The Trip to Bethlehem
After Samson was buried, the news spread quickly from Zorah to all parts of Israel that Samson, in his death, had destroyed the great temple of Dagon in Ashkelon. This was interpreted by all as a sign of Yahweh’s greatness, defeating the false god of the Philistines. Many Israelites exulted in the news, inspired by religious fervor. After 39 years of Philistine domination, they were anxious to throw off the yoke and to find relief from the burden of taxation.
The house of Manoah was in mourning for thirty days, as was customary, but in other places, men began to prepare for battle. Word spread quickly about Samson’s victory in death, inspiring religious stories of the glory days of past victories under Joshua and the judges whom God had raised up to deliver Israel from previous captivities. Talk of freedom caught the imagination of many young men, who had never lived in a free country. The reasons for their captivity were long forgotten—or had never been known or understood by their fathers.
The young men began to be restless, and natural leaders among them urged them to fight the Philistines while they were yet in a state of shock and fear from the destruction of their temple in Gaza. “The Philistines will seek revenge,” the young leaders insisted. “War is upon us whether we like it or not. We must prepare immediately!”
Many did prepare. It only took a few men to remember the swords and armor hidden in the cave of Etam, where Samson had killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey. Many interpreted this as a sign of divine encouragement to prepare for war.
The Philistines, on the other hand, heard of these war preparations and began to mobilize their own army to counter the insurgency in Israel. As we remained in the house of Manoah during the days of mourning for Samson, Sippore gave us daily reports of activity that she saw, both in Philistia and in the various tribes of Israel.
Dogma, too, was helpful, for he took note of all who passed by on the road to the Valley of Sorek, where the Israelite warriors were gathering. They gathered at the east end of the valley in the territory of Judah, while the Philistine army camped just outside of Aphek, 116 the home town of Azzah.
“I need to go to Bethlehem,” I said one day. “I need to talk with Boaz to see what he is doing about the approaching war. I should be back soon.”
Dogma came with me as I rode Pegasus to Bethlehem, passing through the Israelite camp, where they were engaging in last-minute preparations for war. A sentry, wearing Philistine armor that had been acquired years earlier when Samson destroyed their army, inquired of my business. I assured him that I was not a Philistine spy.
“I am a friend of Samson’s family,” I explained. “I am passing through from Zorah to Bethlehem. But tell me, friend, did you or anyone among you receive a word from God to engage the Philistines in battle?”
“We consulted Yahweh at Shiloh,” he replied. “Eli consulted the ephod, and God told him that it was the will of God that we should fight. So we know that God will give us the victory. For this reason, we have renamed the Rock of Etam. It is now Ebenezer, “Stone of Help.”
“I see,” I said with skepticism. Who leads the Israelite army?”
“Zur, son of Jehiel, of the tribe of Benjamin,” he replied.
“Is Samuel the prophet among you to prophesy and guide you according to the will of Yahweh?” I inquired.
“No, he has declined to help us,” the man said.
“Is it not unusual for a prophet to decline to assist you after Yahweh said to fight this battle?” I asked again.
“I do not know the answer to that,” the sentry answered. “Perhaps he has confidence that his help is not needed, since we have received the commandment of Yahweh Himself.”
“I smell trouble here,” Dogma growled. “We should leave.”
“Is Boaz among you?” I asked the sentry.
“No,” came the answer. “He is too old to lead us. He has lived too long in captivity and cannot understand our desire to be free.”
“Boaz may lack energy in his old age, but do not underestimate his wisdom from long experience,” I answered. “Come, Pegasus, let us go talk to the wise man of Bethlehem.”
We continued our journey, arriving finally at the house of Boaz. We were greeted by a young man about thirty years of age. A young boy followed him toward us. “Ho, there!” the man shouted. “Welcome, Anava! I am Obed, son of Boaz,” he said, introducing himself.
“You have grown up,” I commented. “It is good to see you again, son of Boaz. You remember Pegasus, of course, and this here is Dogma, a more recent friend whom we have come to love.”
“Shalom,” Obed said warmly. “You are always welcome here. This is my son, Jesse. My wife and I were quite young when we were married. My son is twelve years old now.”
“I am pleased to meet you,” I said to Jesse, who by this time was already falling in love with Dogma.
Turning back to Obed, I said, “I have come to speak with you and your father. Is he here?”
“Yes, he is here,” Obed replied. “Come with me.”
Many came running to welcome me, as I dismounted. “It is the man with the strange hat riding the great white horse!” another voice said somewhere in the background. The people crowded around Pegasus, admiring him and wanting to touch him. It was apparent that stories had been told for many years about the great white horse who had been raised from the dead 19 years earlier.
Both Pegasus and Dogma would be well cared for, I knew, and I was escorted to the house, where Boaz was waiting at the door. “Come in,” he said. “I am sorry that I could not go out to greet you. I am young at heart, but my legs are somewhat older, and I do not leave the house without difficulty.”
“It is good to see you, my friend. How is Ruth? Is she well?”
“Yes, she will be here shortly,” Boaz said. “She has gone to the market, but she will be back soon. She is much younger than I, and she takes good care of me. But we have not seen you in many years, and it seems that neither you nor your horse have aged! You must be as Moses, whose energy remained until the day he died. 118 But how is Sipporah? I see that she did not come with you.”
“I left her at the house of Manoah, which is yet in mourning for the death of their son. No doubt you heard of Samson’s death. We have been staying with Naamah during the time of her mourning. From there we have watched many young men of Israel walk past the house as they gather at the rock of Etam.”
“Yes,” Boaz said, “the men are preparing for war. They have received a word from Yahweh through Eli to fight for their freedom, but the 40-year captivity has not fully ended yet. I am doubtful of the word from the ephod, in light of the problem with Eli and his sons. Samuel, too, has refused to be part of this war. Something is wrong.”
“Has there been any call to put away the idols in Israel?” I asked.
“No,” Boaz replied, “at least not officially. There are many of us, of course, who never adopted such idols, and others who have repented as individuals. However, the problem still persists in many towns in Israel.”
“Then this will not go well for them,” I said, shaking my head. “When men consult Yahweh while having idols in their hearts, God answers them according to their idols in order to bring judgment upon them. 117 It appears that God is leading them into disaster, so that the people will see the need to repent first. My counsel is to stay away from any war of liberation until Samuel leads it.”
“How could God deceive the people through the ephod?” Boaz asked. “Most would consider such a belief to be blasphemous.”
“Most men do not understand the ways of Yahweh,” I replied. “But do you not recall what happened in the time when the tribe of Benjamin was nearly destroyed? The Israelite tribes received a word from God that Judah was to lead them in battle against Benjamin. 119 But the Israelites lost twice, suffering losses of 22,000 120 and again 18,000 121 before finally God gave them the victory.”
“That story has always puzzled me,” Boaz said.
“The Israelites asked the wrong question,” I explained. “Instead of asking whether or not they should fight their brothers of Benjamin, they assumed that they should fight and asked only who should lead them. That was their first mistake. Only after they had lost the first battle did they ask the right question, but by that time it was too late. God judges the accusers before passing sentence upon the accused. Apparently, God decided that the sins in Israel required 40,000 deaths before God would deliver Benjamin into their hands.”
“We cannot afford to make such a mistake again,” Boaz said thoughtfully. “I hope Israel does not suffer so many casualties again before they learn the ways of God.”
“Did the people forget that God sentenced Israel to forty years under the Philistine yoke?” I asked.
“The sons of Eli,” Boaz replied, “told them that their religious zeal had shortened the time of their captivity. They confuse loyalty to Shiloh for loyalty to Yahweh. Youthful zeal has difficulty comprehending the importance of time and patience. It seems that the older we get, the more appreciation we have of time. Even so, we know that Samson was called to begin the work of delivering Israel. Now that he is dead, his work is finished, and we must begin to shift our focus to the conclusion of this deliverance.”
“You may have heard that Samuel was dismissed from Shiloh,” Boaz added.
“No, I had not heard this,” I replied. “How did that happen?”
“Eli’s sons were deeply suspicious of Samuel for a long time,” Boaz said. “They could see that Samuel had a different spirit, and then, too, they were jealous of the esteem that the people have for Samuel. Samuel has a reputation as a prophet, which seems to prick the pride of the one who wears the ephod.”
“I can understand that,” I said. “The word of God came to Eli many years ago that his arm would be cut off. Obviously, this was not to be taken literally, but that the strength of the prophetic gift was to be removed from the office of the high priest and given to a new office of prophet that was to remain distinct from the priesthood. That is already developing with Samuel, who is the first of his kind. Corrupt priests do not like such competition, nor do they easily give up an authority that they once enjoyed.”
“Well, that has occurred,” Boaz continued. “Samuel was sent to Ramah to judge disputes in the court where Eglon judged the people many years ago. I suspect that he was sent away from Shiloh so that the sons of Eli could assert more control over the sanctuary—and also continue in sin with greater secrecy.”
“When Samuel leads Israel into victory over the Philistines,” I said, “then all men will know that Israel’s deliverance has come. “But if Samuel does not lead this present battle that is developing, those who fight are in grave danger. I hope that the Philistines will consider this small army to be a rogue band of rebels, rather than viewing them as evidence of a general revolt of Israel itself.”
“I think,” Boaz said, “that as long as the sons of Eli stay away from the battlefield, the Philistines will not see this as an Israelite revolt. The presence of Eli’s sons would raise it to the level of a national uprising.”
Ruth arrived at that moment from the market. “I heard that you had come,” she said, “so I came as quickly as I could. I will prepare supper shortly. If I had known you were coming, I would have killed a fattened calf. Will you stay the night with us?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I must return to Zorah tomorrow. I came to discuss with Boaz the current situation regarding the Philistines.”
“Few have ears to hear the word of Yahweh these days,” Ruth said sadly. “It seems that the captivity of Israel has done little to turn the hearts of the people back to God. I do not understand why the divine judgments seem to have so little effect upon the people. There is a strange blindness that has covered the people as with a veil.”
“That veil is a long-term judgment from the distant past,” I said. “It was placed upon the hearts and minds of the people in the days of Moses, when he put a veil over his face to hide the glory of God. 122 It will not be removed for a very long time—not until men begin to live by the second covenant that God made with Israel in the land of Moab.”
“That second covenant was made while Israel was in my home country,” Ruth said. “I have a special interest in that covenant, and for this reason I remember it well.”
“You were born in the land of the second covenant,” I said. “Boaz has been blessed indeed to have you as his wife. Would to God that all Israel could see what your eyes see and hear what your ears are able to hear!”
We fellowshipped well into the evening before finally finding our beds and falling asleep.
- 1 Samuel 4:1. The location of Aphek is disputed among historians. Most put it farther north, but some say it was in the Valley of Sorek. As for Ebenezer, where the Israelites camped, this was prematurely named Ebenezer, “stone of help,” by those who thought God was on their side. Obviously, God did not help Israel, for they lost the battle. The true Ebenezer came later, when Samuel set up his monument after the final victory (1 Samuel 7:12).
- God answered them according to the idols of their hearts. Ezekiel 14:1-5.
- Deuteronomy 34:7
- Judges 20:18
- Judges 20:21
- Judges 20:25
- Exodus 34:33, explained by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:13-15.