If you remember in 1 Samuel 4, the Philistines had taken their captured trophy, “The Ark of God” from the now abandoned Israelite camp at Ebenezer and placed it beside the image of their god Dagon in his temple at Ashdod.
The purpose of this act was evident. The Philistines saw Yahweh as the defeated God and that God would stand in service before the victorious Dagon, so they thought.
While this account is indeed humorous, it is intended to teach another valuable lesson about the “Ark of God.”
Let’s Read 1 Samuel 5
The Philistines logically transported the Ark of God to the place of their chief deity, the Temple of Dagon in Ashdod. The modern city of Ashdod is near this ancient place, but it is not built upon the old city’s ruins.
Scholars speak of a Pentapolis when it comes to the arrangement of Philistia; that is, there were five major Philistine cities each lorded over by a Philistine king. The cities were Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gat, Ekron, and Gaza.
It certainly appeared to the Philistines and Israelites alike that a sudden geopolitical power shift had just occurred as a result of the battle of Even-ezer (Ebenezer). The evidence of it was that the Philistines had captured the Ark of the God of Israel, and therefore the Israelite God, and therefore the Israelites were now under the control of Philistia in every sense.
They did what most any Middle Eastern society would have done; they brought the Ark of the Covenant as a gift for their victorious god. Placing the Ark before the statue of Dagon was symbolic of dominance; the Ark would be Dagon’s footstool.
However what neither Israel nor Philistia counted on was that Yehoveh is the God over history. Not just Israel’s history but all history. Yehoveh has no territorial boundaries, and He has no peer, as the Philistines were about to discover.
The Philistines placed the Ark in front of Dagon in a position of submission, but when the priests of Dagon entered the temple the next day, it was the idol of Dagon that was lying prostrate before the Ark. Figuring this was merely some strange coincidence they propped the idol back upright only to return and this time they find that it was not only face down before the Ark of God but also the head and hands had broken off the body as it fell across the temple threshold.
Then we’re informed as a side note that this was the reason that (at the time of the writing of this section of 1st Samuel) that the Philistine priests had developed this strange custom of stepping (or even perhaps jumping) over the doorway’s threshold into Dagon’s temple.
Understand: the threshold into the temple of a god was the place where the ordinary ended, and the holy began. When a worshipper stepped over the threshold upon entering a god’s temple, one sphere of reality was left behind for another. The world of men was outside, while the world of the gods was inside. Now, this was serious business.
But humiliating the Dagon idol was just the beginning. What we are about to see is a whole series of plagues upon the chief cities of the Philistines wrought by Yehoveh. And these plagues are eerily reminiscent of what happened in Egypt.
What we also see is that it was the Lord God of Israel who first used a tactic that would later be made infamous by the Greeks at a place called Troy. Yehoveh employed the Ark as a sort of Trojan Horse.
The Philistines thought they had defeated Israel and humiliated the God of Israel, and so they cheerfully brought the Ark inside their territory and even into the temple of Dagon, but the God of Israel merely used their arrogance as a means to wreak havoc upon them from the inside out.
The people of Ashdod suddenly broke out in tumors and quickly concluded that it was the Ark of God that was the source of the problem. They called a meeting of the Philistine leaders where they decided that the best course of action was to take it elsewhere.
But they weren’t about to send it back to Israel, so they transported it to another city of their pentapolis, Gat. No sooner had the Ark arrived there than a panic set in at Gat because the people there broke out in tumors as well.
What were these “tumors”? Well, if you compare various Bible translations you’ll find diverse solutions. In Hebrew, the word is ophalim, which can be translated as “swellings.”
Ophalim is from the root word ophel that can mean mound or hill. In fact, in the Old City of Jerusalem, the City of David was built up a steep hillside starting from the bottom of a deep ravine. At the highest point of the hill was Mt. Moriah and there the Temple was built. The area in between the City of David and the Temple Mount was called the Ophel, the mound.
So these were some swellings or mounds on the body. However over time, the use of the word began to change, and in time it referred to a part of the body that was usually considered a kind of swollen mound: the buttocks. They didn’t want to use the formal word for the buttocks (they found it a bit crude), so instead they began to refer to it as a person’s ophel.
From this inference, some scholars have decided that the swelling, the tumor, was essentially: hemorrhoids. And you’ll perhaps find that exact translation in your bible. I don’t think it’s correct, but it is kind of comical.
Anyway, the people of Gat then sent the Ark on to the unsuspecting folks at Ekron. But when the citizens of Ekron saw it coming, they went ballistic and told their Philistine leaders that they certainly didn’t want to house it there and suffer the oppression of tumors that the other Philistine city dwellers had endured.
The Philistines were running out of places to send it, and so the game of hot potato had to come to an end. The Philistines relented and decided it was better to return the Ark to Israel than to tempt the God of Israel any further.
We’ll begin chapter 6 in my next blog post and watch the Philistines gladly send the Ark back to its original owners.