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Bible Commentaries
1 Samuel 5

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verses 1-2


Contrary to what any uninspired writer would have done, the author (whom we believe to have been Samuel) says nothing at all in this chapter concerning the Israelites and their reaction to the terrible defeat they had just suffered. He gives us not a single word about the terrible destruction of Shiloh by the Philistine army; and we are able to know about that only from the later references to it in the Bible.

From Psalms 78:60-64 and from Jeremiah 7:12 and Jeremiah 26:9, it is clear enough that Shiloh was brutally and thoroughly destroyed, remaining a total ruin for centuries afterward. All of the buildings were demolished; the inhabitants were put to the sword, men women and children alike; and the priests, especially, were butchered. This extremely severe destruction was apparently brought about by the injection of the ark of God into the battle plans by the Israelites, thus endowing the struggle with significant religious overtones and endowing the conflict with all of the savage frenzy of religious fanaticism.

The universal custom among ancient pagan peoples was to take any captured idols or other representations of their gods and to display them as trophies of victory in the shrines and temples of their false deities. To some extent, this custom even prevailed among the Israelites, as, for example, when David delivered the sword of Goliath to the priests at Nob.

In the ancient view, a nation’s power and its victory in war depended more upon their gods than upon themselves; and the ordinary viewpoint ascribed victory to the stronger god; thus Israel’s defeat at Ebenezer was interpreted by the Philistines as a triumph over the God of Israel. It is this theological aspect of what happened that is the chief concern of our sacred author in this section of Samuel. That is why everything else is ignored and the Biblical narrative follows the ark of God into Philistia.

“The reader’s attention is focused on the theological significance of Israel’s defeat. In the viewpoint of ancient pagan peoples, it appeared that the Lord God Almighty had been defeated by Dagon of the Philistines at Ebenezer.”(F1)


“When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they carried it from Ebenezer to Ashdod; then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon.”

“Ashdod” This was one of the five principal cities of the Philistines, “located thirty-three miles west of Jerusalem,”(F2) “only 3 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, situated on an elevation overlooking the Philistine plain half way between Gaza and Joppa; its importance consisted in the fact of its commanding the high road from Palestine to Egypt.”(F3) This city is the Azotus of the N.T. (Acts 8:40) and, “the modern Tell Ashdod.”(F4)

The name Ashdod means “stronghold or fortress”;(F5) and the history of the place justified the name. “An Egyptian ruler besieged it for 29 years on one occasion (according to Herodotus).”(F6) The Jews were finally able to destroy the place when Jonathan finally did it in the times of the Maccabees (1 Maccabees 10:84).

Apparently, the reason for the Philistines’ taking the ark of God to Ashdod was the location there of a principal temple of Dagon. Samson had destroyed the one at Gaza (Judges 16), so they by-passed Gaza on the way to Ashdod.

“Dagon” This pagan deity was a Semitic god worshipped as early as the mid-third millennium B.C.(F7) The Philistines, originally from Caphtor (Crete), adopted this deity. Scholars give two possible origins of the name (1) [~dag] which means “fish,” and (2) [~dagan] which means “corn.”(F8) Dagon was apparently an agricultural deity, or `corn deity.’(F9) His devotees touted him as the `father of the Canaanite god Baal’; and, “The Ras Shamra tablets referred to Baal as `the son of Dagon.’“(F10)

One may only imagine what the degree of rejoicing and confidence of the Philistines was when they supposed that the God of Israel had been defeated by their Dagon.

However, the true God had not been defeated at all; Israel indeed had suffered a defeat, but God was still the only One and True God; and he made sure in the developments related in this chapter that the Philistines would soon catch on to this fact. The total length of time it took for God to accomplish that objective was only seven months.

“The Philistines carried it (the ark of God) from Ebenezer to Ashdod” The great leader of the conquest, Joshua, removed the ark from Gilgal to Shiloh which was located within the territory allotted to Ephraim, evidently because Joshua was a member of that tribe.

However unintentional Joshua’s actions might have been, “God did not choose the tent of Ephraim; he rejected it; he chose the tribe of Judah” (Psalms 78:67-68). Halley has the following summary of the various locations where, at one time or another, the ark was placed:

“The ark remained among the Philistine cities for seven months. The Philistines returned it to Beth-shemesh, and then to Kiriath-jearim, where it remained twenty years (1 Samuel 7:2). Later it was taken to Jerusalem where David built a tabernacle for it (2 Samuel 6:12; 2 Chronicles 1:4); it remained there until Solomon replaced the tabernacle with the temple. Nothing is known of the history of the ark after the destruction of Jerusalem.”(F11)

The Philistines’ placing the ark in the temple of their god Dagon was the normal procedure for the disposal of the captured `gods’ or other trophies of defeated enemies. When they killed Saul, they stripped him of his armor and deposited it in the temple of Ashtaroth (1 Samuel 21:10). “It was no doubt to insult the God of Israel and to insult and terrify his people that they did this.”(F12)

Verse 3


“And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.”

Apparently, the priests of Dagon had planned some kind of public celebration of their maneuver with the ark, which would account for `the people of Ashdod’ getting up early and going to their temple; but what they saw must have shocked them. There was old Dagon lying on his belly prostrate before the ark of God! Perhaps some of the intelligent people got the message at once, but not the priests. They put the dead, senseless idol back where it had been before.

Verse 4


“But when they arose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.”

“The received text here has `only Dagon was left,’ which is manifestly impossible.”(F13) To remedy this ` impossibility’ the text was emended in all the versions to read,’ only the trunk of Dagon was left. However, the principal factor in Dagon’s name ([~dag]) means ` fish,’ and Keil described this old idol as, “A bearded man, wearing the ordinary conical tiara of royalty…and the lower part resembling the body of a fish.”(F14) Therefore, we wonder if the Hebrew text of the O.T. (the received text) might be interpreted to mean that the head and hands (all the human parts of the idol) were cut off and only the fish part was left. “Thus he lay there in his true ugliness.”(F15)

Verse 5

“This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.”

Bennett labeled this as “an erroneous theory”(F16) regarding the origin of stepping over the threshold, declaring that, “The rite is found elsewhere (Zephaniah 1:9).” Of course, such a criticism is incorrect. H. P. Smith pointed out that, “We cannot be sure that there is any connection between the two passages (the one here and that in Zephaniah 1:9), or that the custom is the same in the two cases.”(F17)

“To this day” Another bit of nonsense often found among critics is the allegation that the words to this day always mean a couple of centuries or more, It is very refreshing to find this from Jamieson: “Unto this day means that the practice (of stepping over the threshold at Ashdod) continued at the time this history was written, probably in the later years of Samuel’s life.”(F18) Another important consideration regarding such expressions is the possibility that the words were added by some later copyist.

What a strange thing it is that the Ashdodites themselves developed a custom that perpetuated the memory and significance of this disgraceful humiliation of their so-called god. As Clarke expressed it:

“Thus it was ordered, in the Divine providence, that, by a religious custom of their own they should perpetuate their disgrace, the insufficiency of their worship, and the superiority of the God of Israel.”(F19)

Verses 6-12


“The hand of the Lord was heavy upon the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. And when the men of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us; for his hand is heavy upon us and upon Dagon our god.” So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel”? They answered, “Let the ark of the god of lsrael be brought around to Gath.” So they brought the ark of the God of Israel there. But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic; and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out upon them. So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. But when the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought to us the ark of the God of Israel to slay us and our people.” They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not slay us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was heavy there. The men who did not die were stricken with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.”

This summary of the Philistines’ sad experience with the ark of the God of Israel needs hardly any comment at all. There are many things about which our curiosity would certainly like to be satisfied; but the great message of the passage is as clear as the sun at noon on a clear day at perihelion! That message is the power and superiority of the God of Israel over all things in heaven or upon earth.

“He afflicted them with tumors” What was this disease? There is little doubt that it was anything other than an epidemic of the bubonic plague, the black death that wiped out a major fraction of the human race in the mid-14th century. Edward Gibbon wrote that, “The moity of mankind perished.” Will and Ariel Durant stated that one-third of the human race perished, and Barbara Tuckman writes (in 1978) that, “Modern demographers have settled, for the area extending from India to Iceland, around the same figure expressed by Froissart’s words. `a third of the world died.’“(F20) We have introduced this here to emphasize the size of the disaster that came to the Philistines. Again, from Tuckman, the mortality rate in all the cities of Europe ranged. “Between 20% and 90% of the whole population.”(F21) This occurred in a matter of a very few days. Just imagine what a devastation like this would have produced in the way of a panic (1 Samuel 11).

The conclusion of scholars that the disease which struck the Philistines was bubonic plague is well supported; and John Willis has a full discussion of this.(F22) A key factor in the evidence is that the disease was likely spread by rats, indicated by the Philistines making golden images of those creatures (“The Hebrews did not distinguish between mice and rats.”)(F23) Willis quoted the Septuagint (LXX) and the Vulgate versions which declare that, “Their territory swarmed with rats. There was death and destruction all through the city.” Of course, rats were a part of the necessary pre-conditions for development of the bubonic plague. Another element in the deadly triangle was the Cheops flea. The flea-infested rat died of the disease; the flea then bit a man, and he died.

The tumors that broke out on the people were often in the armpits, the groins, etc. Psalms 78:66 has this in the KJV, “He smote his enemies in the hinder parts.” Keil interpreted this to mean that, “He smote them with boils on the anus.”(F24) The Vulgate here reads, “He smote them in the more secret parts of their posteriors.”(F25)

Returning to the great swarm of rats which was a key element in the judgment of God against the Philistines, that would have been a double plague. The rats not only carried the bubonic plague infection but devastated the fields and ate up the crops as well.

There is a definite progression in the severity of the plagues of Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron as the ark made its way to those cities successively; and this should have been expected.

“The longer the Philistines resisted and refused to recognize the chastening hand of the living God in the plagues inflicted upon them, the more severely would they be punished, that they might be brought at last to see that the God of Israel, whose sanctuary they still wanted to keep as a trophy of their victory over Israel, was the omnipotent God who was able to destroy his enemies.”(F26)

“Let it return to its own place” Willis pointed out that this could not mean, “back to Shiloh,” for the Philistines had destroyed that. It meant that, “They desired to put the ark back into the hands of the Israelites.”(F27)

“And the cry of the city went up to heaven” Not only did the Philistines pray to God for deliverance, God heard their prayer!

“The next chapter indicates that the Philistines were delivered from their calamities, which was possible only by divine intervention. This shows that God hears the prayers of other nations as well as those of his chosen people, and that he cares about all mankind.”(F28)

One other thing should be noted before we leave this chapter. It is plain from what is written here that the Philistines worshipped the idol itself, and not any so-called `god’ that the idol represented, a sin from which Israel was in large measure protected by God’s admonition against their making any kind of a religious image.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Samuel 5". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-samuel-5.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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