What does 1 Samuel 5:6 mean?
ESV: The hand of the LORD was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory.
NIV: The LORD's hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation on them and afflicted them with tumors.
NASB: Now the hand of the Lord was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He made them feel devastated and struck them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territories.
CSB: The Lord's hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod. He terrified the people of Ashdod and its territory and afflicted them with tumors.
NLT: Then the Lord’s heavy hand struck the people of Ashdod and the nearby villages with a plague of tumors.
KJV: But the hand of the LORD was heavy upon them of Ashdod, and he destroyed them, and smote them with emerods, even Ashdod and the coasts thereof.
The Philistines had so thoroughly defeated the Israelites (1 Samuel 4:10–11) that they mistakenly believed their false god, Dagon, must be mightier than the One True God of the Israelites. They acted on this assumption by capturing the ark of the covenant (Exodus 25:10–16) and bringing it back to their temple as a trophy. But that was not an accurate view (1 Samuel 4:3). God shows the Philistines that He cannot be contained as if He were a captured enemy of war.
The Lord visually pictured His absolute superiority over the Philistines' god. They placed the ark of the covenant in Dagon's temple, but God toppled and then dismembered the statue of Dagon. Each time with the statue facing downward in front of the ark (1 Samuel 5:2–5). Thus, in the very place the false god was to be worshiped, Dagon has shown submission to the true God and been defeated before Him. The statue was thoroughly desecrated and Yahweh's contempt made clear.
Now the Lord begins to use His power against the Philistines. The phrase "the hand of the LORD," yad YHWH in Hebrew, is often used in Scripture to describe God's active judgment against someone (Exodus 9:3; Deuteronomy 2:15; Judges 2:15). In this case, the Lord's hand is heavy against the people of Ashdod and the territory surrounding the temple of Dagon where they think themselves to be holding God Himself captive.
The Lord's heavy hand causes the people to be terrified and to suffer from a physical affliction. The term used here is opālim, which can refer to boils, sores, or even hemorrhoids. This is later connected somehow to vermin (1 Samuel 6:4–5). The text is not at all clear about the exact nature of this disease. All that's clear is that it was physical, deadly, and caused tremendous levels of panic (1 Samuel 5:11). That fear, itself, seems to have led to further death and destruction (1 Samuel 5:12). A possible parallel to these events is the "Black Death" of the middle ages. That was caused by bubonic plague: a disease causing painful swollen sores, spread by fleas carried by mice and rats. It's also possible the tumors, themselves, were being described as "like mice," instead.
This plague certainly echoes those brought on the Egyptians during the time of Moses, particularly the sixth plague that caused boils (Exodus 9:8–12). In fact, the ability of Israel's "gods" to cause plagues in their enemies was exactly what the Philistines feared when they heard that the ark of the Lord had been brought to the battle (1 Samuel 4:8). Now it was happening to them.
First Samuel 5:7–12 describes growing terror among the Philistines, who captured the ark of the covenant and placed it in their pagan temple. After humiliating the idol of their god, Dagon, the Lord's hand brings a plague of fear and cancers everywhere the ark is taken. In Ekron, the men who don't die from the effects of mass panic are struck with tumors. The cry goes up to send the ark back to Israel to stop the suffering and death.
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.
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.
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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