Toppling Dagon

In the Bible—1 Samuel 5—we read of Dagon, the Philistine God of Samuel’s era. For a brief time Yahweh, the God of Israel, shared a room with Dagon. And it wasn’t a happy time for Dagon’s team.

Let me summarize the events. At this stage of Bible history Israel was only superficially devoted to Yahweh—“the LORD”—and Israel’s priests epitomized a drift away from God.

The LORD’s role in the Dagon story was tied to the Ark of the Covenant. Earlier in the Bible we read that the space between two cherubs molded onto the lid on the Ark—the Mercy Seat—was God’s earthly throne. Here the invisible LORD would speak to Moses; so the Ark was God’s connecting point on earth.

By Eli’s day the Israelites had demeaned this gift and were treating the Ark as no more than a religious good luck charm. So in a battle with the neighboring Philistines Eli’s two morally and spiritually corrupt sons carried the Ark to the front lines. The Philistines were terrified—“woe to us” is repeated twice in the text—because they knew the LORD had already defeated the mighty Egyptian army. But the project didn’t work: Eli’s priestly sons were killed and the Ark was captured. When Eli heard this he collapsed and died.

This meant the Philistines now held Israel’s supposed connecting point with the LORD. They would have been both pleased and a little bit nervous. Capturing another nation’s god could be risky business!

They knew, for instance, not to discount the reports from an earlier era of the LORD’s power over Egyptian gods. Yet on this occasion the Philistines prayed to Dagon for victory over Israel and it worked. So in their view Dagon had the upper hand; but Yahweh—the LORD—still needed to be respected.

A standard program of the day was to collect as many gods as possible so the Philistine priests placed the Ark next to Dagon’s stone image in his Ashdod temple. The power of two gods might be greater than one.

A nice idea, but the next morning the priests found Dagon’s statue toppled from his pedestal. So they set it back in place and, no doubt, talked about building a better pedestal. Had a very local earthquake caused this? Were some blasphemous pranksters involved?

An answer dawned on them the following morning when they came back to the temple and found Dagon toppled a second time and lying on the ground “before the Ark” with head and arms chopped off—both acts of desecration. And reports came at the same time of a plague spreading among the Philistines. A Bible summary follows: “the hand of the LORD was against the city, causing a very great panic.”

Soon the Philistines started pawning off the Ark to other cities: Ashdod sent it to Ekron and a “deathly panic” followed there as well. It may have spent time in Gaza, Gath, and Ashkelon too—we aren’t sure. Finally, after seven months of illness and death among the Philistines the national authorities found a way to send the Ark back to Israel where it belonged.

Here’s the lesson: God is still in charge and he is greater than Dagon!

By now, of course, we don’t struggle with that debate. No one worships Dagon these days—and the Philistine religion is seen to be just so much nonsense. Dagonism may have had some demonic affiliations that offered religious punch in its day but it was only a passing pretense. Israel, alone, worshipped the one true God.

Another debate exists today. Is God is greater than our current deities?

Which deities? In the West we don’t often have the wood, stone, and metal idols of biblical times but we do find other forms of idolatry. An idol is anything that replaces God’s primacy in life. Paul, for instance, spoke of greed as idolatry.

But our purpose here isn’t to identify modern forms of idolatry. Instead let’s follow up the story of 1 Samuel 5 with a question.

Why did God allow his Ark to be captured? And—to suggest a present parallel—why is God so quiet in the face of widespread disregard for him today? Even in the church we can find spiritual and moral carelessness similar to the conduct of Eli and his sons.

Is it possible that God still refuses to be a good luck charm? Is he still working from positions of apparent weakness . . . while tipping over idols at night? If, for instance, someone claims to have faith in God while also living a life full of self-centered ambitions, is it possible that God might tip things over as a mercy meant to catch that person’s attention?

The question applies both in community settings—to church and state—and personally. Yet there’s always an alternative. Later in the same narrative God found a man “after my own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) to lead his people in new directions.

With that in mind let’s be bold to ask God to search our hearts and to tip over any idols he finds. And then let’s follow his heart wherever it may lead.

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