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1 Samuel 6:3

ESV They said, “If you send away the ark of the God of Israel, do not send it empty, but by all means return him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be known to you why his hand does not turn away from you.”
NIV They answered, 'If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it back to him without a gift; by all means send a guilt offering to him. Then you will be healed, and you will know why his hand has not been lifted from you.'
NASB And they said, 'If you are going to send the ark of the God of Israel away, do not send it empty; but you shall certainly return to Him a guilt offering. Then you will be healed, and it will be revealed to you why His hand does not leave you.'
CSB They replied, "If you send the ark of Israel's God away, do not send it without an offering. Send back a guilt offering to him, and you will be healed. Then the reason his hand hasn't been removed from you will be revealed."
NLT Send the Ark of the God of Israel back with a gift,' they were told. 'Send a guilt offering so the plague will stop. Then, if you are healed, you will know it was his hand that caused the plague.'
KJV And they said, If ye send away the ark of the God of Israel, send it not empty; but in any wise return him a trespass offering: then ye shall be healed, and it shall be known to you why his hand is not removed from you.

What does 1 Samuel 6:3 mean?

Most everyone among the Philistines was convinced of the need to get the ark of the Lord (Exodus 25:10–16) out of their territory and to send it back to the Israelites (1 Samuel 6:2). They understood that to be their only hope of stopping the plague of tumors and the panic that came with it (1 Samuel 5:6–12). They also believed it mattered how they returned the ark to Israel. They consulted with their own priests and diviners to make sure they did not send it back in a way that made Israel's God even angrier than He already was.

The priests and diviners decide it would be a terrible offense to send the ark back without an offering of some kind. It seems to be standard behavior to send gifts to those we are seeking to appease. For example, Jacob sent gifts to Esau to prevent what he expected was an impending attack (Genesis 32). Abigail sent gifts to David to placate him when he was prepared to destroy Nabal's household (1 Samuel 25). The Philistines appear to have known at least a version of the story of Moses and the plagues God sent on Egypt (1 Samuel 4:8; 6:6). Per God's instructions the Israelites had asked the Egyptians for gold, silver, and clothing before the Passover, and the Egyptians obliged (Exodus 11:2; 12:35). After the deaths of the firstborn, the Egyptians urged the people to leave quickly, and the Israelites took those gifts with them (Exodus 12:33–36). The priests seem to base their logic for their proposed offerings on their understanding of God's interactions with Egypt (1 Samuel 6:6). Whether because of this, their understanding of gods and offerings, or common relational norms, the priests agree that the Philistines should the ark with a gift.

The priests call this a guilt offering. They seem to understand it as some form of payment to the Lord for their disrespect toward Him and His ark. They believe that if they send this guilt offering, the God of Israel will heal their people from the terrible plague. If He does, the priests add, then they will know for sure that the Lord's anger at their possession of the ark was the reason for His judgment on them.
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