It’s Just the Way We Are
The Philistines gathered for an attack on Israel. Israel went out to engage them in battle and camped at Ebenezer, while the Philistines camped at Aphek. The Philistines then drew up in battle formation against Israel. After a fierce struggle Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who slew about four thousand men on the battlefield.
When the troops retired to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the LORD permitted us to be defeated today by the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the LORD from Shiloh that it may go into battle among us and save us from the grasp of our enemies.”
So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned upon the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were with the ark of God. When the ark of the LORD arrived in the camp, all Israel shouted so loudly that the earth resounded.
The Philistines, hearing the noise of shouting, asked, “What can this loud shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” On learning that the ark of the LORD had come into the camp, the Philistines were frightened. They said, “Gods have come to their camp.”
They said also, “Woe to us! This has never happened before. Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods that struck the Egyptians with various plagues and with pestilence. Take courage and be manly, Philistines; otherwise you will become slaves to the Hebrews, as they were your slaves. So fight manfully!”
The Philistines fought and Israel was defeated; every man fled to his own tent. It was a disastrous defeat, in which Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were among the dead.
1 Sm 4: 1-11
1 Sm 4: 3
Before making an examination of the details of this story, let’s step back a bit and consider something I would refer to as ‘fundamental attitude’ or ‘fundamental orientation’. We can contrast the orientation of the typical Hebrew in this story with the orientation of the typical Philistine.
My sense is that the Hebrews, here, are acting out of an attitude of entitlement and the Philistines are acting from an orientation of resignation. You’ll see in a moment how I’m using the word ‘resignation’. The first defeat mentioned in this passage put Israel in a crisis of faith. The defeat was an insult to their sense of who they were. They envisioned themselves as having ‘preferred standing’ with the Almighty. They reasoned that they had ‘struck a bargain’ with God. They would be God’s faithful people, and God would protect them from undesirable developments. Their loss in battle didn’t provoke a reexamination of their faith. In fact, it caused them to ‘double down’. They determined to place God’s literal presence in the midst of their battle – as if they could put God’s feet to the fire and compel Him to make good on their interpretation of God’s promise.
In this, the Hebrews were treating God as their ‘errand boy’. They wanted something – in this case military victory – and they were assigning God the task of executing their will.
Consider, now, the perspective of the Philistines. They were intensely afraid, and understandably so. They were in an unfamiliar, even unprecedented position. They didn’t have a guarantee, or a promise, or even an expectation of success. The only thing they had was an understanding of who they were. They were men, and men want to be free. “Take courage,” they urged each other, “and be manly”.
Who would ever need courage if we were never afraid? The Philistines well understood their own vulnerability, and their limitations. They were in over their heads and their prospects were bleak. They had no god to call on. They had only themselves and their own meager abilities, and in order to make use even of their own limited capacity they had to set their fear aside. They resigned themselves to a fate they couldn’t control, but they were determined to be true to themselves. They had to exert courage. Courage isn’t something that comes to you, it comes out of you if it comes at all – and courage came forth from the Philistines.
It is not an easy thing to develop spiritually, and it wasn’t easy for the Hebrews in this story. What was true then is true now. The one who sticks around long enough to become an experienced disciple is the one who experiences times when her or his faith is painfully at odds with the truth. Like the Hebrews in this story, we can be humiliated in the presence of scoffers. The life of faith provides us with lots of painful lessons; or, at least, lots of painful experiences. They only become lessons if we’re willing to learn, if we’re willing to change course, if we’re willing to become something we weren’t before.
The reason we even have religion is so that we can develop the fitness we need to serve in the Father’s vineyard. That’s what religion is supposed to be, but most of the time we misuse it and become self important and obnoxious. From the very beginning we are taught to pray, “Thy will be done” but it takes us a long, long time to say that prayer with genuine sincerity. It’s simply too tempting to assess our relationship with God in terms of how He can assist us to get what we want. It’s hard to get to the point where we understand that it is our job to assist God in getting what He wants. We’re tasked with the tricky business of getting ourselves out of the way. Life can be pretty tough on us while we’re trying to acquire the knack of doing this, so we ought to be gentle with ourselves and with each other. God looks mercifully upon our failings and we would do well to follow His lead.
What went on with the Hebrews, and what went on with the first disciples, and what has gone on with the saints for centuries is the human propensity to get it wrong. God gives us faith, but instead of embracing the truth we are beguiled by falsehood. We’re called to worship God, but we want to become God. Instead of resigning ourselves to be God’s slaves, we imagine that we’re entitled to have God serve us.
It’s just how we’re put together. It’s how you are, and how your sisters and brothers on the path are. Sooner or later I’m bound to make an ass of myself, just as the Hebrews in this story did, and when I do I’m going to realize how much I depend on God’s mercy, and how much other people depend on mine.