“They took two such cows and hitched them to the cart and penned up their calves. 11 They placed the ark of the Lord on the cart and along with it the chest containing the gold rats and the models of the tumors. 12 Then the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left. The rulers of the Philistines followed them as far as the border of Beth Shemesh,” (1 Samuel 6:10-13).
Priests served as theocratic mediators between God and man in ancient Israel. They also performed sacerdotal functions according to divine laws and statutes. Any decadence in the priestly office portended individual and corporate retribution and punishment. An apostate and weak priesthood disrupted the relationship between God and the people, and caused the people to turn to idolatry and superstition. This was the case during the Priest Eli’s priestly tenure. Eli’s sons desecrated the people’s offering and their sacrifices, and Eli did practically nothing to stop them. They abused their authority in the sanctuary and committed abominations before the Lord with impunity, and they caused the people to transgress.
When war broke out between Philistia and Israel, God allowed Israel to be defeated by their enemies who also captured the Ark of the Covenant, which represented the immediate presence and glory of God. Eli died that same day and so did his two sons and daughter-in-law. Israel had attempted to confine God to a wooden box and treated the Ark superstitiously as an object to be used to their advantage during crises. It was a fatal mistake. The Philistines thought they could capture the God of Israel and exalt their idols over Him. Another fatal mistake. This God abounds in cosmic freedom: heaven is His throne and the earth His footstool. Nothing and nobody can harness His omnipotence. When placed face to face with the Ark, the Philistine idol fell face down before the Ark. They tried to re-set it in its place and the next morning the idol was flat on its face. This time with its head and hands severed from its torso on the threshold. “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me,” (Exodus 20:3) is the eternal commandment. The Lord God is incomparable. He has no competition.
In the 7 months the Ark was in Philistia, the men suffered inexplicable deaths and an epidemic of what the Bible terms ‘tumors’ broke out. The Philistines suspected that the capture of the Ark of the Covenant was a causative factor for all the deaths and illnesses. They decided to conduct what they thought was an impossible experiment to validate their suspicions and to test the power of God. They would return the Ark, unmanned. They yoked two milk cows. That is, cows with calves. They chose two milk cows, shup up the calves, yoked them, and hitched them to the cart to take the Ark and some gold offerings to Beth Shemesh in Israel. Cows, like any other animal are fiercely protective of their calves, particularly if one attempts to separate them from them. Cows are not as placid or docile as they are usually depicted in fairy tales. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention claims that 20 people are killed each year by cows in the United States alone. Meddling with their calves can be a disastrous endeavor. If not properly handled, milk cows can disrupt the entire milking process.
Milk cows were never yoked in antiquity, only oxen were yoked. These animals could not be yoked to perform a task unless they were first tamed otherwise they could react violently to being confined to a yoke, even to the extent of goring the person attempting to yoke them. They naturally resent such forced confinement. It takes months of hard work and patience to tame animals for the yoke, under normal circumstances. In this case, however, the cows willingly submitted to the yoke. These animals had never been to Beth Shemesh before. They were Philistine cows. None of the lords of the Philistines volunteered to guide them or to lead them toward Beth Shemesh. This was part of the test. However, the cows directed themselves into the road that led to Beth Shemesh. The Philistine lords followed them to the border. They did not go before them to lead them. The animals led the way. Even tame oxen plowing as a span in familiar fields need someone to go before them to guide them. But not these milk cows. They made their way to Israel. No one dared ambush them on the way, no predator attacked them for prey. They never veered off the road to graze or to look for water. They set out for Beth Shemesh, lowing as they went.
When the people of Beth Shemesh lifted up their eyes, a spectacular sight met their gaze. Two cows steadily drew toward them, unguided, pulling their sacred cargo, the Emblem of God’s presence. The cows headed straight for the field of someone called Joshua and stopped there, and waited for the Levites to take down the Ark of the Lord. They had completed their task. Our sovereign God does not need to be defended by human beings nor can He be captured by them. He defends Himself and His own. Natural laws bow down in obeisance before Him. A God who can direct animals through old, bumpy roads, meandering through dense forests of antiquity, can easily find the way for you and I through the detours and maze of 21st century life on earth. How great is our God!