(1 Samuel 6:1-21) The Philistines return the Ark to Israel. The Citizens of Beth-shemesh forget its Sanctity. Their Punishment.
In the first verse the LXX. add, “and the land swarmed with mice,” another of the many explanatory additions so common in the Greek translation of the Hebrew.
The priests and diviners evidently thought that the Hebrew Deity, in some way resident in the “golden chest,” was a childish, capricious deity, like one of their own loved gods—Dagon, or Beelzebub, lord of flies. Their people had insulted Him; He had shown Himself powerful enough, however, to injure His captors, so the insults must cease, and He must be appeased with rich offerings.
The dumb beasts went on their strange way with their golden burden, the princes of the Philistines following them, awe-struck, at a distance.
The great stone of Abel.—The LXX. Version reads here, “And this great stone on which they placed the Ark of Jehovah, which is in the field of Joshua the Beth-shemite, is a witness unto this day.” With this reading the Chaldee Targum substantially agrees. The Hebrew text here is hopelessly corrupt; the copies which the Greek translators and the Chaldee Targumist apparently had before them, instead of the word “Avel” (Abel), which signifies mourning, read the word ăven, a stone, and the punctuation of v’ad, “and unto,” in the last clause was evidently (v’ed), “and a witness.” If the reading Avel be the true one (“even unto the great Avel”), then the conjecture of R. D. Kimchi is probably right, that this stone was known as the Great Avel (or Abel), “the great mourning,” owing to the terrible judicial calamity, related in the next three verses (1 Samuel 6:19-21), which happened there. With this slight change a very good sense is obtained.
Even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men.—Here it is perfectly clear that the present Hebrew text, which the English Version literally renders, is corrupt. The system of writing letters for numbers, as we have seen, constantly has occasioned great discrepancies in the several versions, &c. Here the arrangement of the letters which express this enormous number is quite unusual, and taken by itself would be sufficient to excite grave doubts as to the accuracy of this text. The number of stricken ones, 50,070, is simply inconceivable. Beth-shemesh was never a large or important place; there were, in fact, no great cities in Israel, the population was always a scattered one, the people living generally on their farms. Dean Payne Smith computes the population of Jerusalem in its best days as under 70,000. The various versions, LXX., Chaldee, &c, vary in their rendering of these astounding figures. Josephus, Antt. vi. 1, § 4, in his account of this occurrence speaks of the smitten as numbering seventy. This is probably the correct number. A strange reading, which the LXX. inserts here, deserves to be quoted; it is another proof of the uncertainty of the text at the close of this sixth chapter: “And the children of Jechoniah among the Beth-shemites were not pleased with the men of Beth-shemesh because they saw the Ark, and he smote them, &c.” Erdmann, in Lange, is inclined to believe the LXX. Version represents the true text, and thus comments on it: “The reason of the sudden death of the seventy of the race of Jechoniah is their unsympathising and, therefore, unholy bearing towards the symbols of God’s presence among His people, which showed a mind wholly estranged from the living God—a symptom of the religious moral degeneracy which had spread among the people, though piety was still to be found.”
Yet through their superstition we can discern a deep consciousness of sin and shortcoming, which argued well for the future reformation of the religious life of the people—a grand work, which we shall soon sec Samuel the prophet labouring so faithfully and so successfully to bring about. These poor sinners, discerning the cause of the fatal stroke which had fallen upon their brethren, felt too surely that they were none of them any better really than those who had fallen victims to their impiety, and were fully sensible that sinners could not dwell in the presence of God. Carried away by this feeling of awe before the purity of the invisible King, they cried, “To whom shall He go up from us?”
These poor Hebrews felt the same fear as John was sensible of centuries later, when at the feet of the glorified Son of Man he fell as dead; but they, less blessed than John and the children of the kingdom, had no Redeemer there to raise them up with the loving whisper: “Fear not; I (whom thou dreadest) am He that liveth and was dead.” (Sec Revelation 1:17-18.)