After seeing the effect of the ark’s capture on Eli and his daughter-in-law, we now return to its fate. The Philistine bring the ark to Ashdod – one of the five principal cities of Philistia – and set the ark in Dagon’s temple. From their perspective, this was a slight toward the Israelite God, since putting him in Dagon’s temple establishes Dagon’s power over him, and highlights YHWH’s captive status.
But oh! YHWH gets the better of the situation!
In what was, I am certain, intended to be a seen as comedy, the Philistines wake the next morning to find that their statue of Dagon has fallen on its face before the ark. I think the symbolism is rather obvious.
But the Philistines in this story are a little thick, as we saw in their speech in 1 Sam. 4:7-8, so they set Dagon upright and go on as normal. Of course, the next morning, Dagon is down again, only this time his head and hands have been severed and placed on the temple threshold. “This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day” (1 Sam. 5:5).
So why the decapitation? The most obvious meaning is that Dagon has been killed, or at least well and good defeated. In other parts of the world, and perhaps this one, “decapitation derived from ritual and belief. Since the HEAD was the home of the spirit, it needed to be preserved or destroyed, according to whether it belonged to a friend or to an enemy” (The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p. 281). At the very least, the face (a rather prominent part of the head) is associated with identity. By removing it from the idol, they left little more than a lifeless pillar.
The symbolism of amputating the hands is a bit easier. Later in the very same chapter, the text tells us that “the hand of God was very heavy there” (1 Sam. 5:11). Or, as my Penguin Dictionary of Symbols puts it: “The hand is an emblem of royalty, an instrument of command and a sign of dominion” (p.466). Hands are active agents of the body, it’s power to interact with the world. Removing Dagon’s hands is to make him impotent.
The threshold is a liminal space, symbolically resonant in any situation. It’s even more important in a temple, where the threshold marks the division between sacred and profane space. So it’s no surprise that my study Bible says that “leaping over the threshold was a common practice in primitive religions (Zeph. 1.9), the doorsill being regarded with superstitious awe(compare the modern custom of carrying a bride over the threshold). The origins of the custom are very ancient, hence the explanation given here can hardly be correct” (p.337). Even so, it’s meaningful, I think, that Dagon’s hands and head were placed there.
Attack of the hemorrhoids
Things aren’t so hot outside the temple either. It seems that the ark was a Trojan horse of sorts, and the people of Ashdod (and its environs) are afflicted with tumours – which the King James Version calls “emerods” (an archaic spelling of hemorrhoids), and my study Bible says are likely the swellings of the bubonic plague. For those not content with these explanations, Brant Clements points to an article (sadly behind a paywall) arguing that the affliction could be erectile dysfunction!
Whatever the affliction is, it seems to be the same curse God promised in Deuteronomy 28:27 to those who fail to follow the law.
The Philistines – no longer playing around and correctly identifying Israel as monotheistic – try to get rid of the ark by sending it to Gath, another of the five cities of Philistia. Where the ark goes, the contagion follows, and the ark is quickly sent on to Ekron.
Just as a point of interest, Ekron was given to Judah in Joshua 15:11, but to Dan in Joshua 19:43. It is then captured by Judah in Judges 1:18. Despite this history, it is very clearly in Philistine hands at this point in the narrative.
So the Philistines, feeling that “the hand of God was very heavy” on them (1 Sam. 5:11), decide to send the ark back to the Israelites.