Summary: The Jewish army waged war with the Philistines but were beaten back with dreadful losses. The elders decided to bring the Aron – the Ark of the Covenant with them to war in the hope that it would bring victory. Yet in the second battle, the Jewish casualties were almost tenfold. Worse still, the Philistines captured the Aron and Chofni and Pinchas died in battle. At hearing the news of the Aron’s capture, Eli fell off his chair, broke his neck and died.
A deeper look: The idea of bringing the Aron to the frontline seemed reasonable enough. By bringing the holiest object from the Tabernacle, they hoped to ensure that God was with them in battle (Samuel I 4:3). Rabbi David Kimchi (d. 1235) explains that since the Aron contained the Tablets of Stone on which God inscribed the Ten Commandments after the Jewish people had repented from the sin of the Golden Calf, it served as a focus for Jewish prayer and repentance. The Divine presence rested on the two Cherubim above the Aron (Exodus 34:1-4) an apparent guarantor for victory. Indeed, the people reacted with shouts and shofar blasts on the Aron’s arrival (Samuel I 4:5).
Yet their strategy was doomed to failure. The people associated God’s favour with the Aron itself. The Midrash notes that these shouts and shofar blasts were not out of repentance. On the contrary, their shouts were shouts of joy. Their shofar blasts were blasts of victory. In their minds triumph was a foregone conclusion (Eliyahu Rabbah 12).
Their mistake was that they had turned the Aron into some sort of talisman, highlighting a more general flaw in the religious psychology of repentance.
It is easier to believe in a good luck charm than to recognise that genuine work and repentance is necessary to rebuild a relationship with God that has been damaged through sin. We would rather perform simple acts and rituals, thinking that they effect some sort of positive change, than search our souls and correct our flaws. While the Aron and the Tablets were holy, they were still merely wood, metal and stone. No object can connect us with God, only our hearts and souls.