1 And the word of Samuel came to all Israel. Now Israel went out to battle against the Philistines. They encamped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines encamped at Aphek. 2 The Philistines drew up in line against Israel, and when the battle spread, Israel was defeated before the Philistines, who killed about four thousand men on the field of battle. 3 And when the people came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord defeated us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, that it may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.” 4 So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. 5 As soon as the ark of the covenant of the Lord came into the camp, all Israel gave a mighty shout, so that the earth resounded. 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.” 10 So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and they fled, every man to his home. And there was a very great slaughter, for thirty thousand foot soldiers of Israel fell. 11 And the ark of God was captured, and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
(1 Samuel 4:1-11)
Samuel is now the main voice through whom God speaks to all Israel. During this period in Israel’s history they were facing serious threats to their existence from the Philistines.
The Philistines lived in the area that comprises modern-day Gaza and towns north (shown in red on this map):
The name “Philistine” comes from the Hebrew. Their Greek name – “palaistinei” – gives us our modern-day name “Palestine”. The Philistines originally came from Crete [Amos 9:7] and brought with them many advanced technologies from the Greek culture, including iron weapons which were superior to those used by Israel, which were made of bronze. Even after Israel adopted iron weapons, they did not have the technology or expertise to care for these weapons and relied on the Philistines to sharpen and repair them [1 Samuel 13:19-21].
The Philistines were also known for their manufacture and consumption of alcoholic beverages, notably beer. Many breweries and wineries have been unearthed in ancient Philistia as have numerous beer mugs and other drinking vessels. Samson’s wedding, as recorded in the book of Judges, was a week-long drinking party, not unlike those known to be held by the Philistines during their celebrations [Judges 14].
With their more advanced weaponry and aggressive military tactics, the Philistines were able to repeatedly invade and harass Israel for about 200 years. Yet they were never able to displace them from the land. Obviously God was on Israel’s side having had promised that land to Israel. It wasn’t until King David that the Philistines were defeated and ceased to be a thorn in Israel’s side [2 Samuel 5:22-25].
From what we can tell the episode in today’s passage took place shortly after Samson’s death at the hands of the Philistines. The Philistines were Israel’s primary enemy to the west at this time [Judges 15-16]. And perhaps, as a result of killing Samson, they felt emboldened to invade Israel.
Since the Philistines encamped at Aphek – which is in Israeli territory – we can assume they were the aggressors. Considering their military might – and Israel’s military weakness – at this time, this makes sense. Israel, as a result, went out to battle against them. Israel was fighting for their existence against a superior enemy.
All this is interesting, but the most interesting aspect is that the Bible has recorded information that we know is factual and which lines up with history and geography.
For example, historians have tons of information about the Philistines from outside the Bible. And all the mentions of the Philistines in the Bible sync up with what we know about them from these other sources.
The Bible also tells us that this battle took place somewhere between the towns of Aphek and Ebeneazer. We can identify the ancient town of Aphek as modern-day Antipatris. In 1972 the location of Eben-Ezer was unearthed at Izbet Zartta. There was also found at Izbet Zartta an inscription describing this battle, including the capture of the ark, although the exact translation of the inscription is doubted by some.
The point is the Bible is accurate. It references real peoples and real places that are known to historians. Not all so-called inspired texts can make that claim. For example, while the Book of Mormon does refer to historical events, none were contemporary at the time it was written by Joseph Smith in the early 19th century. Instead it refers to peoples (e.g. Nephites and Lamanites) who allegedly existed 1,800 years earlier. But no evidence of these people has ever been found.
In fact, many reputable archaeological research organizations including Yale University (in 1973), The Smithsonian (in 1982), and National Geographic (in 1998) have publicly stated that there is no historical or archaeological confirmation of any of the people, places, or events mentioned in the Book of Mormon. In some cases the historical references in the Book of Mormon have been proven false. A similar conclusion also exists regarding the Quran and other religious writings.
This is all very important because a faith-system whose writings are unproven at best and proven-false at worst is not worth following. Only the Bible has proven itself to be an accurate record of history. And while we don’t have external corroboration for everything in the Bible, we are able to corroborate much of it. It’s also worth noting that we have yet to discover any historical record that contradicts an event described in the Bible.
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