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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
1 Samuel 5

 

 

Introduction

SECTION 1. The Birth, Rise, Prophetic Ministry And Judgeship of Samuel (1-12).

This first section of the book covers the life of Samuel from his birth to the setting up of Saul as king in response to the people’s request. The first three chapters deal with the birth and spiritual growth of Samuel. This is then followed in chapter 4 by the Philistine invasion in which the Ark of YHWH of hosts is lost to Israel, something which takes place while Samuel is still a youth. That loss indicates YHWH’s demonstration of the fact that He no longer sees Himself as king over an Israel that has forsaken Him. However, He then goes on to demonstrate His authority over the gods of the Philistines by bringing disaster on them, so that His Ark is restored to Israel by the Philistines, who also pay Him generous tribute. The Ark is then placed with due honour (after a previous unfortunate incident) in the house of Abinadab where it will remain for many years. It is a recognised symbol that YHWH is still present as King over His people, and will therefore, once they turn back to Him, act on their behalf through His appointed deliverers.

This will firstly be through Samuel in this section, then through Saul before he is finally rejected, in the next section, and then through the young David in the final section, until he is outlawed and then exiled as a result of Saul’s activities. As a result of his exile there will be a lull, and the Philistines triumph. But in the second part of the book David will become the Spirit inspired king, the Philistines will be defeated, and then the Ark will be restored for public worship, having been ‘purified’ by its period spent in the house of Abinadab. The Kingship of YHWH has triumphed.

B). The Ark As The Focal Point Of The Kingship Of YHWH (4:1b-7:14).

The emphasis in this subsection is on the Kingship of YHWH as revealed by the Ark which is the symbol of His Kingship. Because of His people’s disobedience and sinfulness as revealed through their priesthood YHWH refuses to act to deliver Israel, and allows the Ark to be taken. But when the Ark is brought to Ashdod the idol Dagon falls before YHWH and is smashed to pieces. Thus even in Ashdod YHWH is revealed as King. Then through plague, and a multiplying of vermin, YHWH brings His judgment on them because of the disrespect that they have shown to the Ark, so that in the end the Philistines recognise that they must return it to Israel along with suitable homage in the form of Gifts.

But those who receive it in Israel also treat it with disrespect, even though they are priests, demonstrating that their hearts are not right towards YHWH, and they too are therefore smitten and punished, and the Ark is then placed in a household where it is respected and honoured, and where it will remain for many years.

The King being therefore once again among His people they learn, after a twenty-year period of mourning during which He is silent, that if they will turn from their idols and seek Him, He will deliver them from the Philistines. And, as a result of the prayers of His prophet Samuel, the Philistines are then driven from the land.

We are not to see the Ark as forgotten. It is its very presence in Israel that evidences the fact that YHWH has not finally deserted His people, and the writer intends us to see its presence as indicating that YHWH is still there as Israel’s King, overseeing their future both for good and bad.

Analysis.

a The Philistines defeat Israel and capture the Ark of God (1 Samuel 4:1-22).

b The Ark of God is taken to Ashdod and the idol Dagon falls before YHWH and is smashed in pieces (1 Samuel 5:1-5).

c The Ark of God brings misery and plague on the Philistines who disrespect it (1 Samuel 5:6-12).

d The Ark of God is returned to Israel with reparations (1 Samuel 6:1-16).

c The Ark of God brings misery on the Israelites who disrespect it (1 Samuel 6:17 to 1 Samuel 7:2).

b The Ark of God is suitably re-established in Israel and they are promised that if they return to YHWH and put away their idolatry they will be delivered from the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:3-4).

a The Ark having been restored, Israel defeat the Philistines through the prayers of Samuel (1 Samuel 7:5-14).

Note that in ‘a’ the Philistines defeat Israel and the Ark of God is defiled, while in the parallel the Ark of God is re-established and Israel defeat the Philistines. In ‘b’ the Ark is taken to Ashdod and the idol Dagon falls before it and is smashed in pieces, and in the parallel, on the restoration of the Ark Israel are called on to denounce their idols. In ‘c’ the Ark bring misery on the Philistines who disrespect it and in the parallel it brings misery on the people of Israel who disrespect it. In ‘d’ the Ark of God returns in triumph to Israel, being duly honoured by the Philistines.

Chapter 5.

The Philistines Discover The Folly Of Taking Possession Of The Ark Of YHWH.

Full of exaltation at having defeated not only the Israelites but their powerful gods as well, the Philistines triumphantly bore off the Ark of YHWH from where it had been abandoned on the field of battle, and set it up as a trophy in the Temple of one of their own gods, Dagon, which was in Ashdod, one of their chief cities. Dagon was seen by Jerome and some later writers as a fish god with the head and the hands of a man, but this idea has no foundation in any factual information and is probably due to the likening of the name to the Hebrew word ‘dag’ (fish). In actual fact we have no reliable information about what the god looked like. It is probable that it was a grain god, and thus connected with the Hebrew word ‘dagan’, which means grain or corn. This god appears to have been taken over by the Philistines on their arrival (as they took over so much) presumably in the hope that it would prosper their grain harvests. It had long been worshipped throughout Mesopotamia and is identified at Ugarit as the father of Baal. It is mentioned in the Ebla tablets of 2300 BC where there are a number of Dagans including a ‘Dagan of Canaan’. There were a number of shrines to Dagon in Canaan (note for example Beth-dagon in Joshua 15:41; Joshua 19:27). Most of the examples of ‘fish gods’ discovered by archaeology were rather representations of the goddess Atargartis.

But the Philistines were soon to become aware of the fact that they had ‘taken a tiger by the tail’. For when next day they went to the Temple to gloat, they discovered that the statue of Dagon had fallen from its plinth and was lying on its face before the Ark of YHWH. It was as though it had fallen before YHWH in obeisance. They were not too perturbed, however, and replaced the statue on its plinth. They were somewhat more disturbed, however, when on the following day they discovered that not only had Dagon fallen from its plinth again, but that it had also been shattered in pieces. The head and the palms of its hands had come off, and were lying by themselves and only the central body was left whole. Dagon had disintegrated!

Among the Philistines the severing of the head was the symbol of a defeated foe. Later David would cut off Goliath's head in order to demonstrate his victory (1 Samuel 17:51), and the Philistines would cut off King Saul's head for the same reason (1 Chronicles 10:10). Thus YHWH was here portraying the total defeat of Dagon.

But worse was to follow, for within a short while a plague began to sweep through Ashdod to such an extent that the people demanded that the Ark be removed It was therefore decided to transfer it to Gath. However, when it arrived in Gath they also experienced a sweeping plague, so they determined to transfer it to Ekron which they hoped would be safer. But the people of Ekron wanted none of it and demanded that it be immediately returned to Israel. They recognised that YHWH was just too much for them. Their seeming ‘triumph’ over Him had simply resulted in disaster. The Israelites were welcome to have Him back. Thus did God reveal His overall power over the Philistines and their gods. Whatever would happen in the future it would not be due to any lack of power in YHWH.


Verses 1-5

Strange Happenings In The House Of Dagon (1 Samuel 5:1-5).

1 Samuel 5:1

Now the Philistines had taken the ark of God, and they brought it from Eben-ezer to Ashdod.’

As already described in the previous chapter, the Philistines had ‘taken the Ark of YHWH’. They were no doubt delighted. Here indeed was a trophy that revealed the power of their gods. The gods of Israel had clearly been unable to do anything against them, and they intended to put the Ark on triumphal show in all their Temples so that the worshippers would see what their gods had done. And the first place where they intended to do this was in Ashdod, one of the five main cities of the Philistines. Each of these cities was ruled over by one of the five ‘Tyrants’ (seren) who together formed the overall leadership of the Philistines. The cities were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, Ekron and Gaza. (See Joshua 13:3). Ashdod, Ashkelon and Gaza (in that order from north to south) were situated on the trade route that ran down the coastal plain of Palestine connecting Egypt in the south with Syria and other nations to the north. Ashdod was directly west of Jerusalem.

1 Samuel 5:2

And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.’

So the Philistines brought the Ark of God to Ashdod and set it up as a trophy in the Temple of Dagon, who was seemingly a god with a human face and hands. We know little else about him except that he was probably a grain god (Hebrew dagan=grain).

1 Samuel 5:3

And when they of Ashdod arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was found to have fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of YHWH. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again.’

Next morning the people woke early and hurried to the Temple of Dagon so as to bask in their triumph. But what they found there could only rather have perturbed them, for they discovered that the statue of Dagon had fallen on its face before the Ark of YHWH. It almost seemed as though Dagon had had to bow down to YHWH.

Shrugging off such an idea as ridiculous they ‘took Dagon and set him in his place again’. They no doubt comforted themselves with the thought that there must have been a brief earth tremor. They then engaged in their victory celebrations.

1 Samuel 5:4

And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of YHWH, and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands lay cut off on the threshold, only the stump of Dagon was left to him.’

However, next morning when they gathered early in the morning to celebrate they discovered to their horror that not only had Dagon fallen on its face before the Ark of YHWH, but also its head and its hands had broken off and lay on the threshold of the inner sanctuary where the statue had been erected. Only the central ‘Dagon’ was left intact. Now what had happened was not so easy to shrug off. The cutting off of the head signified to the Philistines a defeated foe (1 Chronicles 10:10). It was clear that when it came to facing YHWH Dagon was no match for Him.

1 Samuel 5:5

That is why neither the priests of Dagon, nor any who come into Dagon’s house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod, to this day.’

So YHWH left a permanent reminder of His presence in the house of Dagon, for from that day onwards neither priest nor worshipper ever trod on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod because it was where their god’s head and hands had lain. Instead they would reverently step over it.

“To this day.” This behaviour in the house of Dagon was still the practise in the writer’s own day. These words are simply an indication of something permanent and lasting. They give no idea how long a period is in mind. As far as the phrase itself indicates it could be six months, or six hundred years.


Verses 6-12

The Ark of God Brings Misery and Plague On the Philistines Who Disrespect It (1 Samuel 5:6-12).

What happened in the house of Dagon was not the only thing that was to trouble the Philistines. Soon a dreadful plague was sweeping through Ashdod, and the result was that the people of Ashdod pleaded that the Ark be removed from Ashdod. The situation was seen as serious enough to bring together the five Tyrants of the Philistines, and they decided to remove it to Gath, where it was paraded through the streets in celebration. They still had not learned their lesson that it was not wise to claim victory over YHWH. The result was that a great plague also swept through Gath.

Then they sent the Ark to Ekron. This was not a centre of Dagon worship, but was famed for the worship of Baal-zebub. Perhaps then there would be no problem there. But the people of Ekron wanted none of the Ark and protested. Their fears proved only too right for soon the plague was sweeping through Ekron with the result that they pleaded with their Tyrants to return it to Israel. The Ark of the God of Israel was clearly not happy in Philistia.

It is possibly significant that when the Ark was returned to Israel it was accompanied by an offering of five golden tumours (or plague boils) and five golden rodents. This might be seen as suggesting that the plague was in fact caused by flea infected rats. Whether they were actually in the Ark in the first place (there was no plague in the Israelite army, and although they would not of course have looked into the Ark, it is difficult to think that the plague ridden rats would not have got out and infected others had they been there), or whether they entered it while it was on its way to the house of Dagon (the Ark might well have been set down in the fields after it had been opened by curious soldiers while the Philistine army rested) we do not know, but the rats must have rapidly multiplied and spread their fleas among the local population of rats in order to bring about these dreadful effects. We must remember that these events did not all take place in a few days. The Ark was among the Philistines for seven months (1 Samuel 6:1).

Analysis.

a But the hand of YHWH was heavy on those of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with tumours, even Ashdod and its borders. And when the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us, for his hand is sore on us, and on Dagon our god” (1 Samuel 5:6-7).

b They sent therefore and gathered all the lords of the Philistines to them, and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” And they answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried about to Gath.” And they carried the ark of the God of Israel there. And it was so, that, after they had carried it about, the hand of YHWH was against the city with a very great discomfiture: and he smote the men of the city, both small and great; and tumours/boils brake out on them (1 Samuel 5:8-9).

c So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. And it came about that, as the ark of God came to Ekron, the Ekronites cried out, saying, “They have brought about the ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay us and our people (1 Samuel 5:10).

b They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and they said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go again to its own place, that it slay us not, and our people.” For there was a deadly discomfiture throughout all the city. The hand of God was very heavy there (1 Samuel 5:11).

a And the men who did not die were smitten with the tumours/boils, and the cry of the city went up to heaven (1 Samuel 5:12).

Note that in ‘a’ tumours smote men throughout Ashdod so that they cried for the Ark to be removed, and in the parallel tumours/boils smote men in Ekron so that they too cried, this time to Heaven, for its removal. In ‘b’ they called together the Tyrants of the Philistines to deal with the matter, and meanwhile the city suffered great discomfiture and in the parallel they did the same, and the same thing occurred. Centrally in ‘c’ the people of Ekron declared their recognition of the power of the God of Israel to slay them.

1 Samuel 5:6

But the hand of YHWH was heavy on those of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with tumours/boils, even Ashdod and its borders.’

Now not only Dagon but the whole people were made aware that YHWH was among them, for many died, and many others were smitten with tumours/boils, and the effects of the plague reached out to its very borders. The hand of YHWH was heavy upon them. This idea of YHWH’s hand being heavy upon the Philistines is continually stressed. See 4:8 (prophetically by the Philistines who thought it limited to the battlefield); 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. Compare also Exodus 9:3; Deuteronomy 2:15; Judges 2:15. YHWH was intervening personally in the situation.

1 Samuel 5:7

‘And when the men of Ashdod saw that it was so, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel shall not abide with us, for his hand is sore on us, and on Dagon our god.”

The result of this was that they determined to get rid of ‘the Ark of the God of Israel’. They recognised what He was doing both to them and their god. It is a sign of the blindness and darkness of men’s hearts that instead of this making them realise how useless it was to trust in Dagon and how wise they would be to trust in the God of Israel, they instead sought to expel Him from their country. They did not seek to propitiate Him. They did not want a God Who would actually do things. They were no doubt aware of the demands that the God of Israel made on His people. After all a good number of Israelites were their vassals.

1 Samuel 5:8

‘They sent therefore and gathered all the lords of the Philistines to them, and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” And they answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried about to Gath.” And they carried the ark of the God of Israel there.’

So their leaders called on the Tyrants of the Philistines to determine what should be done. This was a matter that had to be decided at the highest level. After all the Ark was there at the direct command of the five Tyrants and it represented their great victory. The Tyrants consulted together and determined that the Ark should be sent to Gath. Perhaps they considered that the gods of Gath would put up a better show. So they carried the Ark of Israel there.

1 Samuel 5:9

And it was so, that, after they had carried it about, the hand of YHWH was against the city with a very great discomfiture: and he smote the men of the city, both small and great; and tumours/boils brake out on them.’

They still prided themselves on having captured the Ark so it was paraded through the streets in a victory celebration, but the only result was that YHWH smote the men of the city ‘both small and great’ so that none was exempt. Many died, and others were smitten with tumours or plague boils.

1 Samuel 5:10

‘So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. And it came about that, as the ark of God came to Ekron, the Ekronites cried out, saying, “They have brought about the ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay us and our people.’

This time the decision was made more quickly and the Ark was transferred to Ekron, whose main god was Baal-zebub who had somewhat of a reputation (2 Kings 1:2). Perhaps the God of Israel would find it more difficult to cope with Baal-zebub. The people of Ekron, however, were not convinced, and protested at the idea of the Ark coming to Ekron. Their leaders cried out that the Ark of the God of Israel had been sent among them to slay them and their people. However the decision of the five Tyrants had been made and the Ark duly arrived in Ekron.

1 Samuel 5:11

‘They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and they said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go again to its own place, that it slay not me, and my people.” For there was a deadly discomfiture throughout all the city. The hand of God was very heavy there.

And there again there was a great plague, and many died, and many others were covered in tumours/plague boils, and the plague was even more deadly than in Ashdod and Gath. ‘The hand of God was very heavy there.’ And they petitioned the five Tyrants to remove the Ark from among them and send it back to Israel so that no more may die. For their hope was that once He was back in His own place the God of Israel would cease to demonstrate His anger.

“That it slay not me, and my people.” The words are put into the mouth of a spokesman (or the Philistine Tyrant) for effect.

1 Samuel 5:12

And the men who did not die were smitten with the tumours/boils, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.’

Meanwhile large numbers died, and even those who did not die were smitten with tumours/plague boils, and the cry of the city went up to heaven. This may simply be a general vague description indicating that their own gods had proved useless, or it may be intended to indicate that they prayed to the God of Heaven for mercy (compare Exodus 2:23).

There were a number of important lessons to be learned from these experiences. To the Israelites it had been made clear that while they were living in disobedience it was no use trying to manipulate YHWH by ritual methods. His protection depended on their true worship. To the Philistines and later to the Israelites it was being made clear that in spite of the Philistine victory it was still YHWH Who ruled over the affairs of men, and that it was dangerous to seek to trifle with what was His. Was His throne offered as a trophy to Dagon? Dagon would fall before it in obeisance and suffer utter defeat. Would the Philistine cities parade His throne among the people so that they could deride the God of Israel? Then the God of Israel would smite them with the plague. For while Israel may have been defeated, YHWH had not. He was merely biding His time.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 5:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/1-samuel-5.html. 2013.

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Thursday, December 12th, 2019
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