This chapter focuses on the ark, which was captured when the Philistines defeated Israel (4:22). Though one suspects Israel’s defeat was due to the Lord’s judgment upon Eli’s sons, the capture of the ark creates tension in the story and raises questions: How could the Lord allow the visible symbol of his presence to be taken away? Have the Philistines and their god actually defeated the Lord? What are the implications for Israel’s relationship with the Lord and for the future of the nation? This chapter addresses these questions and shows that God’s power remains active and invincible, even if enemies have captured the symbol of his presence.
During the period of the judges, the Israelites worshiped the gods of the neighboring peoples, including those of the Canaanites, Aramaeans, Sidonians, Moabites, Ammonites, and Philistines (Judg. 10:6). But Israel’s idolatry consistently brought defeat and humiliation. Some might misinterpret Israel’s defeats as being due to the Lord’s weakness or to the strength of the foreign gods. So in this section of the Former Prophets (Judges and 1 Samuel), the narrator affirms that Israel’s defeats are punitive, not due to some deficiency on the Lord’s part.
As part of his strategy, the narrator demonstrates the Lord’s superiority to foreign gods, in particular Baal, the Canaanite god of the storm, and Dagon, the god of the Philistines. The Song of Deborah depicts the Lord as sovereign over the storm as he defeats the Canaanite armies (Judg. 5:4–5). The Gideon account, along with its sequel about Abimelek, contains a strong anti-Baal polemic, showing how Baal is unable to fully avenge Gideon’s (Jerubbaal’s) attack on his altar. The polemical dimension takes a different turn in the Samson story, where Samson burns the grain supposedly provided by the Philistine grain-god Dagon (15:4–5), who is viewed as Baal’s father. Though Dagon seems to win the conflict (16:23–24), in the end Samson brings Dagon’s temple to the ground (16:30).
The polemic against both of these gods continues in 1 Samuel. As noted above, Hannah celebrates the Lord’s ability to give fertility (1 Sam. 2:1–10) in terms that echo the Baal myths. Now chapter 5 tells how the ark of God humiliates Dagon in the latter’s very own temple and then continues to assault him and his people as long as it remains in Philistine territory. The polemic against these foreign gods culminates in 1 Samuel 7, which records how the Lord thunders against the Philistines. In light of the Lord’s absolute superiority, it makes no sense for the Israelites to worship these gods and perfect sense for them to follow the Lord.
Historical and Cultural Background
The text describes Dagon as being present in the temple of Ashdod (5:2–4). The referent here is an idol of the deity, complete with face, head, and hands. Walton observes that in the ancient Near East “the deity’s presence was marked by the image of the deity.” He explains that the “image functioned in the cult as a mediator of the divine presence. As such it represented the mystical union of transcendence and immanence.” The god takes up residence in the image and in this way reveals himself to his worshipers and gives them a tangible object to worship.
Dagon appears to be the chief deity of the Philistines. Though an older interpretation understood him to be a fish-god, it is more likely that he was a weather-fertility deity responsible for crops. Scholars debate whether he was fundamentally a storm-god or a god of vegetation, but in either case he was associated with fertility. In Ugaritic the cognate word daganu means “grain,” and the storm-god Baal is called Dagon’s son. In the Ugaritic texts both Dagon and El are identified as Baal’s father. This does not mean that these two deities should be equated, nor does it indicate that there were competing traditions. The most likely explanation is that Dagon was considered to be Baal’s literal father, but that El could also be called Baal’s father because he was the patriarch of the gods, who stood at the head of the divine genealogical tree. El may have been viewed as Baal’s grandfather.
Teaching the Text
- The Lord is more powerful than the pagan gods. Even though the Philistines have captured the symbol of the Lord’s presence, they have not captured the Lord himself, as events in Ashdod and the other Philistine cities clearly demonstrate. But the Lord does accommodate himself to the Philistine mind-set. They identify the ark with Israel’s “gods” (4:8), so the Lord works in conjunction with the ark to impress upon the Philistines his incomparability and power. The Lord will not allow the ark to sit beside Dagon’s image in Dagon’s temple. When Dagon falls before the ark, the Philistines do not seem to get the point. But when Dagon then ends up decapitated and dismembered, they apparently do. Wherever the ark goes, the Lord brings death and destruction, demonstrating his superiority to Dagon. This episode demonstrates that the power of Israel’s God transcends territorial boundaries and is unimpeded, even when the symbol of his presence is in a foreign land or another god’s temple.
Fresco showing the ark of the covenant leaving the temple of Dagon with the statue of Dagon broken behind it, from the remains of the synagogue at Dura Europos (AD 245)
The Lord’s superiority to the gods of the nations is a persistent theme in the Old Testament. Through his servant Moses he defeats and humiliates the gods of Egypt (Exod. 12:12). When the Canaanites hear the news, they recognize that Israel’s God is “God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:11). God demonstrates his power over other gods on several occasions during the judges’ period (see our discussion above under “The Text in Context”). In the days of Elijah he sent his prophet to Phoenicia, Baal’s backyard, and demonstrated his power to give food and life during a time of drought (1 Kings 17). According to the mythological texts, drought is a consequence of Baal’s death and imprisonment in the underworld. Then on Mount Carmel, as Elijah confronts the Baal prophets imported by Jezebel, the Lord proves his power to send the lightning and rain (1 Kings 18). Against the backdrop of the exile, God challenges the idol-gods of the nations to demonstrate their power, lampoons their inability to do so, and declares his incomparability and right to exclusive worship (Isa. 40:18–20; 41:5–7, 21–29; 44:9–20; 45:5, 16; 46:1–2, 6–7; 48:5, 14).
- The Lord’s power transcends any mere tangible reminder of his presence. This story highlights the Lord’s power and makes it clear that his spiritual essence (John 4:24) cannot be equated with a mere physical token of his presence. Although the Philistines capture the ark, it does not imprison or weaken God. When God’s people are defeated, this hardly means that God himself has been defeated. One should never misinterpret God’s willingness to contextualize his self-revelation, as he did when he gave Israel the ark, to mean that God is finite. While God may reveal himself in anthropomorphic ways and even temporarily impose limitations on himself to accommodate human freedom and to facilitate divine-human relationships, he remains the infinite God who may be challenged, but never defeated.