(Today's passage covers the Philistine capture of the ark, its eventual return, the battle against the Philistines, and Israel's request for a king.)
Today's lesson: sometimes the safe bet... isn't.
Before Samuel whips the Israelites into shape, they have yet again fallen under the sway of foreign powers, this time the Philistines. The Israelites, desperate to throw off the Philistine yoke, send their troops in to battle. In short, things don't go very well: the Philistines kill 4,000 Israelite fighters. (1 Sam. 4:1-2)
So Israel decides to embark on a new, guaranteed-to-win strategy: they call for the ark of the covenant. Surely, God will be on our side if his ark is at the battleground with us! Surely, having the ark on our side will mean our glorious victory! It worked for Joshua, didn't it?
The Israelites call for the ark, and the Philistines realize their end is near. They quake, they tremble... and then they rally themselves, deciding that if they're going to die, they're going to die fighting. (1 Sam. 4:6-9) Then they slaughter 30,000 Israelites (including Eli, the high priest's, two sons) and capture the ark. So much for a sure thing.
Israel laments the loss of the ark, but the Philistines' problems are just getting started. They bring the ark back to Ashdod and place it in the temple of their god Dagon. When they come back the next day, they find the statue of Dagon prostrate before the ark. After righting the statue, they come back the day after to find Dagon not only prostrate, but with his hands and head cut off. (1 Sam. 5:1-5)
As if this weren't enough, the Philistines at Ashdod are also afflicted with tumours (NIV) or haemorrhoids (KJV). So they do what any sensible people would do, they send the ark awak. Specifically, they send it to Gath, whereupon the men there are afflicted with groinal haemorrhoids. (I swear I could not make this up if I tried.) The men of Gath try to send the ark to Ekron, where the men sensibly say, "keep that thing as far away from us as possible." (1 Sam 5:6-10)
After seven months of this torture, the Philistines come up with a brilliant solution: send the ark back to the Israelites. Of course, things are never that simple. The Philistine priests tell them that they must appease the Israelites for stealing the ark in the first place. To do this, they include five golden haemorrhoids and five golden rats along with the ark. I don't even know what golden haemorrhoids would look like.
They attach the ark to a new cart, tethered by two cows who have never been yoked before. The Philistines figure that if the plague was really God's doing, the cows would pull the ark directly to Bethlehem; if it was all just the result of unfortunate chance, the cows would go somewhere else. Unfortunately for the Philistines, the cows go directly to Bethlehem, where the people offer them as a burnt offering to God. (1 Sam 6:1-15) They take the ark to the house of Aminadab, where it stays for 20 years. Of course, God also strikes 50,070 men of Bethshemesh blind for having looked upon the ark (KJV, NIV says 70 men, which would make more sense), but sometimes that's the price you have to pay.
As for the Philistines, Samuel finally gets the Israelites to put away their foreign gods, so that they're back in God's favour. Thereupon they go to battle against the Philistines, beat them soundly, and throw off the foreign yoke. (1 Sam 7) So things work out well all around, except for the Philistines... and the 50,070 men who died because they saw the ark.