Some quick thoughts on a chapter which is almost humourous in its depiction of Philistine’s patron deity.
The Ark is taken to Dagon’s temple; a symbolic gesture- our god beat your god and gets his stuff. But, like a trojan horse, the spoils of war brings Dagon prostrate in front of the allegedly conquered YHWH. The Philistines are migrants from the Aegean/Black Sea region of Eastern Europe. So the fact that this encounter shares characteristics of a Greek epic (Chapter 17 has even more in common) is fitting.
Also a noteworthy between chapters 5 and 17 the face down, behead Philistine. Goliath is struck in the forehead, but falls forward, not backward, mimicking the bowing down in a prostrate position of Dagon here in 5. Dagon also ends up at the threshold; a deity fleeing his own temple?
The Philistines respond by seeing their god’s incompetence. In a culture where military conflicts are just a manifestation of the gods’ battles (i.e. the winning army has the better god), this would be a hard conclusion to come to. A god shamed in his own temple, especially after a resounding victory of the nation he is patron over, is paradigm shattering. But the Philistines show greater perception than the Israelite priesthood. The response is to get the ark away from Dagon. People protecting their patron deity is absurd. The narrator is demonstrating the silliness of pagan paradigms.
Each city which hosts the ark is afflicted with an outbreak of tumours. Some manuscripts include the mention of plagues of rats, and death throughout the cities. The tumours could be bubonic boils? The word for tumours may be boils (parallel to the Egyptian plague) or some translators have even suggested hemorrhoids. The LXX of 5:9 reads “tumours in the groin”, lending support perhaps to that reading, that they have growths in their nether regions. Whatever the case, the Philistines are not enjoying the effects of the ark’s presence.
Interesting is the phrase “the outcry of the city went up to heaven”. Is YHWH listening to the prayers of the Philistines?