The Philistines and Israel battled between Aphek and Ebenezer. The Philistines killed 4000 Israelites. So the elders requested that the Ark be brought to the camp. The Israelites were still defeated, this time losing 30000 men, and the Philistines took the ark to Ashdod and placed it in the temple of Dagon. Dagon fell before the ark twice, the second time losing his head and hands. There was a plague in the land causing swelling in the body and killing many people. So the Ark was taken from Ashdod to Gath where the plague continued, then from Gath to Ekron and the plague continued there. The men of Ekron asked for the ark to be taken away because of the plague.
After 7 months the ark was returned to Israel on a cart pulled by two milk cows, previously unyoked. This was to provide evidence that Yahweh had sent the plague. Alongside the ark were 5 golden figurines of mice and 5 of swellings (tumours). When the ark arrived in Israel the men of Beth-shemesh broke up the cart for wood and offered the cows as a sacrifice to Yahweh. Then the men placed the ark on a rock and took down the box with the golden figurines.
The Greek of the passage differs in places.
The 5 golden swellings are for the 5 cities, though they probably represent the rulers of the cities (1 Samuel 6:4-5); the Greek has golden seats. The 5 golden mice are for the 5 cities. The swellings were probably outbreaks on the body due to the plague. Some commentators suggest haemorrhoids, others tumours in the groin. Mice (or rats) clearly infested the region,
So you must make images of your tumors and images of your mice that ravage the land, and give glory to the God of Israel. (1 Samuel 6:5)Though it is not clear whether the rodents carried the plague or that they destroyed the crops.
Which brings us to verse 19.
And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the LORD. He struck 70 men of them, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great blow. (1 Samuel 6:19 ESV).
And the descendants of Jechoniah were not pleased with the men of Beth-shemesh because they saw the ark of the Lord, and he struck among them 70 men and 50000 men, and the people mourned because the Lord struck with an exceedingly great plague among the people. (1 Samuel (1 Kingdoms) 6:19 Greek).The Hebrew has 50070 men, though some Hebrew manuscripts have 70 men. Josephus has 70 (Antiquities 6.1.4). Yet the Greek shows that the larger number has an ancient pedigree. Syriac and Arab versions have 5070. The Vulgate has 70 men and 50000 common people.
The large number is also more likely because the term "great blow" is used here and the same term in 1 Samuel 4:10 for the death of 30000 men.
Translators note that the town of Beth-shemesh could not have contained 50000 people and many think this is a textual error, numerical variants being quite common in biblical manuscripts. There are various other explanations including,
- 70 men, 50 of a thousand (implying 1 in 20 from a total of 1400)
- 70 elders: having the importance of 50000 common men (Rabbinical tradition)
Others have noted that the Hebrew has an unusual construction. Numbers in Hebrew, like in English, usually have the larger units first: thousands before hundreds before tens before units. However there are exceptions. As Ashby notes, exceptions repeat the item the number is qualifying and include the word "and" between the items.
At the end of thirty years and four hundred years (Exodus 12:41).
Except that the number in 1 Samuel 6:19 does not have the word "and". A literal translation is,
he struck some of the people, 70 men, 50000 men.
A very literal translation of the Hebrew, maintaining word order,
And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of Yahweh, and he struck some of the people (nation): 70 men; 50000 men. And mourned the people (nation) because had struck, Yahweh, the people (nation) a blow great.
God's judgment had killed the Philistines; that same plague then killed 70 men of Beth-shemesh, then killed 50000 people in Israel.