I Samuel 5
The book of Samuel does not record for us the sequel to the Philistines’ victory at Ebenezer. If we would learn what happened next, we must turn to Psalm 78. Starting in verse 56, we read:
56. Yet they tested and provoked the Most High God,
And did not keep His testimonies,
57. But turned back and acted unfaithfully like their fathers;
They were turned aside like a deceitful bow.
58. For they provoked Him to anger with their high places,
And moved Him to jealousy with their carved images.
59. When God heard this, He was furious,
And greatly abhorred Israel,
This describes Israel’s sin of unfaithfulness to the LORD that apparently was going on during Eli’s tenure as high priest and judge. No wonder, when God’s tabernacle was so despised even by its priests, that the people turned to other gods! Yet this was no excuse, and we read of the God’s actions in respond to this in the next verse.
60. So that He forsook the tabernacle of Shiloh,
The tent He had placed among men,
61. And delivered His strength into captivity,
And His glory into the enemy’s hand.
62. He also gave His people over to the sword,
And was furious with His inheritance.
63. The fire consumed their young men,
And their maidens were not given in marriage.
64. Their priests fell by the sword,
And their widows made no lamentation.
We have already learned of the high opinion the nations around Israel had of their God in the words of the Philistines back in I Samuel 4:7-8.
7. So the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “God has come into the camp!” And they said, “Woe to us! For such a thing has never happened before. 8. Woe to us! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all the plagues in the wilderness.”
So we see that the Philistines knew of the things God had done in bringing Israel out of Egypt, even though hundreds of years had passed since that event took place. Because they knew of the Exodus, the God of the Hebrews was held in great respect by the nations around Israel. Yet it seems that the capture of the ark convinced the Philistines that they had won, not just another victory over the people of Israel, but a victory over the God of Israel Himself. Sensing that they have the advantage, the Philistines decide to press it, and to take the opportunity to march against the priestly city itself. Perhaps they believe that, if they could wipe out the holy city along with capturing the ark, they could win a final victory over this God they had so long feared, and bring His worship and any thought of service to Him to an end in Israel.
Thus, the Philistines march on Shiloh, burning the city and wiping out the priests and their families together, as Psalm 78 tells us. This sad scene is also described in the book of Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 7:12. Jeremiah is there chiding the people of his day, who did any wickedness they wished to do, and then thought they could come to the LORD’s temple in Jerusalem and be pardoned for what they had done. Jeremiah uses Shiloh as the example to speak against this.
12. “But go now to My place which was in Shiloh, where I set My name at the first, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel.”
Of course, we have read of what happened to Shiloh in Psalm 78: it was burned with fire, and the inhabitants slain. We read the same thing in Jeremiah 26. There, Jeremiah has been commanded to go into the LORD’s house, the temple, and prophesy against it, saying in verses 4-6:
4. And you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD: “If you will not listen to Me, to walk in My law which I have set before you, 5. to heed the words of My servants the prophets whom I sent to you, both rising up early and sending them (but you have not heeded), 6. then I will make this house like Shiloh, and will make this city a curse to all the nations of the earth.”’”
We learn what Jeremiah meant by this in Jeremiah 26:9. The people who heard him, particularly the priests and prophets, were angered by this, and seized Jeremiah, saying:
9. Why have you prophesied in the name of the LORD, saying, ‘This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without an inhabitant’?” And all the people were gathered against Jeremiah in the house of the LORD.
So in the words of Jeremiah’s enemies, we learn the final fate of Shiloh. It was destroyed, and had remained desolate from that time, without an inhabitant. Jeremiah lived at the very close of the kingdom of Judah, so we can be sure that the city was never inhabited again from the time the Philistines destroyed it to the carrying away of Judah into Babylon.
Yet these facts bring multiple questions to our minds. What about Samuel, first of all? For he was living in Shiloh, and among the priests, the family of Eli. How did Samuel escape the destruction and pillage of the city? And how did he do so, when the rest of the priests obviously did not, and were destroyed by the Philistines?
Moreover, it is clear from later historical records of the Scriptures that neither the tabernacle nor the holy articles associated with it were destroyed by the Philistines when they sacked the city, for they continued to exist after this. We can find no other explanation of their escape but that Samuel managed to procure their deliverance. Yet how did he do so, without convincing the priests to abandon the city themselves and to spare themselves and their families from the slaughter?
Of the answers to these questions, the record of Samuel gives us no clue. God is significantly silent on this point, as well as on the sacking of Shiloh itself. That God was in the sparing of Samuel and the rescue of the holy things dedicated to Him that were at Shiloh, we cannot doubt. Samuel was in close communication with the LORD, as we have seen, and so must have received instructions from the LORD which he followed to bring this to pass. Yet what went on, what Samuel did, and how the rescue of the tabernacle was accomplished, we are not told. Instead, the record of the book of Samuel follows the ark into Philistia, leaving the land of Israel and the tumultuous happenings there behind. Instead of focusing on what was happening to His people, the LORD now tells us what happened to the Philistines. So, let us move on to chapter 5, and see what it was that God now did among these people.
1. Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod.
The Philistines, we will recall, were under the delusion that they had defeated the God of Israel when they were allowed to capture His ark. Of course, it was not for their sakes, but because of Israel’s wickedness that God had allowed His ark to fall into enemy hands. Yet the Philistines think they and their gods have won out over the true God. In this chapter, we will see how God begins to disillusion them of this notion, not by any spectacular miracle, but by exerting the merest fraction of His power against them. They will soon learn what it means to be in the presence of the Holy God, somewhere that they were not at all prepared to be!
The Philistines had captured the ark at Ebenezer. This was not its name at the time, but was called this later. In a few chapters, we will learn why it was called “Ebenezer.” From Ebenezer, they bring the ark to Ashdod. Ashdod means “Powerful,” and was a major Philistine city, one of their five greatest cities. It was located on the Mediterranean Sea west of Jerusalem.
2. When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon and set it by Dagon.
The Philistines bring the ark into the house of Dagon their god, and set it by the idol of Dagon. To understand this, we need to realize that idols to the nations around Israel were something of a cross between a god and a national mascot. When one captured the idol of another land, the tradition was to carry it into the temple of your god to show that your god was more powerful than the god you had conquered. The Philistines treat God’s ark like just another idol, bringing it into the house of their god to show that their god is the more powerful. This was a big mistake by the Philistines, yet remember that the Israelites taught them to think of the ark like this by themselves treating the ark like just another idol of the nations.
Scholars are divided on what exactly Dagon was. Some think Dagon was a fish-god, with a fish’s body and hands and face of a man. He represented fertility, and others would attach his name more to grain than to fish.
3. And when the people of Ashdod arose early in the morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. So they took Dagon and set it in its place again.
The next day when the people arise from sleep, they find Dagon on his face before the ark of the LORD. This seems strange for multiple reasons. For one thing, an idol falling over would have made a great crash. Since the priests typically lived at the temple, they should have been near enough to be roused by the sound if Dagon had fallen, yet apparently no one heard anything. It was as if someone had picked Dagon up in the night and set him down on his face before the ark. I think we can easily guess Who it was Who did this. The LORD picked up Dagon and set it down. Thus, we see that the god the Philistines served is humbled before the ark of the living God!
4. And when they arose early the next morning, there was Dagon, fallen on its face to the ground before the ark of the LORD. The head of Dagon and both the palms of its hands were broken off on the threshold; only Dagon’s torso was left of it.
The next morning when they get up, they find an even greater tragedy has happened to their god. This time not only was the idol tipped over, but the head and palms of its hands were cut off. If the fish god tradition is right, this would have cut the human parts off Dagon and left only the fish part behind, as if God were mocking Dagon and pointing out that he is nothing but a silly fish.
5. Therefore neither the priests of Dagon nor any who come into Dagon’s house tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
Instead of learning the helplessness of their god and the futility of worshipping him from this, the followers of Dagon used this event to craft a new tradition regarding him. From this time on, neither the priests of Dagon nor any of his worshippers would ever set foot on this threshold where the idol of Dagon was found broken before the ark. In this way they honored the defeat of their worthless god.
Why, we might wonder, did they not learn from this that Dagon was nothing before Jehovah, and turn to worship Him instead? This might seem strange to us, but we need to always remember the blinding power that religion has on the minds and hearts of many people. Moreover, as we considered above, idols were a lot like local mascots, not just gods. Men of these nations did not just trade their gods, even if their gods were shown to be weak. They just viewed it as if that made their whole nation weak, and it was their job to build up their nation, and in that manner they would build up their god. Thus men carried their god, rather than the other way around. This surely appeals to people in the flesh, for we wish ultimately in our sin to be the ones in charge, the ones who are really god, and any gods we create we would prefer to be inferior to us.
6. But the hand of the LORD was heavy on the people of Ashdod, and He ravaged them and struck them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory.
Yahweh moves not only against their god Dagon, but also He strikes the people of Ashdod as well. They had thought that they had gotten the victory over God, and so had been foolish enough to take the ark of the covenant of Yahweh, the symbol of His presence, into their midst. For this, He could have struck them all dead, but instead He acts more slowly, teaching them a painful lesson rather than destroying them. These Philistines need to learn the truth that they are defiled, and not worthy to live in the presence of a holy God. The Israelites could live in His presence only because of the sacrifices made, the laws kept, and the priests who stood as their intermediaries. These Philistines have not these things, and so they stand before God naked in their sin. Thus, they need to learn the grim truth that the wages of sin before God is death.
So their sinfulness and defilement is manifested by tumors breaking out in their bodies. What exactly this was is hard to say. The Hebrew is two words, “techor ‘ophel,” which might be roughly translated as “tumor hills.” It seems this refers to some sort of loathsome rectal protrusion, wherein some of the intestines protruded out of the anus. This was both very humiliating, and very painful. We have a condition called hemorrhoids today that involves a rectal protrusion, but this was a divinely-inflicted thing, so it is doubtful to say that this was the same thing. Moreover, this disease was inflicted throughout Ashdod and all its little villages, farms, and surrounding territory.
7. And when the men of Ashdod saw how it was, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for His hand is harsh toward us and Dagon our god.”
The men of Ashdod see this happening, and realize that it is God Who is harming them and their god because of the ark of the God of Israel among them. He is the One Who is striking down both them and their god Dagon. Thus God has shown them an important part of the truth about the captivity of the ark: that Dagon their god wasn’t really stronger than He after all.
8. Therefore they sent and gathered to themselves all the lords of the Philistines, 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 away to Gath.” So they carried the ark of the God of Israel away.
The men of Ashdod send to the other cities for the lords of the Philistines to come and form a council to decide what to do with the ark of the God of Israel. They certainly do not wish to keep it in Ashdod with themselves any longer! The lords decide that the ark should be carried away Gath. Gath means “Winepress,” and was both south and east of Ashdod. Gath was another one of five royal cities of the Philistines, like Ashdod. It was large and powerful. It could be that the Philistine lords thought the gods of Gath were stronger than Dagon, and could stop God from what He was doing. After all, they must have reasoned, they had captured God’s ark. If it was not Dagon who had helped them do it, it must have been one of their other gods, perhaps those of Gath. So they carry the ark there to try their experiment.
9. So it was, after they had carried it away, that the hand of the LORD was against the city with a very great destruction; and He struck the men of the city, both small and great, and tumors broke out on them.
Their plan fails, for Gath is no more able to hold the ark of God than Ashdod was. This time the hand of the LORD seems to fall upon them harder than it had on Ashdod. Perhaps this was because weren’t learning the lesson, so He had to act more harshly to convince them of their unworthiness to be in His presence. The result is that there is very great destruction in Gath. All the men of the city, small and great, break out in a rectal protrusion. The term “small and great” refers to the great and the small, the nobles and the commoners. It means that every last man, no matter who he was, had this rectal protrusion.
10. Therefore they sent the ark of God to Ekron. So it was, as the ark of God came to Ekron, that the Ekronites cried out, saying, “They have brought the ark of the God of Israel to us, to kill us and our people!”
The Philistine lords then decide to send the ark of God to Ekron. Ekron means “Emigration,” “Torn Up By the Roots,” or “Eradication.” This was the northern-most of the five royal cities of the Philistines. Sending the ark here makes little sense, but perhaps the lords were at their wits’ end to know what to do with the ark.
Whatever might have been true of the rest of the Philistines, the Ekronites have learned their lesson, anyway, as they now have an appreciation of what it means to have God living among them. Thus they are terrified of the ark. All thoughts of pride and patriotism about how powerful they must be to have defeated the powerful God of the Hebrews are now long gone. They are more afraid of God now than ever, and well they should have been.
The Ekronites are afraid they will all die with Him among them. Indeed, that might well have been the result had they refused to submit and let the ark go. Jehovah was being gracious by not killing them immediately, but eventually they all surely would have died had they continued to try to hang on to His ark.
11. So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it go back to its own place, so that it does not kill us and our people.” For there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there.
The Ekronites gather another council of the Philistine lords. They urge them to send away the ark of the God of Israel. They do not want to send it to another Philistine city. Indeed, it is almost certain that no other city wanted the ark anywhere near them by this time! Instead, they suggest sending it back to its own place in Israel, so that it cannot kill them all, both the rulers and their people.
Even as this council is meeting, God is sending a deadly destruction throughout the city of Ekron. Again, He is treating them more harshly as time goes on. In Ashdod His hand was heavy, and He ravaged and struck them. In Gath His hand was against them with a very great destruction. Now in Ekron His hand is very heavy, and a deadly destruction is among them.
12. And the men who did not die were stricken with the tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.
The people who did not die were stricken with the rectal protrusion. The cry of the city means, of course, the cry of its people. Whether this was a cry of pain or terror, or probably both, it was a loud cry indeed, for it went up to heaven. This is figurative, of course. It might refer to the loudness of the cry, that it could be heard in heaven itself, it was so loud. Yet heaven is often used figuratively for God, and so this might well mean that the cry of misery from the city went up to the ears of God Himself.