1 Samuel 5-6 & John 18
I was a teenager when the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark first hit the theatres. It instantly became one of my all-time favorite movies. I love the Indiana Jones character and this particular adventure, searching for the Ark of the Covenant, was especially cool to me because it drew from Biblical themes. The Ark of the Covenant was a real thing containing real power. What would happen if it was found and fell into the wrong hands, like the Nazi’s? It was a great story. It got pretty intense toward the end when they tried to open the Ark. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well for the Nazi’s.
The Nazi’s in the story should have spent less time plotting the genocide of the Jews and global domination and more time reading their Bibles, because the story of the Ark in 1 Samuel 5-6 should have discouraged them from having anything to do with the Ark. (I know, Raiders of the Lost Ark is fiction- but what happens to the Philistines in today’s reading is True).
One thing we know from reading the Bible is that God doesn’t like to share His glory with idols. God is the one True God and He alone created everything, gives life, sends rain to produce crops and blesses people with fertility. God takes it very personally when people build statues for other “so called” gods and give them credit for sending rain or helping babies to be born.
I find the story of the Philistines stealing the Ark of the Covenant and bringing it in the temple of their “god” Dagon humorous. Dagon was the main god of the Philistines and they offered sacrifices to Dagon so that they could have fertility- their cattle, and their wives. They wanted lots of cattle to feed their bellies, and they wanted lots of sons to grow up and serve in the army to fight their enemies. So they prayed and offered sacrifices to Dagon so that Dagon would make their cows and their wives fertile.
We might excuse the ignorance of the Philistines because maybe they didn’t know any better, maybe no one told them the Truth about the True God. But God made it quite clear to His chosen people, Israel, that they were to worship and serve God alone. But they were often tempted to worship other gods. Several stories in the Old Testament show how God was superior and defeated other “so called” gods. Elijah called down fire from heaven and defeated the prophets of Baal. Samson’s last act after he had been captured and blinded was to push down the pillars of the temple to Dagon and kill a bunch of the Philistines. And here, when the Ark of the Covenant is brought into another temple of Dagon, The statue of Dagon falls down the first time, then falls down again breaking the idol into pieces. The Philistines of that town are afraid so they send the Ark to another town. There, everybody gets tumors and they end up in a panic. Everywhere the stolen Ark is taken trouble comes to the Philistines, so finally they bring the Ark back to Israel along with a guilt offering (golden tumors and rats, what a thoughtful gift).
The Philistines had trouble discerning fact from fiction- the true God, YHWH, the God of Israel, vs. Dagon, a statue that was quite brittle when it fell to the ground.
Truth matters. In today’s reading in John 18, after Jesus is arrested and brought to trial, he appears before Pilate, who is the highest representative of the Roman Empire in the region who ultimately decides all capital cases, who lives and who dies.
Pilate is a politician caught between his boss, Caesar, who has tasked him to keep the Jewish people in line and the Jewish people who can turn on him and cause trouble. He has to carefully consider the political implications of what he’s being asked to do. Like many politicians and people in charge, he is more of a pragmatist than anything else. What is going to work out to my best interests here? He asks Jesus some questions and Jesus gives an answer that he finds quaint. Jesus answered: “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Truth? How naïve. You might imagine the amusement (or scorn) in Pilate’s response when he asks Jesus: “What is Truth?”
If the idea of truth was a quaint notion to a first century Roman politician, it’s become reviled and scorned by 20th and 21st century intellectuals. We live in a time of Postmodernism. Absolute truth has been replaced by relativism. Truth is whatever the people who have the power to control government, the news, the arts and higher education say it is. Truth is what Facebook, or Twitter, or Google’s “fact checkers” say it is.
Whether you and I like it or not we are in the midst of a culture war. It’s the same one that’s been going on since the serpent tempted Eve to question God. It’s the same one that was going on in the temple of Dagon when the stolen Ark was brought in, it’s the same one that was going on when the Jewish leaders lied about Jesus and brought him to Rome to be condemned and executed, it’s the one that was going on when Pilate asked, “What is truth?” It’s going on today in a society where the things we’ve always believed about God and virtue, right and wrong, and pretty obvious things like basic human biology, are all being questioned and redefined. Gender isn’t about biology it is a social construct. If you start introducing facts or science or Truth, you will receive as much scorn as Jesus received from Pilate. But it is a culture war and Jesus told Pilate that there are two sides: one side is false and the other is true. Jesus said that if you are on the side of Truth you listen to Jesus. Pilate chose his side, and so he did what was politically correct and had Jesus crucified to appease the Jewish people. The question you and I must ask ourselves is whose side am I on? Am I on the side of Truth, that listens to the words of Jesus? Pick a side.