I have been considering the book of 1st Samuel.
The opening chapters set the scene of a people improperly worshipping God because the leadership was corrupt. True to His promise, if Israel dishonors God, He will curse them. God is a covenant keeping God and that includes bringing the judgment the covenant required.
This God did when He brought the Philistines to war against Israel. During a set of battles, Israel is beaten and after they regroup, they foolishly bring out the Ark of God to force God’s hand to fight the Philistines.
But God abandoned them to utter defeat, and in a sense, gave Himself over to self-imposed exile by allowing the Philistines to capture the Ark, the Mercy Seat. This is something God does alone. Only He is sovereign over all the events transpiring.
However, just like the LORD acted in judgment against the religious establishment of Israel who displayed contempt for Him and His covenant, so too we see His judgment against the Philistine religious establishment that attempts to ridicule Him. His hand is against them as it was against Israel.
The phrase “Hand of the LORD” speaks of ability, power, presence, and authority. Throughout Scripture when connected with God, the phrase speaks of how God has sovereign authority to either favor or curse.
The narrator tells how the “Hand of the Lord” was against the Philistines in three ways:
I) God’s Hand against Dagon (5:1-5)
Israel had justly been handed defeat by God to the Philistines. But to the Philistines, the capture of the Ark means a defeat of Israel’s God, for the Mercy Seat equates an idol in their minds that represented the God of Israel.
After they capture the Ark they take it to Ashdod, one of the 5 major Philistine cities and place it in the temple of Dagon where it will be housed as a war trophy representing how their god defeated YHWH.
Dagon was an ancient Mesopotamian deity that was revered among the Phoenicians, Amorites, and even the Babylonians. He was represented as something of a merman, head of a fish with the body of a man. He was the god who gave grain and sent rain for crops.
This “war trophy” is placed before the massive idol of Dagon. This was a common practice when a king or gods were defeated. For example, Judges 1 tells how Adoni-Bezek would do this to those men he defeated. Samson was treated in this fashion in Judges 16, and Nebuchadnezzar did this to the kings of Israel.
However, something happened. Coming in the next day, the priests of the temple discover the massive statue fallen down before the Ark. It was a rather large stone statue, so it was clear something miraculous happened.
The people set it back up. Notice how “they” had to set it back up. In other words, Dagon couldn’t get back up himself. But the next day when they come in, they find the idol with its head and hands severed and laying on the threshold of the temple. The decapitation and mutilation of the idol signifies a military style execution (similar to what happens to Saul at the end of 1 Samuel). Thus, YHWH has judged the fake god and religious system of the Philistines.
II). God Hand Against the People (5:6, 7)
After God defeats and humiliates the Philistines false god, the text says His hand was heavy against the people. He struck them with tumors. It is unclear what those “tumors” were. The original KJV translates the word as “emrods,” and some have suggested they are hemorrhoids or some other sexually transmitted disease. It could also be a black plague type disease knowing later that images of mice are returned with the ark when it is sent back to Israel, (6).
God’s judgment was falling upon the Philistines in which He was bringing the covenant curses upon them (Deut. 28:27).
III) God’s Hand Against the Nation (5:8-12)
God’s judgment against the Philistines in Ashdod begins a panic. They want to send it away. The tone with the words here is similar to how the Egyptians in Exodus 12:33 who wanted to send out Israel with haste.
The people of Ashdod then escalate God’s judgment among the whole Philistine nation by sending the Ark away to Gath, thus bringing the plague to them. Judgment is upon all the people. Men, women, and children. Rich and poor, small and great. No one is “spared.” Judgment comes upon all equally. Those who did not die were stricken with the tumors (emrods) and their cry went up into heaven.
In spite of Israel corrupt disobedience and arrogance, God weakened their enemy by destroying them Himself. He had to be the one who defends His own honor.