And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it from Ebenezer unto Ashdod.
Verse 1. - The Philistines took the ark of God. The silence of Scripture is often as remarkable as what it tells us. From Psalm 78:60-64; Jeremiah 7:12; Jeremiah 26:9, we gather that from Aphek the Philistines marched upon Shiloh, and having captured it, put all whom they found there to the sword, and levelled the buildings to the ground. Especially their wrath fell upon the priests, in revenge for the bringing of the ark to the camp, by which the war was made a religious one, and the worst feelings of fanaticism aroused. Of all this the history says nothing, nor of the measures taken by Samuel under these trying circumstances. From his previous eminence, the government would naturally devolve upon him, especially as Eli's sons were both slain; and evidently he must have managed in some way to save the sacred vessels of the sanctuary, and the numerous records of the past history of the nation laid up at Shiloh. Whatever learning there was in Israel had its seat there; it was probably the only school wherein men were initiated in the knowledge brought out of Egypt; and it is one of the worst and most barbarous results of war that it destroys so much connected with human progress and civilisation, overthrowing with its violent hand as well the means of a nation's culture as the results thereof. Samuel evidently did all that was possible to counteract these evils; and as the Philistine army withdrew into its own country immediately after the destruction of Shiloh, probably to carry homo the rich spoils obtained there, he was apparently able to ward off the worst effects of the Philistine invasion, and by rapidly reorganising the government to save the people from utter demoralisation. But upon all this Scripture is silent, because it concerns the history of Israel on its temporal side, and not as it exemplifies God's spiritual dealings with nations and men. From Eben-ezer (see on 1 Samuel 4:1) unto Ashdod. This town, the Azotus of Acts 8:40, was with Ekron and other Philistine cities, assigned to the tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:47) but never actually conquered. It lay near the sea, about thirty-two miles north of Gaza, and is now an unimportant village, still bearing the name of Esdud. Of the five Philistine capitals Ashdod and Gaza were of the most importance, as being the keys of Egypt, and the former was also enriched by the sale of the produce of Arabia, of which it was the emporium.
When the Philistines took the ark of God, they brought it into the house of Dagon, and set it by Dagon.
Verse 2. - When the Philistines, etc. The words are exactly the same as those in ver. 1, viz. "And the Philistines took the ark of God, and brought it," marking the simplicity of ancient narrative. Dagon is derived by Philo from dagan, "corn," and is explained by him as an emblem of the earth's fertility; but as the shape of this national deity of the Philistines was certainly that of a man to the waist, ending in the body and tail of a fish, the true derivation is doubtless that from dag, "a fish." It represented, however, not so much the sea, on which the Philistines trafficked, as the fruitfulness of water, which in the East is looked upon as the active principle of life (comp. Genesis 1:20). In one of the sculptures brought from Khorsabad there is a representation of a battle between the Assyrians and the inhabitants of the Syrian sea coast, and in it there is a figure, the upper part of which is a bearded man with a crown, while from the waist downwards it has the shape of a fish (Layard's 'Nineveh,' 2:466). Moreover, it is swimming in the sea, and is surrounded by a multitude of marine creatures. Doubtless this figure represents Dagon, who, nevertheless, is not to be regarded as a sea god, like Neptune; but as the fish is the product of water, he is the symbol of nature's reproductive energy. Together with Dagon a female deity was commonly worshipped, called Atergatis, half woman and half fish, whose temple is mentioned in 2 Macc. 12:26. In the margin there she is explained as being Venus; but the ideas have only this in common - that Venus also, as rising out of the sea, symbolises life as springing out of water. As Dagon had a temple also at Gaza (Judges 16:23), and at the other cities of Philistia (Jerome on Isaiah 46:1), he was evidently the chief deity of the nation, and the solemn depositing of the ark in his temple, and by Dagon, - literally, "at his side," - was intended as a public demonstration that the God of the Israelites was inferior to, and had been vanquished by, the national deity of the Philistines.
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.
Verses 3, 4. - On the morrow, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the earth before the ark of Jehovah. I.e. he was in the attitude of adoration, and instead of triumphing over Jehovah, he was prostrate, as if compelled to worship. But his priests perhaps thought that it was an accident, and so they set the image in its place again. They also, we may be sure, took due precaution against any one entering his temple by stealth; but when early on the second morning they came with anxious minds to see whether any new prodigy had happened, they found their god not only prostrate, as before, but mutilated, and his head and both the palms of his hands were cut off - not broken off by the fall of the image from its place, but severed with deliberate care, and placed contemptuously upon the threshold, i.e. upon the door sill, the place where all must tread. Only Dagon was left to him. We cannot in English render the full contemptuousness of this phrase, because Dagon is to us a mere proper name, with no significance. In the original it conveys the idea that the head, the emblem of reason, and the human hands, the emblems of intellectual activity, were no real parts of Dagon, but falsely assumed by him; and, deprived of them, he lay there in his true ugliness, a mere misshapen fish; for dag, as we have seen, means a fish, and Dagon is here a diminutive of contempt. In spite of his discomfiture the Philistines were tree to their allegiance to their god, because, believing as they did in "gods many," he was still their own national deity, even though he had been proved inferior to the God of Israel, and would probably be rendered more particular and exacting as regards the homage due to him from his own subjects by so humiliating a defeat. For the gods of the heathen were jealous, fickle, and very ill tempered if any slight was put upon them. After all, perhaps they thought, he had done his best, and though worsted in the personal conflict, he had managed so cleverly that they had gained in fair fight a great victory.
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.
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.
Verse 5. - Henceforward, therefore, his priests and other worshippers carefully abstained from treading on the door sill, where his nobler members had lain, unto this day. Apparently the Books of Samuel were written some time after the events recorded in them took place, and we have remarkable evidence of the permanence of the custom in Zephaniah 1:9, where the Philistines are described as "those that leap on," or more correctly over, "the threshold." The custom, so curious in itself and so long continued, bears strong testimony to the historical truth of the narrative.
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.
Verse 6. - But the hand of Jehovah was heavy upon them of Ashdod. I.e. his power and might were exercised in smiting them with severe plagues. A question here arises whether, as the Septuagint affirms, besides the scourge of emerods, their land was desolated by swarms of field mice. It is certain that they sent as votive offerings golden images of "the mice that mar the land" (1 Samuel 6:5); but the translators of the Septuagint too often attempt to make all things easy by unauthorised additions, suggested by the context; and so probably here it was the wish to explain why mice were sent which made them add, "and mice were produced in the land." Really the mouse was a symbol of pestilence (Herod., 2:141), and appears as such in hieroglyphics; and by sending golden mice with golden emerods the lords of the Philistines expressed very clearly that the emerods had been epidemic. This word, more correctly spelt haemorrhoids, has this in its favour, that the noun used here, ophalim, is never read in the synagogue. Wherever the word occurs the reader was instructed to say tehorim, the vowels of which are actually attached to the consonants of ophalim in the text of our Hebrew Bibles. In Deuteronomy 28:27. tehorim is mentioned as one of the loathsome skin diseases of Egypt, and though rendered "emerods" in the A.V., is possibly, as translated by Aquila, "an eating ulcer." Ophalim need only mean turnouts, swellings, its original signification being "a hill" (2 Chronicles 27:3); yet as the word was not thought fit for public reading in the synagogue, we may feel sure that it means some such tumours as the A.V. describes.
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 upon us, and upon Dagon our god.
Verse 7. - His hand is sore upon us. The epidemic was evidently very painful, and, as appears from ver. 11, fatal in numerous instances. Connecting this outbreak with the prostrate condition and subsequent mutilation of their god, the people of Ashdod recognised in their affliction the hand, i.e. the power, of Jehovah, and determined to send away the ark, the symbol of his ill omened presence among them.
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.
Verse 8. - The lords of the Philistines. Philistia was governed by a council of five princes, but whether they were elective or hereditary in the several towns is by no means clear. They are called "seranim," from seren, "a hinge," just as the cardinals of the Church of Rome take their name from the Latin word cardo, which has the same meaning. There is no ground for connecting the word with sar, "a prince." When Ewald did so he probably forgot that the two words begin with different letters - seren with samech, and sar with shin. Seranim is the word constantly used of the lords of the Philistines (Joshua 13:3; Judges 3:3; Judges 16:5, 8, etc.; 1 Chronicles 12:9), though after being correctly so styled in 1 Samuel 29:2, they are popularly called in vers. 3, 4, 9, sarim, "princes." Let the ark of the God of Israel be carried about unto Gath. Unwilling to part with so signal a proof of their victory, the lords of the Philistines determine to remove the ark to another locality, but thereby only made the miraculous nature of what was taking place more evident to all. Of Gath but little is known; but Jerome describes it as still a large village in his days, and as situated near the border of Judaea, on the road from Eleutheropolis to Gaza.
And it was so, that, after they had carried it about, the hand of the LORD was against the city with a very great destruction: and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts.
Verse 9. - And they had emerods in their secret parts. The verb used here, sathar, is found in Hebrew only in this place, but is of common occurrence in Syriac and Arabic. Its ordinary meaning in both these languages is to "cover," "conceal," and the A.V., taking it in this sense, supposes that the boils were hidden, and translates as above. But the root has a double meaning, and signifies also "to destroy," though in this sense the Arabic has a slight difference in spelling, namely, shatara instead of satara. The old versions were evidently at a loss in understanding the meaning, though their renderings are suggestive, except the Syriac, which translates quite literally, but leaves thereby the difficulty untouched of the twofold meaning of the word, and the Syro-Arabic lexicons are uncertain which to choose. Some give, "and the emerods hid themselves in them," in the sense of gnawing and burrowing into the flesh, i.e. they became cancerous. Others take the alternative sense, and render, "and the emerods were burst upon them," i.e. became fissured and rent, and turned into open sores. Another translation has been proposed, namely, "the tumours or emerods brake out upon them;" but as the verb, both in the Hebrew and the Syriac, is passive, this rendering can scarcely be defended. Upon the whole, the most probable sense is that the tumours buried themselves deep in the flesh, and becoming thus incurable, ended in causing the death of the sufferers.
Therefore they sent the ark of God to Ekron. And it came to pass, as the ark of God came to Ekron, that the Ekronites cried out, saying, They have brought about the ark of the God of Israel to us, to slay us and our people.
Verses 10, 11. - The Ekronites cried out. Convinced by this second and more fatal plague that the ark was the cause of their punishment, the people of Ekron, when it was passed on to them from Gath, protested loudly against its presence. Compelled to receive it until the lords of the Philistines could be convened in council to decide upon its ultimate destination, the plague broke out so heavily among them that they were in utter dismay. For the rendering deadly destruction is untenable. Literally the words are, "a dismay of death;" but in Hebrew death added to a word of this sort simply means "very great." So "terrors of death" in Psalm 55:4 are very great terrors. In the next verse we learn that many did die, but the words used here describe the mental agony and despair of the people as they saw the ark, which had wrought elsewhere so great misery, brought unto them.
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.
And the men that died not were smitten with the emerods: and the cry of the city went up to heaven.
Verse 12. - The cry of the city went up to heaven. Not the word used in ver. 10, where it is an outcry of indignation, but a cry for help, a cry of sorrow and distress. Though in ver. 10 Ekronites is in the plural, yet in all that follows the singular is used. "They have brought about the ark to me, to slay me and my people... That it slay me not and my people." It is the prince of Ekron who, as the representative of the people, expostulates with his fellow rulers for the wrong they are doing him. But finally all join in his lamentation, and the whole city, smitten by God's band sends up its prayer to heaven for mercy.