What does 1 Samuel 5:4 mean?
ESV: But 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.
NIV: But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.
NASB: But when they got up early the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. And the head of Dagon and both palms of his hands were cut off on the threshold; only the torso of Dagon was left.
CSB: But when they got up early the next morning, there was Dagon, fallen with his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. This time, Dagon's head and both of his hands were broken off and lying on the threshold. Only Dagon's torso remained.
NLT: But the next morning the same thing happened — Dagon had fallen face down before the Ark of the Lord again. This time his head and hands had broken off and were lying in the doorway. Only the trunk of his body was left intact.
KJV: And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him.
Verse Commentary:
Bringing idols and statues of enemy gods back as trophies of conquest was meant to show your god was superior to theirs. It implied you had dominated your enemy so thoroughly that you were able to take their god away from them and even force that god to submit to your own god. This is what the Philistines meant to do with Israel's Yahweh. They brought the ark of Yahweh into the temple of their idol, Dagon, as if Yahweh had come to worship a superior deity (1 Samuel 5:2). When they came back the next morning, though, the Dagon statue was lying face down on the ground in front of the ark in a position of worship. They stood the statue up again (1 Samuel 5:3).

Now they have returned the second day to find the Dagon statue in even worse shape. Not only is the statue face down on the ground in front of the ark again, but its head and hands have been removed and placed on the "threshold." This might refer to the pedestal on which the idol sat, or the entryway to its chamber. Either way, this fact implies several things. First, the severed head and hands means this was no natural, common accident. Second, a "threshold" is typically where people walk; to step on something degraded and dishonored it. In a somewhat literal way, the idol of Dagon has been violently, shamefully stripped of his power and authority—hands and head—while being forced to submit to Yahweh.

This must have raised an important question for the Philistines: Did Dagon really defeat Yahweh in that battle? Clearly, he had not. Cutting off the heads and hands of enemy soldiers was one of the brutal methods during this era for demonstrating complete dominance over other nations. The idea that Yahweh had somehow cut off Dagon's head and hands was clearly meant to humiliate the Philistines and their god. What happens next will continue to demonstrate that the Lord God, not Dagon, was the true power behind these events.
Verse Context:
First Samuel 5:1–6 describes the arrogance of the Philistines as they place the captured ark of the Lord in the temple of their false god, Dagon. That arrogance is followed by dread: the following morning, the Dagon idol is found face down before the ark. The idol is set back in place, only to fall into the same position overnight, this time with its head and hands cut off and laying on the temple's threshold. The following passage details a wave of tumors and terror among the Philistines, as they move the ark while attempting to halt the plague.
Chapter Summary:
The captured ark of the Lord is placed in the temple of Dagon. On consecutive nights, the Dagon idol is found on the floor, face down before the ark. On the second night, its head and hands are removed. The Lord sends a plague of terror and tumors on the people of Ashdod. The ark is sent to Gath and then Ekron, where the suffering grows even more intense. Some men in Ekron die from sheer panic, and the rest are struck with tumors. The people cry out to send the ark away, back to the Israelites.
Chapter Context:
In the prior chapter, Israel lost badly in battle against the Philistines, who even captured the ark of the covenant. First Samuel 5 dispels any suspicion that the Israelites' defeat means the god of the Philistines is more powerful than the Lord. In Ashdod, the idol of the god Dagon is supernaturally humiliated in its own temple. A plague of terror and tumors follows, first in Ashdod and then in Gath and Ekron as the ark is moved closer and closer to Jerusalem. The people of Ekron cry out for their leaders to send it back to the Israelites. Chapter 6 details their plan to be free from the ark and God's wrath.
Book Summary:
First Samuel introduces the key figures who led Israel after the era of the judges. The books of 1 and 2 Samuel were originally part of a single text, split in certain translations shortly before the birth of Christ. Some of the Bible’s most famous characters are depicted in this book. These including the prophet Samuel, Israel’s first king, Saul, her greatest king, David, and other famous names such as Goliath and Jonathan. By the end of this book, Saul has fallen; the book of 2 Samuel begins with David’s ascension to the throne.
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