I is for Ichabod’s Mother
Motherhood: is there anything like the rush of hope, peace, and joy that comes holding a newborn baby?
For this poor mother, however, the birth of her son coincided with the end of hope for her, her newborn, her family and her nation.
But first, a few of my favorite things: history and Biblical cross-references.
After God brought His people into their promised land of Canaan, He defeated the pagan tribes and commanded the Israelites not to go aside to the pagan gods. In a reoccurring cycle, the Israelites would disobey the Lord and He would allow them to be enslaved. When they repented, He would raise up a judge to deliver them, and they would follow the Lord for a time. At least until they decided they liked their way better than His (spoiler alert: their way was never better than His), and the cycle would start over again. This was the period of the Judges that lasted approximately 325 years from 1375 BC through 1050 BC.
The last judge was Samuel who grew up serving in Shiloh with Eli, a judge and the High Priest. Enter into this story Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They were priests, but they were not good men.
Eli’s sons “treated the offering of the Lord with contempt” by using the meat brought as a sacrifice for the Lord as a meal for themselves (I Sam. 2:12-17). They also slept with the women who served at the entrance to the tent of meeting (I Sam 2:22). Prostitution in the service of your god was common in the Canaanite tribes at the time (think Tamar dressing up as a shrine prostitute for Judah in Gen 38), but God did not want His people to worship Him the way the surrounding nations worshipped their idols (Deut 23:17, Lev 19:29).
Hophni and Phinehas apparently saw no difference between the immoral religions of the idolatrous nations around them, and the holy God they were there to serve.
Neither of them sound like great guys to be married to, but Phinehas was married with at least one son.* At the time that his wife was going to give birth again, the Israelites went to battle against their long-time enemies, the Philistines. The first battle went badly for the Israelites and 4000 men died. In a not-so-brilliant moment, the elders decide to bring the Ark of the Covenant to battle.
The Ark of the Covenant was the most holy piece of furniture that Israelites owned. It was, in a nutshell, where God’s presence dwelt with his people. Once a year, the priest would throw the blood of sacrifices on its Mercy Seat as an atonement for the people.
“So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.” — I Samuel 4:4
As priests, Hophni and Phinehas should have been the ones to tell the elders that they couldn’t just use the Ark as a good luck charm for battle. As we’ve established, however, these two brothers were not men who cared for the purity of the worship of the Almighty. (Or the purity of anything else for that matter.)
Suffice to say, God was not on their side for that battle. The Philistines won and 30,000 Israelite foot soldiers died, including Hophni and Phinehas.
The Philistines even captured the Ark.
Back in Shiloh, a messenger brings the news to Eli, who falls and breaks his neck, and then to Phinehas’s wife.
“And when she heard the news that the ark of God was captured, and that her father-in-law and her husband were dead, she bowed and gave birth, for her pains came upon her.” — I Samuel 4:19
Imagine what that must have felt like, aside from the physical pains of labor. She’s a widow. Her father-in-law is also dead. And the Ark has been captured by a pagan people. All the blessing and presence and power of God is gone from the nation of Israel. How will they find atonement for their sins?
According to verse 20, she apparently doesn’t survive much longer after the birth. As she lies dying, the midwives try to encourage her with the news that she has a son, “But she did not answer or pay attention.” (I Samuel 4:20)
She goes to her death leaving her newborn with a name that captures all the grief she must have felt in those moments.
“Where is the glory?”
“And she said, ‘The glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.” — I Samuel 4:22
So ends one of the saddest birth stories in the Bible. We never know what happens to Ichabod, just that his birth heralds what may have looked like the end of Israel.
I sometimes hear people talk about not wanting to bring children into this crazy world, and I completely understand that emotion. It’s scary out there, and there are so many obstacles to raising children in the Lord. Things may seem hopeless. They certainly did to Ichabod’s mother.
Except that God cannot be defeated. The Ark would return to Israel eventually, and until then, God was showing His power over the Philistine gods. In the future, godly King David would return the Ark to its proper home.
God always preserves a remnant.
The glory may have departed from Israel, but it never departed from God.
That is a very hopeful reality indeed.
*Phinehas’s older son, Ahitub, has a son, Ahijah, who becomes a priest for King Saul… not a family that made the wisest of choices.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.