In Enemy Territory

1 Samuel 5:1-12
1When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. 3And 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. 4But when they rose 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 lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. 5This 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. 6The hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. 7And 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 hard against us and against Dagon our god.” 8So 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 Israel be brought around to Gath.” So they brought the ark of the God of Israel there. 9But 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 on them. 10So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. But as soon as the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people.” 11They 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 kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there. 12The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.

For chapter 5 and most of chapter 6 of 1 Samuel, the action of the story takes place inside of the cities of Philistia. The Ark of God has been captured and now the Philistines must deal with the consequences of taking it into their cities. While the Philistines have indeed triumphed over the armies of Israel, they have not triumphed over the God of Israel, as they will learn in two ways.

Here Yahweh progressively demonstrates his supremacy over Dagon. On the first morning the idol is found fallen in front of the ark with its face to the ground. It is as if Dagon has prostrated himself before Yahweh, acknowledging the superiority of the God of Israel. On the second morning Dagon has fallen and his hands and head have been severed from his body. Here Yahweh is the warrior who demonstrates his victory over the false god by slaying it.
Steinmann, A. E. ©2016. 1 Samuel. (pp. 137–138). Saint Louis, MO: CPH.

Dagon was a grain god, thus attached to whether or not the Philistines prospered. There have been attempts to identify Dagon as a “fish god” but there appears to be little evidence of that.

Rats thrive on grain, and the rats associated with the plagues on the Philistines suggest that Yahweh sent these vermin as a pestilence that proved Dagon himself impotent (just as many of the ten plagues on Egypt targeted Egyptian deities). The second way the Philistines learn that they have not defeated Israel’s God is by the plague. It first broke out in Ashdod where the ark had been taken. The first attempt to stem the plague was to move the ark to another city of the pentapolis, Gath. Perhaps the Philistines thought that placing some distance between Dagon and the ark would mollify Israel’s God. Clearly, the Philistines understood Yahweh to be similar to any other of the pagan gods—he could be manipulated into giving humans their desires. They may have reasoned that sending the ark closer to Israelite territory would appease Yahweh. When this did not work, they sent the ark to Ekron, the Philistine city closest to Israel’s territory. However, the Ekronites panicked at the mere sight of the ark, and the plague also broke out there too.
Steinmann, A. E. ©2016. 1 Samuel. (pp. 138–139). Saint Louis, MO: CPH.

Because of the detailed description of this plague, scholars have concluded it was bubonic plague. As this plague is carried by rats, this appears to be a further judgment on the grain god, Dagon. No wonder the Philistines wanted to be rid of the Ark. It is interesting that the response of the Philistines is merely to rid themselves of the Ark rather than investigating this God who so clearly has control over all things. Repentance never even occurs to them. Our God is a welcoming God who would have embraced them and folded them into His Kingdom.