The Word Made Fresh
1The Philistines carried the covenant chest from Ebenezer to Ashdod, then brought it into the temple of Dagon and placed it beside the statue of Dagon. 3When they awoke early the next day, Dagon had fallen on his face on the ground in front of the covenant chest. They pulled Dagon back up in place. 4The next morning the statue of Dagon had fallen on its face in front of the covenant chest, and its head and both hands had broken off and rolled to the threshold of the entrance. 5That is the reason the priests of Dagon and everyone who enters Dagon’s temple step over the threshold even today.
6The people of Ashdod felt the LORD’s hand heavy upon them and they suffered with blisters on their skin in Ashdod and the surrounding countryside. 7They said, “This chest that belongs to Israel’s god has to go. Their god’s hand is heavy on us and on our god Dagon.” 8They summoned the Philistine leaders and said, “What should we do with this chest that belongs to the god of the Israelites?”
The people from Gath said, “Bring it to us.” They moved the chest to Gath. 9But then the LORD’s hand was heavy on the people there, and they were frightened. The people of Gath began to break out with blisters on their skin, afflicting young and old alike.
10They moved the covenant chest to Ekron, but when they arrived there, the people of Ekron complained, “Why did you bring that thing here? Do you want to kill us all?”11They called for a gathering of all the Philistine leaders who said, “Send that chest that belongs to the god of Israel back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people, too.” There was a panic spreading through the population because the hand of God weighed down on them. 12The ones who survived were stricken with blisters and their cry went up to high heaven.
1-5: The Philistines transport the ark to one of their principal cities, Ashdod, near the Mediterranean coast in the center of their territory. The temple of Dagon that was in Ashdod would still be around hundreds of years later until it was destroyed by Judas Maccabeus in his war to gain independence for Israel in the 1st century AD (see I Maccabees 10:83-84). The ark is placed near a statue of Dagon. Dagon was a primary god of the Canaanites, adopted by the Philistines when they settled the land. Dagon was a fertility god, considered in some ancient texts to be the father of Baal.
It becomes apparent that although the Israelites have been defeated, Israel’s God has certainly not been beaten. Dagon falls over on successive nights, and the second time this happens his hands and head are broken off. The symbolism is obvious: Dagon is not in charge (the head) of anything and has no power (no hands). The mention of “God’s hand” occurs several times in this chapter. God is still very much in charge.
6-12: The inhabitants of Ashdod are stricken and discern that the presence of the ark is the cause. They pass it on to Gath, where a plague breaks out. The folks in Gath send it on to Ekron, thus exposing three of the primary Philistine cities to the plague. They decide to send the thing back to Israel.
The text reads as if some infectious disease has become associated with the covenant chest (the ark), and there are various theories. The most oft given explanation is that they were infected by bubonic plague. More on that in the next chapter. Suffice it to say that God is not about to let Israel lose the ten commandments, and when the covenant chest finally disappears from the historical records the law and the will of God will be firmly entrenched in their history.