It was in the fortieth year of Eli’s reign as judge in Israel, the children of Israel were getting ready to go to war with the philistines. There had been a long-standing enmity between the two nations and the truce had been broken. There had been a fight in the Israelites’ border on the South that resulted in the death of two men from the philistines, and their King was eager to slay thousands of Israelites in revenge.
He would not hear of talks of peace or be appeased with gifts. The previous victories of the Israelites were still fresh in his memory; he had lost his father and two brothers, and he had escaped with numerous bodily but thankfully no fatal wounds. His friend had not been so lucky, and had lost an arm.
Since then, he had been plotting his revenge and the Israelites had given him the perfect opportunity. Unknown to them, he had spies amongst them, his men that had disguised as strangers from another land and had settled among them, and over the space of five years had given him an exact picture of what was happening in the nation.
The Jews were known for their hospitality and openness to strangers and that had provided the freedom his men had to spy out the land without fear of discovery. Some had even married Jewish women and acquired land. He knew exactly where their strength lay and the best way to attack. The Israelites were lawless; they had no king or ruler, Yahweh-their god was their King, they boasted. Everyone did what pleased him and a judge-Eli, who according to his sources was an old man of eighty years, living in Shiloh and serving as priest, settled any scores or dispute.
He would never understand the Jews, and why they were so arrogant. He also knew better than to underestimate them. That had been his father’s mistake, and he had paid for it with his life.
He was coming against them with all his army, but he wasn’t going to pitch them in the battlefront all at once, he would divide them into three, with two parts coming from the flanks. The Israelites did not know what was in store for them.
When the battled were joined at the battlefront, the Israelite army was having the upper hand and the philistines were falling down in their scores. Then the King signaled that the trumpet be blown and the philistine army began to beat a retreat.
Unsuspectingly, the Israelite army pursued them only to realize that they had been ambushed and were trapped between two armies. It was a bitter defeat; four thousand of the Israelites died and many were injured. Israel had not recorded such a defeat since the days of Joshua. Something must be wrong.
Later that day, the elders of Israel gathered to deliberate. The room was filled with silence and all heads were bowed in grief. In each person’s eyes were reflected the question that was on the tip of every man’s tongue but which no one had the answer to: what went wrong?
Finally, Salmon the eldest spoke up. He opined that it was because the Ark of the Covenant had not followed them to the battle field, was the reason they had suffered such humiliation at the hands of the philistines; the uncircumcised, he spat with disgust. He reminded the others that the Ark of the Covenant had always been taken to the battlefield for every of Israel’s battle till then. They had neglected God, and he too had left them alone, he concluded.
Several heads nodded in agreement, and a unanimous decision was made to send for the Ark of Covenant to be brought from the temple in Shiloh, and to be accompanied by the priests.
It took great persuading to get Eli, the High Priest, to allow the Ark of the Covenant to be removed from its place. In his forty years as High Priest, the Ark had not moved from its place and access to it was once in a year. The messengers had prevailed upon him and he had agreed. Thus the Ark made its way to the camp of the Israelites in Aphek.
When the Ark of the Covenant entered the Israelites’ camp, there was great joy and shouting and many stared wide-eyed in amazement at its beauty. No one aside the High Priest had access to it and that was once a year. Now it was but a few feet from them glistering in all its glory. It was made of acacia wood, and overlaid with the purest of gold, and ringed on all its four corners where staves of wood also overlaid with gold were attached so that it could be borne on the shoulders of the priests.
Once it had been set up in a tent, the priests sacrificed to the Lord, offerings of sheep and ram and oxen. The people shouted as the smoke of the incense rose to the sky; God was now in their midst and the philistines were going to be annihilated. There was dancing and a loud feast from the evening till the early hours of the morning. They couldn’t wait for the morning to come to draw out the battle lines.
The battle lasted three days, and the Israelites were defeated. Thirty thousand people were killed and the Ark of Covenant was taken captive, after the two priests, Hophni and Phinehas were killed.
A sacrilege had been committed, an abomination. The people wailed and poured ashes on their heads. The implication of the captured ark was more daunting than the loss of lives. Their grief knew no bounds; the symbol of their God had been taken away.
The news of the captured ark was the death of Eli. He had been sitting on a stool when he received the news and he fell off and broke his neck. The result was fatal, he died more from a broken heart than from a broken neck, the glory had departed from Israel, and its light had been put out.
Even the newborn felt the impact, Eli’s daughter-in-law delivered before her time and in her dying breath named her son “Ichabod”–the glory had departed. He would grow to be a reminder of that black day when the light of the nation was snuffed out.