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Having captured the ark, the Philistines brought it from Ebenezer to their main city, Ashdod, which stood about 30 miles to the southwest and three miles from the Mediterranean coast. Archaeologists have excavated Ashdod more extensively than any of the five major Philistine cities.
Dagon was the principle deity of the Philistines. The popular teaching that the Philistines pictured him as being part man and part fish finds support in 1 Samuel 5:4. Dag in Hebrew means fishy part. Dagon (cf. Heb. dagan, grain) was a grain god whom the Philistines worshipped as the source of bountiful harvests (fertility). Worship of him began about 2500 B.C. in Mesopotamia, especially in the Middle-Euphrates region. [Note: The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Dagon," by Kenneth A. Kitchen.]
The writer clarified that the Philistines regarded the fact that the image representing Dagon had fallen on its face before the ark as indicating Yahweh’s superiority. Falling on one’s face was a posture associated with worship. The fact that the Philistines had to reposition the idol is another allusion to Dagon’s inferiority. He could not act on his own (cf. Isaiah 46:7). Later Goliath, the Philistine champion, would also fall on his face before David, Yahweh’s champion (1 Samuel 17:49).
The following night the symbol of Dagon toppled again before the ark, the symbol of Yahweh. This time Dagon’s head, suggestive of his sovereign control, and his palms, suggesting his power, broke off (1 Samuel 5:4). In the ancient Near East, warring armies cut off and collected the heads and hands of their enemies to count accurately the number of their slain (cf. 1 Samuel 29:4; Judges 8:6). [Note: Antony F. Campbell, The Ark Narrative, p. 86, n. 1.] Earlier Samson’s defeat had involved the cutting of the hair of his head and the weakening of his hands (Judges 16:18-21). Later David would cut off Goliath’s head (1 Samuel 17:51), and the Philistines would cut off King Saul’s head (1 Chronicles 10:10).
The breaking of Dagon’s head and hands on the threshold of his temple rendered the threshold especially sacred. From then on the pagan priests superstitiously regarded the threshold as holy (cf. Zephaniah 1:9). The ancients commonly treated sanctuary thresholds with respect because they marked the boundary that divided the sacred from the profane. [Note: Gordon, p. 99.] This incident involving Dagon made the threshold to his sanctuary even more sacred. This is another ironical testimony to the utter folly of idolatry and to Yahweh’s sovereignty (cf. Exodus 20:3).
B. Pagan Fertility Foiled by God ch. 5
The primary purpose of this chapter, I believe, is to demonstrate the superiority of Yahweh over Dagon, the fertility god of the Philistines. There are several similarities between this chapter and the record of God sending plagues on the Egyptians (Exodus 7-12), an earlier demonstration of His sovereignty.
The writer now began to stress the major theme in the ark narrative: the hand [power] of the Lord. [Note: Patrick D. Miller Jr. and J. J. M. Roberts, The Hand of the Lord: A Reassessment of the "Ark Narrative" of 1 Samuel, p. 48.] There are nine occurrences of this anthropomorphic phrase in this section of 1 Samuel (1 Samuel 4:8; 1 Samuel 5:6-7; 1 Samuel 5:9; 1 Samuel 5:11; 1 Samuel 6:3; 1 Samuel 6:5; 1 Samuel 6:9; 1 Samuel 7:13). The hand of the Lord represents Yahweh in action (cf. Exodus 9:3; Jeremiah 21:5-6). In the biblical world, people spoke of sickness and death as the bad effects of the "hand" of some god. [Note: See J. J. M. Roberts, "The Hand of Yahweh," Vetus Testamentum 21:2 (1971):244-51.] This was the conclusion of Ashdod’s leaders who attributed their recent calamities to Yahweh (1 Samuel 5:7). God afflicted the Philistines with tumors, swellings caused by new tissue growth.
Evidently the men of Ashdod believed that it was particularly with their city that Yahweh felt displeasure. So they moved the ark to Gath (lit. winepress), which lay about 12 miles southeast of Ashdod. Dagon could not prevent the tumors (lit. buboes) and death with which Yahweh afflicted the Philistines (1 Samuel 5:6; 1 Samuel 5:9-12). The people of Ashdod should have turned from worshipping Dagon and put their trust in Yahweh. Death followed because they chose to continue in unbelief in spite of their confession of Yahweh’s superiority (1 Samuel 5:7).
The Hebrew word translated "broke out" occurs only here in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 5:9). The Septuagint translators interpreted it accurately as "groin." These tumors were apparently most prominent in the groin area, hence the English translation "hemorrhoids." Tumors in the groin are a symptom of bubonic plague. Since the Philistines associated mice with this plague (1 Samuel 6:4-5), and mice carry bubonic plague, it seems clear that the hand of Yahweh sent this particular affliction on them.
Ekron stood about 6 miles north of Gath. [Note: See Trude Dothan, "Ekron of the Philistines. Part I: Where They Came From, How They Settled Down, and the Place They Worshiped In," Biblical Archaeology Review 16:1 (1990):26-36.] The reputation of the ark preceded it to that town, and its residents did not welcome it as a trophy of war. They saw it instead as a divine instrument of death (cf. Exodus 2:23; Exodus 11:6; Exodus 12:30). The Philistines repeatedly acknowledged Yahweh’s superior power over themselves and Dagon (1 Samuel 5:7-12; cf. 1 Samuel 2:6; cf. 1 Samuel 2:25; Exodus 10:7; Exodus 12:31-33). This is another testimony to Yahweh’s sovereignty in the narrative. The cry that went up to heaven from Philistia (1 Samuel 5:12) recalls the death cry that went up to heaven earlier from Egypt when God afflicted that enemy (Exodus 12:30; cf. 1 Samuel 4:8). Through the seven months that the ark was in Philistia (1 Samuel 6:1) the Philistines learned what the Israelites had not: Yahweh is the sovereign God. Yet they refused to bow before Him and so experienced death, though the Lord mixed mercy with judgment and did not kill all the Philistines (1 Samuel 5:12).
Chapters 4 and 5 both testify to God’s sovereignty. Neither Israel, in chapter 4, nor the Philistines, in chapter 5, could control or resist His will. We cannot manipulate God. We must follow Him rather than expecting Him to follow us. Had the Israelites learned this lesson they probably would not have demanded a king like the other nations (1 Samuel 8:5) but waited for Him to provide His choice for them.
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 5". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany