Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1Samuel 5:1-12) The Ark of God among the Philistines.
And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod.(1) The Philistines took the ark of God.—The sacred writer concerns himself after the battle of Aphek only with the future of the Ark of the Covenant, and says nothing of the fate of Shiloh after the rout of the Israelites and the death of the high priest. We can, however, from Psalm 78:60-64, and two passages in Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:12; Jeremiah 26:9), complete the story of the sanctuary city after the death of Eli. After the victory of Aphek, the Philistines, flushed with success, probably at once marched on Shiloh, where, from the words of the above quoted Psalm, they seem to have revenged themselves for past injuries by a terrible massacre, and then to have razed the sacred buildings of the city to the ground. The awful fate of the priestly city seems to have become a proverb in Israel. “This house shall be like Shiloh,” wrote Jeremiah, hundreds of years later, and “this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant.” Yet, in spite of this crushing blow, the national life of the Hebrew people was by no means exterminated; we shall soon hear of its revival under happier auspices. There were others in Israel like Samuel, who, as we have seen, with all their hearts trusted in that Lord who, “when Israel was a child, then He loved him;” others like that weak but still righteous judge Eli, who for one great weakness had paid so awful a penalty; many others, like the wife of Phinehas, the wicked priest, and Elkanah and Hannah, the pious father and mother of Samuel, who dwelt in “Ramah of the Watchers.”
When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.(2) They brought it into the house of Dagon.—The conquerors, we are told, in the meantime, with triumph, carried the captured Ark from the battle-field to Ashdod. This was one of the capital cities of the five Philistine princes. It is built on a hill close to the Mediterranean Sea, and was in after days known as Azotus (Acts 8:40).
In Ashdod they placed it in the temple of the popular Philistine god, Dagon. This was their vengeance for the slaughter of the 3,000 Philistine worshippers in the temple of the same deity at Gaza, not many years before, by the blind Hebrew champion Samson.
The princes and Philistine people well remembered how the blind hero on that awful day, when 3,000 perished in the house of Dagon when he with his superhuman strength forced the great temple pillars down, called on the name of the God of Israel, whom they in their idol-trained hearts associated with the golden Ark.
“This only hope relieves me, that the strife
With me hath end, all the contest now
‘Twixt God and Dagon; Dagon hath presumed,
Me overthrown, to enter lists with God,
His deity comparing and preferring
Before the God of Abraham. He, be sure,
Will not connive or linger thus provoked,
But will arise, and His great name assert.”—MILTON.
The insulted Dagon and all their murdered countrymen should be avenged by the perpetual humiliation of the “God of Abraham.”
The sacred Ark should henceforth be placed at the feet of their god Dagon.
And when they of Ashdod arose early on the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of the LORD. And they took Dagon, and set him in his place again.(3) Dagon was fallen upon his face.—This Dagon was one of the chief Philistine deities, and had temples not only in Ashdod and in Gaza, but in the cities of Philistia. (See St. Jerome on Isaiah 46:1.) The idol had a human head and hands, and the body of a fish. Philo derives the word Dagon from dagan, “corn,” and supposes the worship to have been connected with Nature worship. The true derivation, however, is from Dag, a fish, which represents the sea from which the Philistines drew their wealth and power. In one of the bas-reliefs discovered at Khorsabad, and which, Layard states, represents the war of an Assyrian king—probably Sargon—with the inhabitants of the coast of Syria, a figure is seen swimming in the sea, with the upper part of the body resembling a bearded man wearing the ordinary conical tiara of royalty, adorned with elephants’ tusks, and the lower part re sembling the body of a fish. It has the hand lifted up, as if in astonishment or fear, and is surrounded by fishes, crabs, and other marine animals.
“There can be hardly any doubt,” argues Keil, “that we have here a representation of the Philistine Dagon. This deity was a personification of the generative and vivifying principle of nature, for which the fish, with its innumerable multiplication, was specially adapted, and set forth the idea of the Giver of all earthly good.”
This strange image the men of Ashdod, on the morrow of their triumphal offering of the Ark of the Lord before the idol shrine, found prostrate on the temple floor, before the desecrated sacred coffer of the Israelites.
They at once assumed that this had taken place owing to some accident, and they raised again the image to its place.
And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him.(4) When they arose early on the morrow.—Strange to say, on the next day a new and startling circumstance aroused and disturbed the exultant Philistines. The idol was again fallen, but this time broken. No mere accident could account for what had happened. The head and hands were severed from the image, and thrown contemptuously on the threshold of the temple, upon which the foot of every priest or worshipper as he passed into the sacred house must tread.
Only the stump of Dagon.—The Hebrew, rendered literally, would run, only Dagon was left to him: that is to say, only “the fish,” the least noble part of the idol image, was left standing; the human head and hands were tossed down for men as they passed in to trample on; “only the form of a fish was left in him.”—R. D. Kimchi.
Therefore neither the priests of Dagon, nor any that come into Dagon's house, tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod unto this day.(5) Unto this day.—This curious “memory” of the disaster to the Dagon image in this Philistine temple at Ashdod long existed among the worshippers of the fish-god. Zephaniah (1Samuel 1:9), in the reign of King Josiah, mentions this among idolatrous observances which he condemns: “In the same day I will punish all those that leap on (or over) the threshold.”
But the hand of the LORD was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with emerods, even Ashdod and the coasts thereof.(6) But the hand of the Lord was heavy upon them of Ashdod.—A painful and distressing sickness, in the form, perhaps, of tumours—(the word emerods should be spelt hemorrhoids)—broke out among the inhabitants of the Philistine city in which was situated the idol temple, where was placed the Ark of the Covenant. The LXX. has an addition to the Hebrew text here which speaks of a terrible land plague which, apparently from subsequent notices, visited Philistia in addition to the bodily sufferings here spoken of. The Greek Version adds to 1Samuel 5:6 these words: “and mice were produced in the land, and there arose a great and deadly confusion in the city.” In 1Samuel 6:4, &c, among the expiatory offerings sent by the idolators to Israel to appease what they imagined the offended Hebrew God, “golden mice” are mentioned: “images of the mice that mar the land.” The mouse, according to Herodotus and the testimony of hieroglyphics, was an old symbol of pestilence. The Greek translators, however, failing to understand the meaning of the offering of golden mice, added the words—apparently in accordance with a received tradition—by way of explanation.
They sent therefore and gathered all the lords of the Philistines unto 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 unto Gath. And they carried the ark of the God of Israel about thither.(8) Gathered all the lords of the Philistines unto them.—The Philistine federation seems to have been a very powerful one, and owing to the disinclination of the Israelites to maritime pursuits and foreign commerce—[the foreign commercial expeditions of King Solomon were apparently quite exceptional]—held in their hands a large proportion of the Mediterranean trade—the Mediterranean being the great highway between Eastern and Western nations; hence, no doubt, the worship of Dagon, the fish-god. It seems to have been something more than mere “Nature worship,” the devotion of the Phœnician settlers on the sea-board of Syria and Canaan to a marine deity. The constitution of Philistia was oligarchical: that is, the government was in the hands of a College of Princes, whose decision no individual could oppose. The princes (seranim) are the heads of the several city districts, which formed a confederation, each one of the five chief cities holding a number of places, country cities, or “daughter” cities, as its special district. (See Erdmann in Lange’s Commentary.) Dr. Payne Smith (Dean of Canterbury) has an ingenious and scholarly derivation for the titular designation of these lords (Hebrew, seranim), in which, rejecting the usual root sar, a prince, he connects the word with seren, a hinge; “just,” he says, “as the cardinals of the Church of Rome take their name from cardo, which has the same meaning.”
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 again to his own place, that it slay us not, and our people: for there was a deadly destruction throughout all the city; the hand of God was very heavy there.(11) Send away the ark.—The lords of the Philistines were a long time before they could make up their minds to get rid of this deadly trophy of their victory. They had grown up with an undefined awe of the “golden chest,” which, as they supposed, had so often in the days of the famous Hebrew conqueror, Joshua, led the armies of Israel to victory; and now at last it was their own. It was indeed a sore trouble for them to yield it up to their enemies again; to see the historical sacred treasure of Israel, so long veiled in awful mystery, at the feet of their fish-god idol, was a perpetual renewal for Philistia of the glorious triumph of Aphek, which avenged so many years of bitter humiliation. The plague and misery which afflicted the cities of Philistia in the day when the sacred Ark dwelt an unhonoured guest in their midst suggest many and grave thoughts. Is there not an unseen power ever protecting God’s institutions, His ordinances, and His ritual, the sacred House dedicated to His solemn worship, the vessels of the sanctuary, the very lands and gold consecrated to His service, even though all these things, owing to the faults and errors of His servants, have lost apparently their holy and beneficial influence over the hearts and homes of men?
Does not this old loved story warn rash and careless souls against laying rough hands on any ark of the Lord, though the ark in question seem to be abandoned by God, and destitute of power and dignity?