In the realm of celebrity animals, cows aren’t particularly cool.
Arnold the pig, Flipper the dolphin, and Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion all enjoyed the limelight in TV series of the past. Cows haven’t been as fortunate.
Yes, Clarabelle Cow was the original best friend of Minnie Mouse. And Cow Steer was half of the offbeat duo that starred in the animated series Cow and Chicken. The movie Annabelle’s Wish features a cow who yearns to become one of Santa’s reindeer. In the commercial world, cows have long promoted Elmer’s Glue, Laughing Cow Cheese, and Borden Diary products – not to mention those Chick-Fil-A bovines who implore us to “eat more chikin.” Babe the Blue Ox is Paul Bunyan’s faithful companion, and Ferdinand the Bull is a children’s literary classic.
We’re still waiting, however, for a cow to achieve an epic breakthrough in Hollywood.
Things aren’t much better in the Bible. Most cows and bulls are assigned a brief, one-time supporting role. They end up as whole burnt offerings or barbecue in Israel’s temple.
But cows everywhere can celebrate one bright, shining moment on the pages of God’s Word – a 3,000-year-old story that is reported in I Samuel 6:1-12.
The narrative unfolds during an ongoing state of war between the Israelites and their sworn enemies, the Philistines. God’s people have been getting the worst of it. An idea occurs to them: Why don’t we carry the Ark of the Covenant into battle? They presume that will guarantee a military triumph.
The Ark of the Covenant was a special piece of furniture. It was a wooden box about three and a half feet long, two feet wide, and two feet high, completely covered with gold. The ornamental lid of the box featured two carved cherubim – supernatural beings, angel-like in nature, with outstretched wings. In a mysterious way that God never chose to explain, God was present at all times around the ark. It was the focal point of his power and majesty on earth. Anyone who saw Raiders of the Lost Ark left the theater with the clear impression that it’s never a good idea to take this gold box lightly.
For the Israelites, however, the ark doesn’t turn out to be the good luck charm they had hoped. They are soundly defeated. Far worse, the ark falls into the hands of the Philistines. It is a dark day for Israel.
The Philistines are giddy with joy. Little do they know that the happy times are about to end suddenly and dramatically.
Wherever the ark is toted on the Philistine Victory Tour, unnerving things take place. A celebrated idol falls on its face and shatters into pieces. Plague breaks out. The people are afflicted with tumors. Soon the mayors of the five primary Philistine towns are playing musical ark. “Here, you take it.” “No, it’s your turn.” “No way! We had it last Tuesday. Take it to your neighborhood.”
At last the Philistines have had enough. Their leaders confer. “How are we going to get rid of this thing?”
They come up with a plan. “Let’s put it on a brand-new cart and hitch the cart to a pair of cows and see where the cows go.” And here we encounter the most interesting sentence in our story, which is found in I Samuel 6:9: “If the ark goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us and that it happened to us by chance.”
The Philistines are still entertaining the possibility that all of these calamities have happened to them coincidentally. Maybe this is all just a run of really bad luck. “Let’s use the Cow-O-Meter,” they decide. “The cows will demonstrate what’s really going on here, one way or the other.”
In order to make it harder for the God of Israel to prove himself, the Philistines decide to make things rough for the cows. Neither of them has ever been hitched to a cart. Both have recently had calves, which are now penned up nearby. A cow in this situation would ordinarily stay near its calf – in this case, that would mean staying in Philistia.
But the cows start walking. They head straight for Israel.
They’re not hanging around their own home. Now that they’re connected to the Ark of the Covenant, they are walking intently toward its home.
The Bible tells us that the cows don’t turn to the left or to the right, and that they are mooing all the way. Author and theologian R. C. Sproul wondered if they might be singing in cow-song, perhaps something like Onward Christians Cows. That’s probably more likely than the greatest hits of the Cowsills.
By day’s end, the Philistines have gotten a graduate theological education from a couple of barnyard bovines. And what’s the lesson? Things don’t happen by chance.
Is there any chance that anything is going to happen today that will take God by surprise? Did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine throw off God’s plans for human history? There’s not a chance.
If we really believe that – if we embrace the idea that God’s hand is in all the happenings of the world – then we will find ourselves doing more of what those cows did. We will walk intently where we ought to go, not turning to the left or to the right.
But it’s a hard lesson to learn. That’s because we live in a culture that seems enthralled with the notion that there’s something called Chance that will guide us to our true home if we just wait long enough.
Maybe your marriage will grow stronger by chance. Maybe the core of acceptance and trust that alone makes a relationship work between committed partners will come about all by itself. Over the years, when I have had opportunities to sit down with couples in crisis, it’s always sad when one of the partners says, “I’m going to wait and see what happens.” Wait and see? Are you actually choosing to become a spectator to your own life, instead of taking the initiative to do what is good and right, even if that should require courage and sacrifice?
Healthy relationships don’t happen by chance.
Nor does physical fitness. Or sound financial planning. Or effective parenting. Or a healthy relationship with God. We have to decide to show up and “be there” in the midst of our own lives.
The first step is a sincere prayer: “Lord, I want to start heading in the right direction, just like those cows. I’m listening for your guidance, and I will go wherever your Spirit leads me.” God is always delighted whenever we present ourselves to him with open hands and open hearts.
Is there any chance we’ll end up in the right place completely by accident?
Not a chance.