Read 1 Samuel 5:1-12
All of chapter five and part of chapter six give us great detail of what happens to the Philistines and the whereabouts of the ark. What it does not give us is what happened in Shiloh while the ark was missing. Here’s the thing, the ark represented the Lord and the Lord’s glory was no longer in Shiloh or with the Israelites and so the Bible does not have a record of what happened immediately after Eli’s death. The next seven months are a bit of a mystery for Shiloh. It seems that when the glory is removed that is when biblical history is not recorded. Another example of this is the intertestamental period. God was silent and we know from recorded history other than what the Bible records are that this period included a time of tribulation in which a massacre on the Israelites occurred.
The Philistines defeated the Israelites in a battle the Lord did not approve of and they were able to confiscate the ark of the covenant of God. The ark was carried away from Ebenezer, where the battle was won, to their capital city called Ashdod. Ashdod was one of their most famous cities and was home to an idol temple. Since the Philistines did not know the difference between God of Heaven and their fake idols, they decided to place the ark next to their Dagon idol, which is a hybrid fish/man creature god of grain that is also an ancestor to Godzilla.
Dagon has shown up at times in various places throughout the Bible. In Judges 16:23, the Philistines offered sacrifice to this idol after Sampson was delivered into their hands. 1Chronicles 10:10 mentions how they positioned King Saul’s head in the Dagon temple. Even Jonah had an encounter with a relative of Dagon, the Ninevites believed Jonah was delivered to them via a female Dagon which they believed was the fish Johan lived in for three days. God protected Jonah from their goddess and that is what got their attention, God of heaven protected Jonah from her, this is what led them to repent.
There are a few scriptures that give us a look at what may have happened in Shiloh. Directly after the Philistines were victorious in battle, they at once set their sites on Shiloh, where it is written in Psalms 78:60-64, they seemed to have avenged themselves for all their past injuries with a terrible massacre and destroying all the sacred buildings. Jeremiah later writes, “This house shall be like Shiloh, this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant.” Despite this crushing blow, we know that the Hebrew people were not completely exterminated. The citizens were murdered and their holy buildings were leveled, nothing more remained of this city Shiloh.
It would be no surprise that placing the ark of God next to this pesky idol was not a good idea, but they did it anyway. Only after God knocked this idol to the ground twice, breaking off his hands and head, leaving only a torso behind did they start to second guess their decision.
It wasn’t just the events happening to the idol that caused the Philistines to realize this was a horrible idea, it was also the devastation the Lord brought on them. His hand was heavy on them, he destroyed them by inflicting them with tumors.
Once the leaders of Ashdod realized the tumors were widespread and began the moment the ark was brought into the temple, they immediately called a meeting with all the other leaders throughout the area to discuss what in the world they should do about the ark. Their bright idea was to just move it; they transported the ark of the God of Isreal to the city of Gath. They likely chalked the whole disease up to some coincidental outbreak, they didn’t tie it to the Lord. They also didn’t take any chances of their Dagon idols being further destroyed because the city of Gath didn’t have a Dagon temple, so there shouldn’t be any competition between the two.
It is interesting how the Philistines refused to denounce their Dagon god, they refused to repent to the God of Israel. Instead of seeking mercy from God, they would rather just get rid of the ark. People with hard, sin-riddled hearts would rather keep God as far away as they possibly can than go into a covenant relationship with him. As we see in this story, eventually fighting with God will lead to a divine judgment to increase on you.
Their judgment certainly did increase, especially in the form of tumors. The tumors plaguing the citizens of Ashdod were more on the surface of their bodies, the lumps and bumps were much more noticeable. The citizens of Gath, however, were plagued with internal tumors. You can see this description in KJV where it says they were inflicted in their secret parts which is the most inward part of their bodies. Our modern science teaches us that tumors forming inside our bodies are much more painful, not easy to get to, and certainly much more difficult to cure. Thus the Lord is amping up his judgment on these wicked people.
Still not learning their lesson, and still not wanting to do what is right before God, they ship the ark off to yet another one of their main cities, this time it was transported to the city of Ekron. We all know news travels fast, and bad news travels even faster, so the Ekron citizens had already gotten the news that the previous cities suffered this tumorous plague and they did not want anything to do with this ark, they protested against its presence. Ultimately the decision was made to temporarily place the ark in Ekron until the Lords of the Philistines could convene to find a permanent location.
Just like the other two cities, the judgment of the Lord increased on Ekron’s citizens. This time it’s described as “deadly destruction” or literally “a dismay of death” meaning the fear of the Lord was so intense it caused the people to suffer mental agony and despair. The number of people who died was immense and those who did not die from despair were forced to continue living their lives being tormented from this sickness.
The wording in vs. 12 reads as though Ekron was also inflicted with something else because it says, “those who did not die” were afflicted with tumors. The judgment definitely increased with every move of the ark. God amped up the plagues until the Philistines couldn’t handle them anymore.
The Philistine rulers called an emergency meeting where they decided to send the ark of the God of Israel away; finally, they decided to let it go back to its own place. They were terrified if they didn’t return the ark it would kill them and the remainder of their people.