16th September 2011

Guilt Offering

Samuel before Saul series (1 Samuel 6) 

Send a guilt offering to him”
1 Samuel 6:3 (NIV UK)

Have you ever given a guilt offering without actually saying “I’m sorry”? Like a bunch of flowers for your wife, or a special meal for your husband?

Giving an offering in order to appease a perceived higher power was common in ancient times. Sometimes the gift itself was viewed as an admission of guilt without a formal apology. The Philistines had had continual trouble since they took the Ark of the Covenant as a trophy. Their own god, Dagon, was powerless to help them. Throughout the land there had been a plague of tumours, possibly spread by rats. Was this like the Black Death of the European Middle Ages? It was time, their leaders thought, to “honour Israel’s god” (6:5).

But how? Their answer was to send back the Ark with a gift. They decided to cast five golden models of the tumours and the rats. These were to represent the contrition of the rulers and citizens of Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron. The Philistines, however, had a concern: how to be sure that the plague was really from the god of Israel, and that they weren’t just throwing their hard-earned gold away? They devised a plan. It was to find two recently calved cows that would not want to stray far from their offspring, attach to them a cart carrying the ark and the box with the guilt offering, and see which way the cows would go. If the cows went toward Beth Shemesh, the nearest Israelite city, then, they conjectured, it was the Israelite god; if not, then the plagues were just time and chance. I wonder, are we sometimes superstitious like the Philistines were?

The wandering cows stopped by a rock near Beth Shemesh, and, when the Israelites saw the Ark, they got very excited indeed. They cut up the wooden cart to make a fire, killed the cows and offered them as burnt offering on top of the rock, which later became a cultic centre. Also, the Israelites had not learned their lesson. Some of them, mirroring the views of the Philistines, thought God lived in the box that was the Ark. They opened the Ark and looked inside. This curiosity killed them, just like it did the proverbial cat. Now, like the Philistines before them, the people of Beth Shemesh wanted to pass the Ark onto someone else.

In hindsight we know that God does not want rituals and ceremonies in order to appease him. Some writers in the Old Testament began to see that. For example, David wrote: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17).

Prayer
O God, help me, like David, through your Holy Spirit, to offer a broken and contrite heart as my continual offering. In Jesus’ name.
Amen

Study by James Henderson

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