Ages ago when Atlantis was young and the World still flat, when Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and Reagan occupied the White House, I drew a black & white parody comic about a bullwhip-wielding, fedora-wearing adventurer named Arizona Schwartz the Lost Archaeologist. And yes, the comic did bear some resemblance to a certain movie of that era
In the movie, of course, the Nazis are trying to find the fabled Ark of the Covenant and bring it back to Germany for Hitler, and the Hero is trying to stop them. But it occurred to me as I wrote the comic that perhaps the hero would have done better to let Hitler just have the Ark. Because the Nazis weren’t the first to try to steal the blessed thing.
When Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai, he also received instructions to build a tabernacle, a word meaning “dwelling place”; a large tent that would serve as a portable place of worship for the Israelites. And he received instructions for the making of various furnishings that would go into the Tabernacle, the most important of which was the Ark.
The Ark was a large chest, about 3 ¾ feet in length and 2 ¼ feet wide and tall. It was covered inside and out with an overlay of gold, and had rings fastened to the corners through which long poles were inserted which were used to carry the Ark when the Israelites moved their camp. The cover of the chest was called the Mercy Seat, (or the “atonement cover” in the NIV translation; Mercy Seat sounds better). Placed on the cover were two cherubim fashioned of gold, one on each end, with their wings spread over the cover. (Exodus 25:10-22)
Within the Ark was placed the original stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed. According to the New Testament Book of Hebrews and later Jewish Tradition, it also contained a jar of manna, the staff of Aaron, and maybe Moses’ baby pictures and some other stuff as well.
The Ark was kept in the innermost part of the Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies, (or Sanctum sanctorum in the Latin Vulgate version, from which we get the term “Inner Sanctum”), apart from the general public worship area. Only the priests and Moses himself were permitted in the Innermost Sanctuary of the Tabernacle. When God spoke to Moses in their subsequent travels, he did so from the Mercy Seat, between the two cherubim, (which is why in the movie Belloq insists that the Ark was “a… transmitter, a radio for speaking to God!”)
Whenever the Israelites moved their camp, the Ark led the procession, carried by four Levites. It also accompanied the Israelite army when they went into battle during Joshua’s campaigns against the Canaanites.
Once the Israelites were settled in the Promised Land, the Tabernacle was set up near the city of Shiloh, roughly in the center of the territories of the Twelve Tribes. There the Ark remained for a good long time.
Several generations passed since the time of Moses and of Joshua. A man named Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phineas, were priests at Shiloh, in charge of performing the sacrifices at the Tabernacle.
Eli seems to have been a decent enough geezer, but as is sometimes the case with preacher’s kids (present company I hope excluded), Hophni and Phineas were jerks. The text says that “they had no regard for the LORD.” (1 Samuel 2:12) When people came to offer sacrifices at the Tabernacle, they defied the traditional procedure for determining the priest’s portion of the sacrifice, and demanded their “cut” up front before it was even offered. They also made a practice of sleeping with the women who served at the Tabernacle. Eli tried pleading with his boys to cease abusing their priestly position, but they ignored him. They knew Pops was a pushover and they didn’t take him seriously.(1 Samuel 2:22-25)
At about this time the boy Samuel, who grew up to be an important prophet, was brought to Eli to serve in the Tabernacle. One night, Samuel hears a message from the Lord, telling him that he was going to lay down some big-time judgment on the House of Eli; “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle.” (1 Samuel 3:11). Eli would not be exempt from this judgment, because he had the power to curtail his sons but did not and therefore he bore part of the responsibility for their wickedness. Apart from his duties as a father, as chief priest, he had a professional obligation as well. When a superior turns a blind eye to the misdeeds of his subordinates, he takes on their blame as well.
Eli’s sons have been walking all over him for so long, that Eli has really developed a fatalistic attitude towards everything. When young Samuel relays this message to him, Eli sighs, “He is the LORD; let him do what is good in his eyes.” (1 Samuel 3:18) He should have done something earlier to keep his boys from going out of control, but it’s too late now.
During this period, the chief rivals of the Israelites were the Philistines, who dwelt to the west. They are believed to be originally a tribe of the Sea Peoples, a group that swept across Greece and the Aegean Sea region during the Bronze Age. They tried invading Egypt as well, but were repelled by Ramesses III and settled in some of the coastal cities of Palestine, around present-day Gaza. From the late period of the Judges through the reigns of Kings Saul and David, the Philistines are depicted in the Bible as the Arch-enemies of Israel. Although largely subdued in the time of David, they retained their independence until ultimately absorbed by Assyria in the 7th Century BC. In modern usage, the term “Philistine” has been used synonymous with “uncouth barbarian”, but the Philistines had plenty of couth, thank you, and seem to have been superior in technology and weaponry than the Tribes of Israel.
After a particularly humiliating defeat by the Philistines at a place called Aphek, the elders of Israel asked what went wrong and somebody remembered the Ark, and how in the time of Joshua, the Israelites were unbeatable when they carried the Ark before them.
When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the LORD bring defeat upon us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the LORD’s covenant from Shiloh, so that it may go with us and save us from our enemies.” (1 Samuel 4:3 NIV)
So they tried again, this time carrying the Invincilbe Ark before them into battle; and…
The Philistines once again beat the snot out of them. Even worse than before.
Some people, even religious people; perhaps especially religious people; seem to think of God as being like a video game where all you have to do is enter the right cheat code and you’ll get what you want. The sons of Eli and the Israelites seem to have thought of the Ark of the Lord as a kind of magic talisman, +5 vs heathens. It didn’t work that way.
Not only did the Philistines once again send the Israelite army running, they killed Hophni and Phinehas, who were with the Ark and probably helping to carry it, and they seized the Ark itself.
Back in Shiloh, Eli sat waiting by the side of the road for word of the battle. He had a feeling in his gut that things were going to go badly. He was ninety-eight years old and he could barely see, but his gut was working just fine A runner came from the battlefield with the bad news: the loss of the battle, of Eli’s sons, and of the Ark. Upon hearing the last, Eli fell backwards out of his chair and broke his neck. He had led Israel for forty years; he would lead it no more. (1 Samuel 4:12-18)
On top of everything, the text tells us that the pregnant wife of Phinehas went into labor upon hearing the bad news. It was a difficult delivery, and she lived only long enough to name her baby Ichabod, meaning “no glory”, because “The glory has departed from Israel.” (1 Samuel 4:19-22)
The Philistines returned with their spoils of war back to the city of Ashdod, one of the five cities of Philista. They placed the captured Ark in the temple to Dagon, a Canaanite deity which the Philistines had adopted and which seems to have been their chief god. Although originally a fertility deity, Dagon is often depicted as part fish, perhaps partially because his name resembles the Semitic word, “dag”, for “fish; and partially because the Philistines were sea-going coastal dwellers. H.P. Lovecraft borrowed the name in a couple of his stories involving the Deep Ones, eldritch monstrosities from beneath the sea.
The next morning, when the acolytes of Dagon went to the temple, they found the great statue of Dagon toppled over, face down, in front of the Hebrew Ark, as if the god was worshipping it.
Well. That was freaky. But they righted the statue and went back to business.
The morning after that, the same thing had happened, only this time Dagon’s head and hands had broken off the statue and were lying on the threshold of the temple. (The writer of the text comments that for this reason, the priests and worshippers of Dagon will not step on the threshold when entering the temple. Next time I meet a Philistine, I’ll have to ask if this is true.) (1 Samuel 5:1-5)
Dagon wasn’t the only one to suffer. The people of Ashdod began to suffer from hemorrhoids. Or something. The King James Version call them “emerods”, but many more modern translations call them “tumors”. Some commentators have suggested that they might have been the swellings of the lymph nodes in the groin which are symptoms of bubonic plague.
The people of Ashdod blamed the Israelite Ark for their affliction, so the rulers of the Philistines decided to move it to another city, Gath. The emerods broke out in Gath too, afflicting both old and young in their private places, and people began to panic. Once more, the Philistine rulers moved the Ark, this time to the city of Ekron. Another town, another outbreak, and by this point people were starting to die from the affliction, which to me suggests that it was something like the Plague and not simply a problem that could be relieved with Preparation H. (1 Samuel 5:6-12)
The Philistines were rapidly running out of cities. This had been going on for seven months now, and so the leaders of the Philistines consulted their priests. “Give the sucker back to the Israelites,” the Priests said, and they also advised giving an offering of gold with it, by way of apology. They suggested that the gold be fashioned in the form of five golden tumors, representing the five cities of Philista and the tumors caused by the plague, and five golden rats, because they’d been suffering from a rat plague too. Rats? Why didn’t they mention the rats before? Sounds like Bubonic Plague to me.
How they pull off the transaction is kind of interesting too. The Philistines put the Ark and the gifts in a cart, to be pulled by two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Then the cows with the cart will be let loose near the border of the Israelite’s territory. If the cows go by themselves to Beth Shemesh, the nearest Israelite town, then it will be a sign that the Israelite god had afflicted them; if the cows went back into Philistine territory, then the plague was a coincidence and the Israelite god had nothing to do with it. (1 Samuel 6:1-9)
The people of Beth Shemesh, in the middle of harvesting their wheat, were delighted and surprised to see the ox cart carrying the Ark of God wandering across their filed. They built an altar on the spot and offered the cows up as a burnt sacrifice to the Lord, (which, if the Philistines really had been suffering from the Plague, might have saved the people of Beth Shemesh from contracting it themselves).
The Philistines observed all this from a distance, and went back to their cities. Some Levites came to take charge of the Ark. It was taken to the city of Kiriath Jearim and Eleazar, the son of Abinadab, was consecrated to guard it.
All ended happily. Well, except for about seventy men of Beth Shemesh (most Hebrew texts say 50,070, but that looks like a copyist’s mistake), who peeked inside the Ark and were struck down for it. (v.19) Which is probably why Indy told Marion not to look when the Nazis opened the Ark in the movie. Did those 70 guys’ faces melt and their heads explode? The text doesn’t say.
The text also doesn’t say if the Philistines got over their genital emerod problem. Presumably the affliction ran its course and was over. The writer of the text is more interested in the Ark.
I ended my comic parody of the movie by noting that if Hitler had gained possession of the Lost Ark, Germany might have suffered the same kinds of misfortunes that the Philistines did, and Nazi Germany might never have become a threat to the world. And that shortly after the story takes place, the US economy, which had been struggling out of the Great Depression, suddenly took another nosedive.
After which, I said, a mysterious crate was taken from a maximum security warehouse in Washington D.C. and loaded onto a plane bound for British Palestine. The plane disappeared somewhere over the Bermuda Triangle, and its cargo never recovered.