When God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt, Pharaoh and his armies chased them. The Israelites were afraid and complained to God. Moses said to them, “Do not be afraid. . . The LORD will fight for you. . . ” (Exodus 14:13-14).
The other nations of the ancient Middle East also thought their gods were warriors. In fact, one of the chief gods of the Canaanites, the inhabitants of the land God promised to Abraham, was a warrior god: Baal. At the time, the Canaanites and all the peoples around them believed that it was the strength of their gods that gave them political and territorial power. When God took his people out of Egypt and gave the land to the Israelites, it was a powerful statement about who God is: the only, true, and mighty God.
The liberation of Israel from Egypt was, in fact, a confrontation between the LORD, the God of the universe, and Pharaoh, himself a false god, and the gods of Egypt. The ten plagues had the purpose that Pharaoh, and the Israelites themselves, would “know that there is no one like me in all the earth” (Exodus 9:14).
The ark of the covenant was the visual representation of God’s presence. For this reason, it travelled ahead of the Israelite army on their way to the Promised Land. In fact, when Israel finally travelled to the West of the Jordan river, God crossed the river first. The Levites carrying the ark of the covenant walked through dry ground. As the Israelites crossed, the priests raised some commemorative stones to remember God’s passing through the river. God, the great King, was ahead of his army.
The Bible narrates two contrasting times when the ark was taken to battle. The first time, God ordered it; the second, he did not. On the first occasion, God instructed Joshua to have the priests take the ark into battle around Jericho (Josh 6:6-20). The priests encircled the city for a week, with the ark and the armies. Because the Israelites obeyed God’s orders. God granted victory in battle to the Israelites.
The second incident of the ark in battle is in 1 Samuel 4:3-22. The leaders of Israel took the ark into battle with them without asking God. The results were disastrous; the Philistine army defeated Israel and captured the ark. At the end, because of God’s intervention, the Philistines returned the ark to Israel (1 Samuel 6).
Because God’s presence was in the ark of the covenant, treating it like a magic amulet, like an object to use when necessary, was a great offense and a breaking of the third commandment. Having the ark in their mist was a confirmation of God’s faithfulness to his promises: he promised he would be with them and fight along with and for them.