1 Samuel 4

The Philistines Capture the Ark


Israel went out to meet the Philistines in battle and encamped beside Ebenezer (4:1).

Ebenezer is typically identified with Izbet Sartah, which fits the geographical context of 1 Samuel 4 (which mentions Aphek) and the archaeological setting of the early Israelite-Philistine conflict (Iron Age I Israelite remains). The reference to Ebenezer in 1 Samuel 7:12 may indicate either that there were two distinct sites named Ebenezer or simply that the latter recalled the earlier conflict with the Philistines. In any event, the literary connection between the two Ebenezers is strong.


Israel went out to meet the Philistines in battle . . . and the Philistines encamped in Aphek (4:1).

The site of Aphek is to be identified with Tell Ras el-Ain, which means “Head of the Spring,” a reference to this site being at the head of a water source. The large spring at the foot of the tell forms the headwaters of the Yarkon River. This was a strategic location, not just because of the plentiful water source, but because it was located at a crossroads of the major north-south international highway. The Ottoman fortress visible in this photo was built in the 16th century, shortly after the Old City walls of Jerusalem.

The Sea Peoples

And the Philistines put themselves in array against Israel (4:2).

Most historians believe that the Sea Peoples (of whom the Philistines are the best-known tribe) arrived in the Levant around 1200 BC, about a century before the events recorded in 1 Samuel 4. It seems that they came from the west, somewhere in the Aegean. They may have travelled down the coast of Israel by both land and sea, confronting the Egyptians during the reign of Ramesses III. The Egyptians were able to repulse the Sea Peoples, who then settled along the coast of Israel. Ramesses III commemorated his victory by inscribing scenes from the battle on the north wall of his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu. These scenes comprise our best source of what the Philistines looked like at about the time of Eli and Samuel.

Running to Shiloh

A man of Benjamin ran from the battle line and came to Shiloh the same day (4:12).

This would have been the messenger’s view as he approached Shiloh. The distance from the battlefield at Aphek to Shiloh was about 20 miles (32 km), and much of it would have been uphill. To run this distance in a day, following whatever time it would have taken for the outcome of the battle to become clear, would have been a significant feat. In this view of Shiloh, taken from the ridge to the west, Tel Shiloh blends into the taller hill behind it.

Sitting in the Gate

When he made mention of the ark of God, Eli fell off his seat backward by the side of the gate (4:18).

City gates were often places where city elders convened and where judges heard their cases. Given his age and frailty, it is difficult to imagine that Eli travelled far from the tabernacle. Perhaps this reference to a gate, beside the road (1 Sam 4:13), is another indicator of a more permanent structure for the tabernacle and its precinct at Shiloh (cf. 1 Sam 1:7; 1:9; 3:14). The small platform in this photo, situated next to the entrance to the city at Dan, is thought by some to have been a seat where a judge or ruler once sat. This may be analogous to Eli’s seat at Shiloh.

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