made a political display of him on Golgotha’s hill.

But let’s not forget: the tomb of Jesus was found a few days later with its lid busted clean off.

Death and Dagon: BEWARE.

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About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).