“Then send it off and let it go its way 9 and watch. If it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence.” –
The Philistines had come into possession of the Ark of the covenant because Eli’s sons (and the rest of the elders of Israel) chose to use it as a standard for war, a way to rally the people, to help them to fight, and as a ‘god of war.’ They, the Philistines, felt that they had essentially captured Israel’s God, and proceeded to place it at the feet of their own god, saying ”see, your god is less than ours.” Unfortunately for the Philistines, though, this began to lead to all sorts of trouble for their cities; every province to which they moved the ark was struck with panics, tumors and other strange occurrences. Eventually, some wise men in the Philistine cities suggested that they should probably return the Ark to the Israelites, lest they all be destroyed by some severe catastrophe.
Just sending the ark off wasn’t good enough, of course. They couldn’t bear to accept that there might be a more powerful God than theirs, so they devised a plan to return the Ark in a manner that they figured would pretty much prove without a doubt that all the incidents that had been happening were just coincidence. Putting the Ark in a cart, along with their guilt offerings of golden tumors and rats, they took two milk cows who were still nursing their young and had never been yoked to any cart, strapped them to the front of the cart with the Ark, and sent them off in some random direction. If the cart went toward the land of the Israelites, then they would know that it was God that had been cursing them.
Remember, now, that these cows had never known a yoke. They have never learned to work with another to pull a load. They also had just been removed from their calves – the ‘motherly instinct’ should normally kick in; they should turn, fight against the yoke, and try to get to their children.
Instead, though, they left. They were lowing the whole time for their children, but they left. They headed straight for the land of the Israelites. The cows went against every instinct they had to return the cart containing the Ark to the people of the Lord.
They, the Philistines, tested the Lord, and the Lord showed them that it was indeed he who did the things that plagued them.
Do you find yourself building carts of trial, to require that God prove that He is who He says He is?
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8 And take the ark of the Lord and place it on the cart and put in a box at its side the figures of gold, which you are returning to him as a guilt offering. Then send it off and let it go its way 9 and watch. If it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is he who has done us this great harm, but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by coincidence.” (ESV)