On the Gold Mice

The following section from 1 Samuel is sometimes referenced by critics as one of those "weird" stories that they think makes the Bible senseless. It occurs after the Philistines have captured the Ark of the Covenant and taken it into their own territory:

1 Samuel 5:9, 6:2-12 And it was so, that, after they had carried it about, the hand of the LORD was against the city with a very great destruction: and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts...And the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners, saying, What shall we do to the ark of the LORD? tell us wherewith we shall send it to his place. And they said, If ye send away the ark of the God of Israel, send it not empty; but in any wise return him a trespass offering: then ye shall be healed, and it shall be known to you why his hand is not removed from you. Then said they, What shall be the trespass offering which we shall return to him? They answered, Five golden emerods, and five golden mice, according to the number of the lords of the Philistines: for one plague was on you all, and on your lords. Wherefore ye shall make images of your emerods, and images of your mice that mar the land; and ye shall give glory unto the God of Israel: peradventure he will lighten his hand from off you, and from off your gods, and from off your land...Wherefore then do ye harden your hearts, as the Egyptians and Pharaoh hardened their hearts? when he had wrought wonderfully among them, did they not let the people go, and they departed? Now therefore make a new cart, and take two milch kine, on which there hath come no yoke, and tie the kine to the cart, and bring their calves home from them: And take the ark of the LORD, and lay it upon the cart; and put the jewels of gold, which ye return him for a trespass offering, in a coffer by the side thereof; and send it away, that it may go. And see, if it goeth up by the way of his own coast to Bethshemesh, then he hath done us this great evil: but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that smote us: it was a chance that happened to us. And the men did so; and took two milch kine, and tied them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home: And they laid the ark of the LORD upon the cart, and the coffer with the mice of gold and the images of their emerods. And the kine took the straight way to the way of Bethshemesh, and went along the highway, lowing as they went, and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left; and the lords of the Philistines went after them unto the border of Bethshemesh.

I've known of at least one major Skeptic who thought this story so ridiculous (and not just because of the supernatural aspects) that he suggested that this was an early sort of Jewish comedy routine.

But the cultural context of the story tells us the truth. The Philistines were practicing what was called "sympathetic magic" -- ancient peoples steeped in the rites of magic used this practice for a variety of purposes. The Philistines, in particular, thought that by sending away and offering up images of their afflictions, the afflictions would disappear. (One practice of sympathetic magic with which we might be familiar is the use of voodoo dolls.)

An extended and very useful study, which ties this episode into the Philistines' Aegean origins and shows a parallel from the Philistines' cousins in Homer's Iliad, can be found in Neal Bierling's book Giving Goliath His Due.

Objection: Didn't the Israelites use this 'sympathetic magic' stuff too, when they made that bronze snake?

Numbers 21:6-9 And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; pray unto the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us. And Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

While we do see a general common principle of symbolism (to say nothing of a typology of Christ) of the sort found throughout Ancient Near Eastern cultures, the big difference here is that God gives the order to make the serpent and tells the people what to do -- if this were true sympathetic magic in play, here is how the passage would read:

And the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and much people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD, and against thee; take the serpents from us. And Moses made a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole: and said, it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live. And it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

In other words, sympathetic magic would have made God a minor player who sent the snakes, but could have been confounded with a brass model.

-JPH