First Samuel chapter 4 makes me think of one of my all-time favorite movies, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. In that movie, the ark is portrayed as an object of great power which the Nazis believe they can wield to their military advantage. However, the ark proves to have a mind of its own, possessing a power that cannot be manipulated by man.
Interestingly, the real story of the ark has a similar theme to it. Israel, in their desperation to defeat the Philistines at the battle of Aphek, tries to use the ark to their military advantage (1 Sam. 4:3-4). They treat it like a magical weapon, rather than a sign of God’s presence with them. Had they remembered the purpose of the ark, they would have been confronted with the fact that they had turned away from the Lord. They would have seen that repentance—not a secret weapon—was what they needed.
Old Testament scholar Dale Ralph Davis refers to Israel’s way of thinking in 1 Samuel 4 as “rabbit-foot theology.” They think that if they bring the ark into battle God will be forced to act on their behalf. Christians sometimes use rabbit-foot theology too. Throughout history, many held superstitious beliefs about holy objects & relics. Leading up to the Reformation, many people believed that pilgrimages to holy sites and contact with holy relics would gain them merit with God or protect them from evil spirits.
Today, Christians might expect that if they are faithful in their quiet time, church attendance, or tithing, God will be obligated to bless them. Or some might worry that the validity of their baptism depends on whether or not every inch of their body went under the water. All of this is rabbit-foot theology. It places faith in external forms rather than in God himself. Whether openly or inadvertently, it treats God as means to an end.
But God gives us something better than manipulative “power religion.” He gives us Himself. He calls us into a personal relationship with Himself through Jesus, and provides means of grace (Scripture, prayer, fellowship, baptism, the Lord’s supper) as a way of knowing Him and growing in our trust in His perfect wisdom and sovereign sufficiency.