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Poole on 1 Samuel 6:19: Peering into the Ark of the Covenant

Verse 19:[1] And (see Ex. 19:21; Num. 4:5, 15, 20; 2 Sam. 6:7) he smote the men of Beth-shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the LORD, even he smote of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: and the people lamented, because the LORD had smitten many of the people with a great slaughter.

[Now, He smote] Understanding, the Lord (Vatablus). This smiting was both sudden and capital (Mendoza).

[Of the men, etc., בְּאַנְשֵׁי] In/among the men of Beth-shemesh (Montanus, Jonathan). The Beth-shemites (Syriac, Arabic). Of the Beth-shemites (Junius and Tremellius); of the men, etc., so that ב/in/among is in the place of מ/of/from (Vatablus). A number of the men, etc. (Pagnine).

[Because they had looked into the Ark of the Lord (thus Munster),כִּ֤י רָאוּ֙ בַּאֲר֣וֹן יְהוָ֔ה] Because they looked into (had inspected within [Pagnine]) the Ark of the Lord (Montanus, Drusius). Because they had inspected within the Ark (Tigurinus, similarly Junius and Tremellius). They gazed upon what things were in the Ark. For, they opened the Ark, and saw what was in the midst of it. For this reason, he said they looked into the Ark, not saw the Ark, as a Doctor among the Hebrews notes (Vatablus). Among all the Greeks, it was esteemed a sin for the mysteries to be seen, except by initiates (Grotius). Others: because they dreaded the Ark (Syriac) [as if it had read יָרְאוּ, they feared]; they had slighted the Ark of the Lord, and they feared to bring it into their houses (Arabic). Because they say the Ark uncovered and bare, which was forbidden under penalty of death, Numbers 4 (Tostatus, Lyra). Indeed, rather, because they look into it, so that they might see whether the Philistines had removed the tables of the law from it, or what else they might have placed in it (Lapide, Menochius). Or out of curiosity, so that they might see the tables of the law (Menochius). Afterwards, there would be no opportunity for them to see the tables (Sanchez). It ought not to be thought strange, that the Israelites were punished by God more severely than the Philistines; because they had no promises of God, no exposition of the law; and hence, although sinning in this matter, they were not punished with death. But to the Israelties God had revealed His will (Calvin).

[And He smote of the people, etc., וַיַּךְ] And He smote (Montanus, Junius and Tremellius, Septuagint); for He smote (Syriac, Arabic); He smote, I say (Pagnine, Piscator, Tigurinus), that is, Jehovah smote, as it is made clear from the end of the verse. An Epanalepsis[2] because of an interjected Parenthesis.[3] Now, the very mode of speaking requires this syntax: because the language of smiting requires an accusative;[4] and it is manifest that the writer wished to indicate here the number of those smitten (Piscator).

[And He smote of the people seventy men, and fifty thousand of the common people, וַיַּ֤ךְ בָּעָם֙ שִׁבְעִ֣ים אִ֔ישׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף אִ֑ישׁ] And He smote in the people sevent men, fifty thousands of men[5] (Montanus). He smote of the people seventy men and fifty thousands of men (Pagnine, Tigurinus, Munster, Dutch, Septuagint); the ו/and is understood before חֲמִשִּׁים/fifty (Vatablus out of the Hebrews, Drusius), and the smaller number, as it happens, is placed first (Drusius). The construction is inverted, and it is thus to be understood, He smote fifty thousands of men, and seventy additionally (Mariana, thus Junius and Tremellius, English). Many think that just so many were killed (thus Gregory and Theodoret and Carthusianus in Mendoza, Mendoza, Calvin, Junius, Lapide, Serarius, etc.). [To others this translation is not satisfying:] For, 1. the seventy men and fifty thousands, etc., are ἀσύνδετα, without a conjunction; and, so that they might be joined, the and has to be supplied. 2. The order of the words would be completely inverted. For, thousands ought to have preceded lesser numbers, which is consistent in Scripture, as also in our languages; and so it would have had to have been said, fifty thousand and seventy. 3. The language of men would be repeated in vain. For, it had sufficed to say, fifty thousand and seventy men. 4. But what could be less likely than that the Most High God dealt out such a slaughter of those that had received the returning Ark with joy, and had testified to their joy with many sacrifices offered? verses 13, 14. Or that on the fringes of Judah, a town, or more truly a village, as it is called by Josephus,[6] had included so many myriads of men in its walls? Those that answer that they were visitors, whom the report of the return of the Ark brought from the surrounding cities, assert that, not only gratuitously, but also against Scripture. For, no others are read to have been smitten, than the men of Beth-shemesh, that is, of the inhabitants of the town (Bochart’s A Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:2:36:370). But it is plainly and expressly said in the text, that God smote the men of Beth-shemesh, and smote of the people seventy men, and fifty thousands of men: Therefore, it is not to be supposed that all those were of the town of Beth-shemesh (Willet). It appears unbelievable here, that there was so great a multitude in Beth-shemesh; and it appears foreign to the mercy of God to work such slaughter among men. But, I respond, 1. That the Land of Israel, even if small, was exceedingly fruitful with respect to men. See 2 Samuel 24:9; 2 Chronicles 13:3 (Mendoza). We know that the region of Beth-shemesh was so plentiful, that it was able to supply fifty thousands of men (Calvin). 2. That God is no less just than merciful; neither is it to be denied that divine justice is sometimes poured out unto exceedingly great slaughters of men, as it is evident from Genesis 7; 19; and other passages (Mendoza). Stand amazed, therefore, at the severity of the judgments of God here (Lapide, similarly Serarius). Junius and Tremellius, in earlier editions, take this of the Philistines; they maintain that of these just so many persons are said to have been smitten: and in the place of בָּעָם, among the people, they think that it is to be read בָּהֶם, among them. Thus we found it written (say they) in an ancient Hebrew Manuscript codex of the Prince-Elector of the Palatinate. But afterwards, Junius, in the edition of 1617, changed his opinion (Malvenda, Willet). Of the Israelites were smitten fifty thousand and seventy men, of whom some were in camps, so that they might defend the borders against the Philistines: others in an exceedingly great crowd rushed there, since they had heard the report concerning the Ark. On which account, the common reading, against we formerly decided, we judge is to be preserved here (Junius). Moreover, some affirm that those seventy were of the principal, or more noble, men; and the fifty thousand of the common or inferior sort. Thus Gregory, Bede, Eucherius, and Angelemus (Mendoza): He killed of the elders of the people fifty men, and of the assembly fifty thousands of men (Chaldean in Vatablus). But the Hebrew אִישׁ/man is joined to both numbers[7] (Mariana). [But others deny that such a number was killed, and translate and explain the passage otherwise, but not in one way.] Only seventy men were killed (thus Lyra, Tostatus, Carthusianus and Jerome and Rupertus and Sà in Mendoza). To me this appears very likely (Sanchez, similarly Tostatus). For Josephus says in Antiquities 9:1 that only seventy were killed, as if he found no more in his source (Mendoza). The Hebrew doctors think the same thing. Moreover, these things appear to have happened on that day, in which the Ark landed at Beth-shemesh; but at that time others besides the Beth-shemites are not said to have assembled, nor are others said to have died. And who would believe that, from a town not very abundant, fifty thousand died, and a great many were left, who might attend to their burials in grief? Then, when to those, to whom it happened to see the Ark, destruction came suddenly (as the example of Uzzah demonstrates[8]), those that, seeing this, would dare to draw nearer would be exceeding senseless (Sanchez). Objection: But, if only seventy men were killed, the Scripture would not have mentioned that great mourning of the Beth-shemites, because Jehovah had afflicted the people with a great plague. For what is seven men to such a multitude (Calvin)? But, this plague was not small, which snatched away seventy men, and those, as it is likely, the best/ principal (Sanchez). Others thus: The sense of the passage is, that those seventy men were such that they were equivalent to fifty thousand of the common people, as it is said in 2 Samuel 18:3, thou, being one, art worthy ten thousand (Lyra). Or thus: He smote of the people seventy men, and fifty thousand, understanding, were present (Sanchez, Serarius, Tirinus). Or thus: He smote of the people of fifty thousands of men, or, in which were fifty thousand men, seventy men. In such a way that that fifty thousand is conjoined with of the people, although this is farther removed. Now, it is not uncommon among the Hebrews for some particle to be bound with something more remote. See Psalm 97:7; 119:8; 139:14 (Sanchez). The former number, that is, seventy, is the number of those slain; the latter, that is, fifty thousand, of all the citizens living there. The Hebrew words have it thus, He smote seventy men, fifty thousand, etc., in the place of, of fifty thousand, etc. (Mariana). He smote seventy men among the people, which was containing fifty thousands of men (Sà in Mendoza). He could confirm his opinion out of Judges 5:8, if a shield and spear appeared in the forty thousands of Israel;[9] he speaks of his own army, which was consisting only of ten thousand men, Judges 4:6, when he speaks of the lesser number, which was taken out of the greater number (Mendoza). [The Most Illustrious Bochart thus translates it:] He smote of that people seventy men, that is, fifty of a thousand men; so that the sense would be, that God according to His leniency was unwilling to punish all the guilty, but only a twentieth part of them; or, which is the same thing, fifty for every thousand guilty. Therefore, it thus follows that there were one thousand and four hundred guilty of looking into the Ark; a twentieth part of whom, that is, seventy men, God smote. And so those words, fifty of a thousand, shall signify nothing other than the proportion, which God observed in exacting punishments. Just as among the Romans it was customary to decimate soldiers worthy of death.[10] But, that this is the force of the Hebraism, eludes Interpreters, because they do not see that a מ/from/of is to be supplied before אֶלֶף/thousand, and is to be rendered fifty of a thousand, etc. Nevertheless, nothing is more common than an Ellipsis of this preposition. Thus, in Exodus 19:12, take heed to yourselves עֲל֥וֹת בָּהָ֖ר, to ascend into the mount, in the place of מֵעֲלוֹת, from ascending: in Exodus 36:8, they made ten curtains שֵׁשׁ/ linen, in the place of מִשֵׁשׁ, of linen. So also in Exodus 36:19,[11] 34,[12] 35;[13] Joshua 10:13, until the people had avenged itself אֹיְבָיו, its enemies, in the place of מֵאֺיְבָיו, of its enemies; 2 Samuel 23:24, Elhanan, the son of Dodo בֵּית לָחֶם/Beth-lehem, in the place of מִבֵּית לָחֶם, from Beth-lehem; in 2 Kings 17:24, the king of Assyria brought from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, וּסְפַרְוַיִם, and Sepharvaim, in the place of וּמִסְּפַרְוַיִם, and from Sepharvaim, just as it is supplied in the Qere. The incommodities of the commonly received version especially strengthen this conjecture (Bochart’s A Sacred Catalogue of Animals 1:2:36:370). [What things previously out of this author we set forth. The Syriac and Arabic are far different from all these, which have five thousand and seventy men. Thus they appear to resolve the matter by a lesser effort; since in the place of חֲמִשִּׁים/fifty they only read חָמֵשׁ/five; neither do they bring any other alteration into the text. And perhaps in this way the incommodities of all the former opinions are avoided. It is not to be thought that from the exceedingly few, and indeed very slight, errors admitted into the text all truth and trustworthiness of the Sacred Scripture is shaken; as those, either ignorant or impious, proclaim; since rather from these things of lesser significance, and generally only discrepancies concerning numerical matters (on which the hinge of our faith does not at all turn), that singular and clearly divine providence shines forth; whereby it happened, that in those passages, which have regard to the acropolis of our faith, the agreement of all the exemplars, although written in diverse languages, times, and places, is the highest and completely astonishing.]

They had looked into the ark of the Lord; having now an opportunity which they never yet had, nor were ever like to have, it is not strange they had a vehement curiosity and desire to see the contents of the ark; or whether the Philistines had taken them away, and put other things in their place; and they thought they might now presume the more, because the ark had been polluted by the Philistines, and was now exposed to open view, and not yet put into that most holy place, which they were forbidden to approach. Of the people, that is, of the people living in and near Beth-shemesh, or coming thither from all parts upon this great and glorious occasion. Hebrew: and, or also, he smote of the people,[14] to wit, of or belonging to other places, though now here; so these are distinguished from the men of Beth-shemesh, of whom he speaks only in general and indefinitely, he smote the men, that is, some or many of them, and then sets down the number of the persons smitten or slain, either excluding the Bethshemites, or including them. Fifty thousand and threescore and ten men: this may seem an incredible relation, both because that place could not afford so great a number, and because it seems an act of great rigour, that God should so severely punish those people who came with so much zeal and joy to congratulate the return of the ark, and that for so inconsiderable an error. For the latter branch of the objection, it may be said: 1. That God always used to be most severe in punishing his own people, as sinning against more knowledge and warning than others; especially for such sins as immediately concern his own worship and service. 2. That men are very incompetent judges of these matters, because they do not understand all the reasons and causes of God’s judgments. For although God took this just occasion to punish them for that crime which was so severely forbidden even to the common Levites under pain of death; of which see Numbers 4:18-20; yet it is apparent that the people were at this time guilty of many other and greater miscarriages, for which God might justly inflict the present punishment upon them; and moreover, there are many secret sins which escape man’s observation, but are seen by God, before whom many persons may be deeply guilty, whom men esteem innocent and virtuous. And therefore men should take heed of censuring the judgments of God, of which it is most truly said, that they are oft secret, but never unrighteous. And for the former branch of the objection, many things are or may be said: 1. That the land of Israel was strangely populous. See 2 Samuel 24:9; 2 Chronicles 13:3. 2. That all these were not the settled inhabitants of this place, but most of them such as did, and in all probability would, resort thither in great numbers upon so illustrious an occasion. 3. That all these were not struck dead in the very fact, and upon the place, which would have terrified others from following their example; but were secretly struck with some disease or plague, which killed them in a little time. 4. That divers learned men translate and understand the place otherwise, and make the number much smaller. Josephus the Jew, and the Hebrew doctors, and many others, contend that only seventy persons were slain; which though it seem but a small number, yet might justly be called a great slaughter, either for the quality of the persons slain, or for the greatness and extraordinariness of the stroke; or because it was a great number, considering the smallness of the place, and the sadness of the occasion. The words in the Hebrew are these, and thus placed, he smote of or among the people seventy men, fifty thousand men;[15] whereas, say they, the words should have been otherwise placed, and the greater number put before the less, if this had been meant, that he smote fifty thousand and seventy men. And one very learned man renders the words thus, He smote of the people seventy men, even fifty of a thousand, the particle מ/mem, of, being here understood, as it is very frequently. So the meaning is, that God smote every twentieth man of the transgressors, as the Romans used to cut off every tenth man in case of the general guilt of an army. Or the words may be rendered thus, He smote of or among the people seventy men out of fifty thousand men; the particle מ/ mem, of, or out of, being understood before the word fifty, which Bochart puts before a thousand; and it may be thus expressed, to show that God did temper his severity with great clemency; and whereas there were many thousands of transgressors, (every one following his brother’s example, as is usual in such cases,) God only singled out seventy of the principal offenders, who either sinned most against their light or office, or were the ringleaders or chief encouragers of the rest. To which may be added, that the ancient translators, the Syriac and Arabic, read the place five thousand and seventy men, being supposed to have read in their Hebrew copies חָמֵשׁ/chamesh, five, for חֲמִשִּׁים/chamishim, fifty, which is no great alteration in the word.

[And the people lamented, etc.] Because of the dead. But the living themselves were more to be mourned over, who were lamenting only corporal slaughters, but not spiritual catastrophes. They do not grieve because of their sacrileges and other sins, neither because of the injuries of the Ark. Just as the Philistines were not sorrowing because of their sins, but were howling because of the punishments (Mendoza).

[1] Hebrew: וַיַּ֞ךְ בְּאַנְשֵׁ֣י בֵֽית־שֶׁ֗מֶשׁ כִּ֤י רָאוּ֙ בַּאֲר֣וֹן יְהוָ֔ה וַיַּ֤ךְ בָּעָם֙ שִׁבְעִ֣ים אִ֔ישׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף אִ֑ישׁ וַיִּֽתְאַבְּל֣וּ הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־הִכָּ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה בָּעָ֖ם מַכָּ֥ה גְדוֹלָֽה׃ [2] That is, a figure of speech in which the beginning of a clause or sentence is repeated at the end of that same clause or sentence. [3] 1 Samuel 6:19a: “And he smote (וַיַּךְ) the men of Beth-shemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote (וַיַּךְ) of the people fifty thousand and threescore and ten men…” [4] That is, a direct object. [5] A woodenly literalistic rendering of the Hebrew. [6]Antiquities 6:1. [7] 1 Samuel 6:19a: “And he smote the men of Bethshemesh, because they had looked into the ark of the Lord, even he smote of the people seventy men, fifty thousand men (שִׁבְעִ֣ים אִ֔ישׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף אִ֑ישׁ)…” [8] 2 Samuel 6:1-8. [9] Hebrew: מָגֵ֤ן אִם־יֵֽרָאֶה֙ וָרֹ֔מַח בְּאַרְבָּעִ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף בְּיִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃. [10] That is, to kill one in ten. [11] Exodus 36:19: “And he made a covering for the tent of the skins of rams (עֹרֹ֥ת אֵלִ֖ים, with מ/of to be supplied) dyed red, and a covering of the skins of badgers (עֹרֹ֥ת תְּחָשִׁ֖ים, with מ/of to be supplied) above that.” [12] Exodus 36:34: “And he overlaid the boards with gold, and made their rings of gold (זָהָב, with מ/of to be supplied) to be places for the bars, and overlaid the bars with gold.” [13] Exodus 36:35: “And he made a vail of blue (תְּכֵלֶת, with מ/of to be supplied), and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen: with cherubims made he it of cunning work.” [14] Hebrew: וַיַּ֤ךְ בָּעָם֙. [15] Hebrew: וַיַּ֤ךְ בָּעָם֙ שִׁבְעִ֣ים אִ֔ישׁ חֲמִשִּׁ֥ים אֶ֖לֶף אִ֑ישׁ.

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