In this chapter, the Philistines are afflicted in whatever city they bring the ark of the covenant.
This is an interesting chapter. In the previous chapter, the Israelites brought out the “ark of God” in the hopes that it would ensure their victory over the Philistines. The Israelites did not follow the LORD or obey the covenant in this time, and we have a lengthy account of their disobedience in the book of Judges. In most respects, their defeat at the hands of the Philistines here is just a continuation of the stories from Judges. In this way, the LORD demonstrates that it is not the objects associated with the covenant (such as the ark or the tabernacle or the altars) that brings Israel prosperity or success, it is whether their hearts follow the LORD. They were living in rebellion, and bringing the ark of the covenant with them just means that when they are defeated, they would lose the ark as well.
That is how the Philistines find themselves in verse 1, carrying the ark of God to Ashdod, one of the 5 major cities in the land of Canaan. In fact, the Philistines are taking this as a spoil of war, and they carry it to the temple of Dagon as a symbol of their dominion over Israel. Furthermore, they take it as a symbol of the supremacy of Dagon over Yahweh, the God of Israel. In previous chapters of this commentary, I have noted that culturally, each nation is associated with one or several patron gods, and that victory of defeat in battle is interpreted as the strength or weakness of their respective gods. The Philistines are triumphing over Israel, but they are also triumphing over the LORD.
The puts the LORD in an interesting position. I think it is most similar to when the LORD threatened to destroy Israel in the wilderness, but Moses interceded that their enemies would interpret that as the LORD being weak, unable to bring his people into the promised land (Num 14:16 for instance). In this case I think it’s similar, because Israel is bringing disaster upon themselves by their rebellion, but the LORD doesn’t want to be caught in a position where Israel’s defeat is interpreted as his own weakness. The logical result is that the LORD has to demonstrate his supremacy over Dagon and the Philistines, and the only thing they would understand is a demonstration of power.
That is the context of this chapter, and in light of this context I think it’s pretty straightforward. The LORD literally overthrows the statue of Dagon, breaking off pieces, and by extension he also brings a “heavy hand” upon the people of the city. Verse 5 gives us an interesting etiology, that “to this day” people skip over the threshold of the temple of Dagon because pieces of Dagon broke and fell there. My readers should also note the association between the statue of Dagon and Dagon himself. The way that modern readers might think of this is, “there is a statue that represents Dagon”, much like Michelangelo's David is a representation of David. I don’t believe that is what the ancient writer is trying to convey. Verse 3, for instance, uses the expression “there was Dagon, fallen on his face”. In this verse, the statue of Dagon is considered to be Dagon himself; the representation and the “reality” of Dagon are the same. I think this is a meaningful distinction and it is pervasive throughout the OT.
For instance, when Micah constructed an idol in Judges 17, it’s very possible he believed that he was, in some fashion, creating a god. Maybe I’m off base here, but there are many places in the OT where the physical structure of an idol is conflated with the identity of the god it purports to be. It’s like the famous painting, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”. In that case, the painting is not a pipe, it is only a representation. But in this case, it’s plausible that the Philistines thought that the statue of Dagon really was Dagon.
It’s also possible this is why the Ten Commandments contains such a strong injunction against making idols. Partly this is because idols are a gateway to worshiping other gods, but partly this is because the LORD is not, and could never be, represented by any physical form or image, and to do so would necessarily result in misunderstanding and underestimating him. Gods like Dagon are “safe” because they are finite and controllable. Any god made by human hands can similarly be destroyed by human hands, and that gives humans the ultimate power over any gods with such forms. It’s an interesting paradox, to worship a god of one’s own creation. Devotion is an act of submission, such that the Philistines might have called Dagon lord. They worshiped him and offered sacrifices out of the belief that he could protect and bless them, and that would only be possible if Dagon were stronger and more powerful than them. At the same time, Dagon has all of the limitations that I discussed above; he is finite, controllable and even destroyable. That is the inherent paradox, to worship a God for his strength while at the same time exerting control over him.
(Minor note: I am using male pronouns “he” and “him” for convenience only. Ancient gods were associated with both male and female genders. The LORD himself is neither male nor female, but it would be far too cumbersome to write “he/she/it” everywhere I go through hundreds of chapters. This is an unfortunate limitation of the English language.)
Tangent over. The Philistines move the ark a couple times, to see if the suffering would be relieved in some other city. Perhaps the god of Gath is stronger than Dagon of Ashdod. This reminds me of Balak taking Balaam around to various places to see if perhaps he could curse Israel from one vantage point but not another (Num 23-24). It doesn’t work, and by the time the ark gets to Ekron the people freak out and refuse to allow it in.
The last thing I will mention is the peculiarity of a plague of tumors. I think this is the only place in the OT where tumors are recorded. The word also appears in Deut 28:27 as one of the promised curses if Israel should ever depart from the covenant, but this is the only place where it is recorded happening. My first thought when reading this is “the LORD is giving them cancer”. It’s possible the tumors are non-cancerous, as Deut 28 associates the tumors with boils and scabs, and given the limitations of Israelite medical science, these tumors are probably visible near the skin surface, because it’s unlikely they would have known about other kinds of tumors. I'm not sure what else to say other than that I always found this passage a bit strange.