I Samuel 5: Possession of the Ark wreaks havoc on the Philistines
A couple of passages ago, the Israelites fought the Philistines and lost, thus losing the Ark. Then, in the last chapter, we saw the Israelites’ reaction to that loss. In this chapter, we see how the Philistines deal with having the Ark—spoiler alert: It’s not good news for them.
Having captured the Ark, the Philistines bring it to Ashdod, and set it inside the temple of their god, Dagon. They wake up the next morning, only to find Dagon face down on the ground in front of the Ark. (Obviously Dagon is some kind of idol.) They put him back in his place, and the next morning find him lying there again, except that this time, his head and his hands have been broken off, and are sitting at the threshold to the temple. I’m guessing that this has some kind of cultural significance, but I don’t know what it is; however, the priests of Dagon take it seriously. Verse 5 says that “to this day,” priests of Dagon don’t step on the threshold at Dagon’s temple. (At the time of writing, of course; I doubt that there are any Dagon worshippers left.)
But this isn’t the only problem the Philistines are having; the people of Ashdod are also suffering because of the Ark. The LORD brings “devastation” on them, and afflicts them with tumours (verse 6). So the people of Dagon decide that they’ve had too much; the “god of Israel” (verse 7) is making His hand heavy on them and on their god Dagon, so the Ark has to be moved.
So they move it to Gath—where the LORD again inflicts the residents with tumours.
So they move it to Ekron, and when the people see it coming, they panic—the Ark is being brought to kill them! And it’s not just idle panic, either; the LORD brings death to Ekron, and those who don’t die are afflicted with tumours.
But this is where the passage ends. We’ll have to see what the next passage says, to find out how the Philistines get out of their mess. (Spoiler alert: They give it back to the Israelites.)
I find the events in the temple of Dagon to be rather humourous, but that’s partially because I live in the 20th Century, and the idea of a golden idol seems silly to me in the first place. But God is making the same point that He was making in Egypt, with His plagues: He is the one and only God, and the “gods” of other nations are not gods at all. For people who had bought into the idea of a golden idol, it would have been more impressive that Dagon kept falling down before the LORD.