And they said, “What is the guilt offering that we shall return to the LORD?” They answered, “Five gold tumors and five gold mice.” – 1 Samuel 6:4 (NRSV)
You think you know all the funniest bits of the Bible, and then you discover that one time, the Philistines stole the Ark of the Covenant, and as punishment God cursed them with hemorrhoids and mice.
It gets better: the only way to remove the curse was for the Philistines to return the Ark and present the Israelites with an apology to God in the form of five golden mice and five golden hemorrhoids.
OK, so modern scholars believe the Philistines’ issue was probably bubonic plague, not the KJV’s hemorrhoids. But honestly, golden buboes (or, as the NRSV translates it, “tumors”) are really only marginally better than golden hemorrhoids.
Scholars say this story is all about what’s called “sympathetic magic”: if something was hurting someone, they made an image of it and did to the image what they wanted done to the real thing. Laugh, if you want, at how primitive these golden talismans are, but also ask yourself what the average ancient Roman (who knew firsthand what crosses were used for) would make of that gold cross in your sanctuary.
Crosses with bodies on them hurt us, so we make gold models of ones without bodies.
Death is hurting us, so we take a symbol of death, make a gold model of it, and turn it into a symbol of life.
Our relationship to our golden crosses isn’t just sympathetic magical thinking, of course. It’s a lot more nuanced than that.
Then again, so was the Philistines’. They win for comedy value, though.
For all that is nuanced, surprising, weird, and hilarious about us and our faith, O God, thank you. Amen.
Quinn G. Caldwell is a father, husband, homesteader and preacher living in rural upstate New York. His most recent book is a series of daily reflections for Advent and Christmas called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Learn more about it and find him on Facebook at Quinn G. Caldwell.