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Verses 1-5

Having captured the ark, the Philistines brought it from Ebenezer to their main city, Ashdod, which stood about 30 miles to the southwest and three miles from the Mediterranean coast. Archaeologists have excavated Ashdod more extensively than any of the five major Philistine cities.

Dagon was the principle deity of the Philistines. The popular teaching that the Philistines pictured him as being part man and part fish finds support in 1 Samuel 5:4. Dag in Hebrew means fishy part. Dagon (cf. Heb. dagan, grain) was a grain god whom the Philistines worshipped as the source of bountiful harvests (fertility). Worship of him began about 2500 B.C. in Mesopotamia, especially in the Middle-Euphrates region. [Note: The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Dagon," by Kenneth A. Kitchen.]

The writer clarified that the Philistines regarded the fact that the image representing Dagon had fallen on its face before the ark as indicating Yahweh’s superiority. Falling on one’s face was a posture associated with worship. The fact that the Philistines had to reposition the idol is another allusion to Dagon’s inferiority. He could not act on his own (cf. Isaiah 46:7). Later Goliath, the Philistine champion, would also fall on his face before David, Yahweh’s champion (1 Samuel 17:49).

The following night the symbol of Dagon toppled again before the ark, the symbol of Yahweh. This time Dagon’s head, suggestive of his sovereign control, and his palms, suggesting his power, broke off (1 Samuel 5:4). In the ancient Near East, warring armies cut off and collected the heads and hands of their enemies to count accurately the number of their slain (cf. 1 Samuel 29:4; Judges 8:6). [Note: Antony F. Campbell, The Ark Narrative, p. 86, n. 1.] Earlier Samson’s defeat had involved the cutting of the hair of his head and the weakening of his hands (Judges 16:18-21). Later David would cut off Goliath’s head (1 Samuel 17:51), and the Philistines would cut off King Saul’s head (1 Chronicles 10:10).

The breaking of Dagon’s head and hands on the threshold of his temple rendered the threshold especially sacred. From then on the pagan priests superstitiously regarded the threshold as holy (cf. Zephaniah 1:9). The ancients commonly treated sanctuary thresholds with respect because they marked the boundary that divided the sacred from the profane. [Note: Gordon, p. 99.] This incident involving Dagon made the threshold to his sanctuary even more sacred. This is another ironical testimony to the utter folly of idolatry and to Yahweh’s sovereignty (cf. Exodus 20:3).

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