A very unusual thing happens in 1 Samuel 6:17-18. The present section contains the longest recorded speech given by Philistines, pagan idol worshippers, in the Old Testament (120 words in the Hebrew), as well as the Old Testament’s longest stretch of dialogue between Philistines (four consecutive statements).
With remarkable concern for detail the writer records the ensuing conversational exchange between the Philistines and their religious experts. Such extraordinary detail by the writer suggests that he may have had access to an eyewitness source but also that he was guided in formulating the present composition by motives beyond those of mere historical reportage.
The writer used the Philistine dialogue to demonstrate a theological point. The spiritual darkness of Philistia’s leaders—the diviners and those who consulted them—was in fact the true source for their present problems.
The Torah (Deuteronomy 18:9–19) warned that although surrounding nations consulted diviners, Israel must not consult diviners. Diviners were “detestable to the Lord” and a cause for the Lord driving inhabitants from the Promised Land. Instead, Israel must listen to a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord would raise up. Of course, such a prophet already had been provided in the person of Samuel (cf. 3:20). Thus, this passage implicitly buttresses the theological foundation laid elsewhere for two prominent ideas: holy war against the Philistines and the divine authority of Samuel.
Interestingly, the diviners’ statements express a knowledge of certain details of the Torah (1 Samuel 6:6), theology (1 Samuel 6:5), and ritual (1 Samuel 6:3). The diviners understood, for example, that the Philistines needed to “pay honor to Israel’s god” and that one way to do that was by presenting “a guilt offering” (Leviticus 5:14–6:7; 7:1–6). However, the means they recommended was totally wrongheaded.
In addition to missing the Torah requirement of the slaying of a ram as part of the guilt offering (Leviticus 5:15), the pagan diviners recommended appeasing Israel’s God with ten fashioned images of gold, a violation of the Decalogue’s prohibition against all likenesses of animals and humans (Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 5:8).
Incredibly, the recommended statues were to be of ritually detestable animals (Leviticus 11:29)—“mice/rats”! As if that were not enough, God was also to be given a gift of five golden images of unclean “tumors!” This advice apparently represents a syncretistic blend of pagan magic and perverted Torah ritual.
Lastly, the priests and diviners directed the Philistines to transport the ark on a cart, a means of transportation for the ark expressly forbidden in the Torah (Numbers 7:7–9; cf. 2 Sam 6:3–13). Their recommendations were framed in a historical lesson from the Torah suggesting the need for immediate action: “Why harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did?” (1 Samuel 5:6).
The diviners and priests directed the Philistines to send the ark back to Israel for two purposes:
- First, to remove the deadly object—and thereby Israel’s deity—from their territory; and
- Second, to determine the true origin of the Philistines’ sufferings.
The Philistines viewed their troubles as the deliberate actions of an angry foreign deity; however, to the informed Israelite audience they were the triumphant execution of God’s judgments as the Torah had promised judgments against a nation who had desecrated Him.