Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
1 Kings (1 Samuel)
Humiliation of the Philistines by Means of the Ark of the Covenant - 1 Samuel 5-7:1
Whilst the Israelites were mourning over the loss of the ark of God, the Philistines were also to derive no pleasure from their booty, but rather to learn that the God of Israel, who had given up to them His greatest sanctuary to humble His own degenerate nation, was the only true God, beside Whom there were no other gods. Not only was the principal deity of the Philistines thrown down into the dust and dashed to pieces by the glory of Jehovah; but the Philistines themselves were so smitten, that their princes were compelled to send back the ark into the land of Israel, together with a trespass-offering, to appease the wrath of God, which pressed so heavily upon them.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 5:1
The Ark in the Land of the Philistines. - Sa1 5:1-6. The Philistines carried the ark from Ebenezer, where they had captured it, into their capital, Ashdod (Esdud; see at Jos 13:3), and placed it there in the temple of Dagon, by the side of the idol Dagon, evidently as a dedicatory offering to this god of theirs, by whose help they imagined that they had obtained the victory over both the Israelites and their God. With regard to the image of Dagon, compounded of man and fish, i.e., of a human body, with head and hands, and a fish's tail, see, in addition to Jdg 16:23, Stark's Gaza, pp. 248ff., 308ff., and Layard's Nineveh and its Remains, pp. 466-7, where there is a bas-relief from Khorsabad, in which "a figure is seen swimming in the sea, with the upper part of the body resembling a bearded man, wearing the ordinary conical tiara of royalty, adorned with elephants' tusks, and the lower part resembling the body of a fish. It has the hand lifted up, as if in astonishment or fear, and is surrounded by fishes, crabs, and other marine animals" (Stark, p. 308). As this bas-relief represents, according to Layard, the war of an Assyrian king with the inhabitants of the coast of Syria, most probably of Sargon, who had to carry on a long conflict with the Philistian towns, more especially with Ashdod, there can hardly be any doubt that we have a representation of the Philistian Dagon here. This deity was a personification of the generative and vivifying principle of nature, for which the fish with its innumerable multiplication was specially adapted, and set forth the idea of the giver of all earthly good.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 5:3
The next morning the Ashdodites found Dagon lying on his face upon the ground before the ark of Jehovah, and restored him to his place again, evidently supposing that the idol had fallen or been thrown down by some accident.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 5:4
But they were obliged to give up this notion when they found the god lying on his face upon the ground again the next morning in front of the ark of Jehovah, and in fact broken to pieces, so that Dagon's head and the two hollow hands of his arms lay severed upon the threshold, and nothing was left but the trunk of the fish (דּגון). The word Dagon, in this last clause, is used in an appellative sense, viz., the fishy part, or fish's shape, from דּג, a fish. המּפתּן is no doubt the threshold of the door of the recess in which the image was set up. We cannot infer from this, however, as Thenius has done, that with the small dimensions of the recesses in the ancient temples, if the image fell forward, the pieces named might easily fall upon the threshold. This naturalistic interpretation of the miracle is not only proved to be untenable by the word כּרתות, since כּרוּת means cut off, and not broken off, but is also precluded by the improbability, not to say impossibility, of the thing itself. For if the image of Dagon, which was standing by the side of the ark, was thrown down towards the ark, so as to lie upon its face in front of it, the pieces that were broken off, viz., the head and hands, could not have fallen sideways, so as to lie upon the threshold. Even the first fall of the image of Dagon was a miracle. From the fact that their god Dagon lay upon its face before the ark of Jehovah, i.e., lay prostrate upon the earth, as though worshipping before the God of Israel, the Philistines were to learn, that even their supreme deity had been obliged to fall down before the majesty of Jehovah, the God of the Israelites. But as they did not discern the meaning of this miraculous sign, the second miracle was to show them the annihilation of their idol through the God of Israel, in such a way as to preclude every thought of accident. The disgrace attending the annihilation of their idol was probably to be heightened by the fact, that the pieces of Dagon that were smitten off were lying upon the threshold, inasmuch as what lay upon the threshold was easily trodden upon by any one who entered the house. This is intimated in the custom referred to in Sa1 5:5, that in consequence of this occurrence, the priests of Dagon, and all who entered the temple of Dagon at Ashdod, down to the time of the historian himself, would not step upon the threshold of Dagon, i.e., the threshold where Dagon's head and hands had lain, but stepped over the threshold (not "leaped over," as many commentators assume on the ground of Zep 1:5, which has nothing to do with the matter), that they might not touch with their feet, and so defile, the place where the pieces of their god had lain.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 5:6
The visitation of God was not restricted to the demolition of the statue of Dagon, but affected the people of Ashdod as well. "The hand of Jehovah was heavy upon the Ashdodites, and laid them waste." השׁם, from שׁמם, when applied to men, as in Mic 6:13, signifies to make desolate not only by diseases, but also by the withdrawal or diminution of the means of subsistence, the devastation of the fields, and such like. That the latter is included here, is evident from the dedicatory offerings with which the Philistines sought to mitigate the wrath of the God of the Israelites (Sa1 6:4-5, Sa1 6:11, Sa1 6:18), although the verse before us simply mentions the diseases with which God visited them.
(Note: At the close of Sa1 5:3 and Sa1 5:6 the Septuagint contains some comprehensive additions; viz., at the close of Sa1 5:3 : Καὶ ἐβαρύνθη χεὶρ Κυρίου ἐπι τοὺς Ἀζωτίους καὶ ἐβασάνιζεν αὐτους, καὶ ἐπάταζεν αὐτους εἰς τάς ἕδρας αὐτων, τὴν Ἄζωτον καὶ τὰ ὅρια αὐτῆς; and at the end of Sa1 5:4 : Καὶ μέσον τῆς χώρας αὐτῆς ἀνεφυησαν μύες καὶ ἐγένετο σύγχυσις θανάτου μεγάλη ἐν τῇ πολει. This last clause we also find in the Vulgate, expressed as follows: Et eballiverunt villae et agri in medio regionis illius, et nati sunt mures, et facta est confusio mortis magnae in civitate. Ewald's decision with regard to these clauses (Gesch. ii. p. 541) is, that they are not wanted at Sa1 5:3, Sa1 5:6, but that they are all the more necessary at Sa1 6:1; whereas at Sa1 5:3, Sa1 5:6, they would rather injure the sense. Thenius admits that the clause appended to Sa1 5:3 is nothing more than a second translation of our sixth verse, which has been interpolated by a copyist of the Greek in the wrong place; whereas that of Sa1 5:6 contains the original though somewhat corrupt text, according to which the Hebrew text should be emended. But an impartial examination would show very clearly, that all these additions are nothing more than paraphrases founded upon the context. The last part of the addition to Sa1 5:6 is taken verbatim from Sa1 5:11, whilst the first part is a conjecture based upon Sa1 6:4-5. Jerome, if indeed the addition in our text of the Vulgate really originated with him, and was not transferred into his version from the Itala, did not venture to suppress the clause interpolated in the Alexandrian version. This is very evident from the words confusio mortis magnae, which are a literal rendering of σύγχυσις θανάτου μεγάλη; whereas in Sa1 5:11, Jerome has given to מות מהוּמת, which the lxx rendered σύγχυσις θανάτου, the much more accurate rendering pavor mortis. Moreover, neither the Syriac nor Targum Jonath. has this clause; so that long before the time of Jerome, the Hebrew text existed in the form in which the Masoretes have handed it down to us.)
"And He smote them with עפלים, i.e., boils:" according to the Rabbins, swellings on the anus, mariscae (see at Deu 28:27). For עפלים the Masoretes have invariably substituted טחרים, which is used in Sa1 6:11, Sa1 6:17, and was probably regarded as more decorous. Ashdod is a more precise definition of the word them, viz., Ashdod, i.e., the inhabitants of Ashdod and its territory.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 5:7
"When the Ashdodites saw that it was so," they were unwilling to keep the ark of the God of Israel any longer, because the hand of Jehovah lay heavy upon them and their god Dagon; whereupon the princes of the Philistines (סרני, as in Jos 13:3, etc.) assembled together, and came to the resolution to "let the ark of the God of Israel turn (i.e., be taken) to Gath" (Sa1 5:8). The princes of the Philistines probably imagined that the calamity which the Ashdodites attributed to the ark of God, either did not proceed from the ark, i.e., from the God of Israel, or if actually connected with the presence of the ark, simply arose from the fact that the city itself was hateful to the God of the Israelites, or that the Dagon of Ashdod was weaker than the Jehovah of Israel: they therefore resolved to let the ark be taken to Gath in order to pacify the Ashdodites. According to our account, the city of Gath seems to have stood between Ashdod and Akron (see at Jos 13:3).
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 5:9
But when the ark was brought to Gath, the hand of Jehovah came upon that city also with very great alarm. גּדולה מהוּמה is subordinated to the main sentence either adverbially or in the accusative. Jehovah smote the people of the city, small and great, so that boils broke out upon their hinder parts.
1 Kings (1 Samuel) 5:10
They therefore sent the ark of God to Ekron, i.e., Akir, the north-western city of the Philistines (see at Jos 13:3). But the Ekronites, who had been informed of what had taken place in Ashdod and Gath, cried out, when the ark came into their city, "They have brought the ark of the God of Israel to me, to slay me and my people" (these words are to be regarded as spoken by the whole town); and they said to all the princes of the Philistines whom they had called together, "Send away the ark of the God of Israel, that it may return to its place, and not slay me and my people. For deadly alarm (מות מהוּמת, confusion of death, i.e., alarm produced by many sudden deaths) ruled in the whole city; very heavy was the hand of God there. The people who did not die were smitten with boils, and the cry of the city ascended to heaven." From this description, which simply indicates briefly the particulars of the plagues that God inflicted upon Ekron, we may see very clearly that Ekron was visited even more severely than Ashdod and Gath. This was naturally the case. The longer the Philistines resisted and refused to recognise the chastening hand of the living God in the plagues inflicted upon them, the more severely would they necessarily 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 that nation, was the omnipotent God, who was able to destroy His foes.