Mibble Monday: Pour five drops for the plagues on Philistia (1 Samuel 4–7)

Bleah. I’ll never make progress unless I focus. Things have been a bit busy of late, sorry.

Moving on through First Samuel, we meet one of Israel’s major antagonists, who’ll motivate the action for a while.

Short, snarky summary: Israel figured what worked for Moses and Joshua will work for them, and takes the Ark into battle. It doesn’t work, and the Philistines steal the ark. Disappointingly, their faces are not melted off, which means everything George Lucas told me is a lie.


So, when we last left Samuel, he was had become the leader of Israel, by making predictions which were fulfilled, even thoguh, apparently, his first and biggest—that Eli’s sons would die in battle—hasn’t been fulfilled yet.

Meanwhile, Israel finds that they need a strong leader, because the big bad who’s going to hound Israel for the next two books is emerging: the Philistines! We kind of saw these guys back in Samson, and we know a little bit about them from independent archeology. They had a group of five cities along the Mediterranean coast, sprawling between present day Israel and Gaza, and they worshipped a god called Dagon, who was a Semitic deity. Best guess as to who these dudes were is that they were European or Anatolian seafarers who settled and assimilated into Semitic culture. But they were a pretty big wheel on the coast: they didn’t have much territory, but they apparently had solid sea-trade, probably some piracy, and maybe even technologies like iron, so they had an outsize influence on the local economy and culture.

So, Israel joins battle, and loses 4000 men, which sounds like a pretty disastrous body count by the standards of wars of that time for a single battle in a local war. So the elders of the community (emphatically not Samuel, for what it’s worth) make the decision that, since whenever God is with them, they win, it follows that God was not with them in that battle, and thus, they need God with them, so they’ll haul God’s resting place (the Ark of the Covenant) out of the temple and take it to battle.

This sort of works, in thqat it surprises and weirds out the Philistines, and makes them worry that, fighting someone whse God is authentically in their midst, they might be in trouble. But in all the meaningful ways, it doesn’t work, because the Philistines capture the Ark and kill 30,000 men, including Eli’s sons (for comparison, this is more than twice the probable total death toll of the Battle of Gettysburg, so, uh, yeah, not really buying these numbers as the result of a single rout). So it turns out that now, many years after he made the prediction, Samuel’s first prophecy actually came true.

Eli takes the news rather badly once it reaches him, and falls off the fence where he’s sitting and dies. His daughter-in-law gives birth the same day, so in spite of the destruction of his sons, the line of Eli lives on (I seem to recall that at some point, some later prophet traces his ancestry back to Eli’s grandson Ichabod, which is why this incident comes up). Incidentally, his name “Ichabod” is a pretty ill-favored one, meaning, literally, “no glory”. This may be why it has never been a terribly popular name.

In Chapter 5 we follow the Philistines back, victorious, taking the Ark as booty to their temple in Ashdod. As any fan of Indiana Jones flicks should know, things immediately start going wrong for them: first their statue of Dagon falls apart, and then the city is afflicted with hemorrhoids (OK, about half the translations out there go with “hemorrhoids” or the old-fashioned “emerods”. The other half go with “tumors” or “growths”. Special colorful-language points to the Wycliffe bible, which asserts that God “smote Ashdod and the coasts thereof in the privier part of [the] buttocks”. Whatever טחר means, it’s also listed as a potential affliction in Deuteronomy 28:27, but hemorrhoids, you’ve got to admit, are a more comical affliction than tumors, so I’m going with it). Anyways, the Philistines, who may not be the brightest bulbs out there, figure that they’d best take the Ark away from Ashdod, so they send it to the Philistine city of Gath instead, where, surprise, everyone gets hemorrhoids. It doesn’t seem safe to send it there, so they send it on to Ekron, whereupon the inhabitants of Ekron say, “Stop moving the Philistine-smiting relic from city to city, you idiots!” So I guess even without the hemorrhoids we get some humor here.

After suffering for seven months, the Philistines finally decide to consult their own priests about the correct disposal of the Ark to get their misfortunes reversed. The priests lend a certain amount to the notion, even though this is a Deuteronomical text, that it’s drawing from a monolatral rather than a monotheistic tradition, because the priests of Dagon, as presented here, aren’t completely clueless sham servants of an inanimate idol, but seem to be possessed of a certain amount of wisdom and knowledge—Dagon’s not dead, he’s just weaker than Jehovah. So the priests order the Ark returned with five golden hemorrhoids and five golden tumors (apparently in the Septuagint there’s a plague of mice; this bit for some reason is not in the Masoretic text). The number five is actually more of a Philistine symbol than an Israelite one. Judaism likes sevens, it seems, but to the Philistines, five was a symbolic number, as they had five cities. So in procession the Philistines lead the Ark back to the border town of Beth-shemesh, which turns out to be one of those Levite-occupied towns scattered throughout Israel. Its inhabitants receive it with the joy you might well expect, breaking up the cart and slaughtering the draft cows to offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

But God is not quite done with the whole “fucking with those who possess the Ark bit yet, because he now decides to slaughter the Beth-shemeshites for looking into the Ark (which I guess they did off-page, or something). Exactly what he does and to whom is a bit unclear: there’s an odd phrase appearing as the object of the slaughter translating roughly as “from the people seventy men and fifty thousand men”. It’s entirely possible that the “thousand men” here refer to something other than thousands of people, and it’s not clear what distinction is made between the two groups of men, and whether the “from the people” is only supposed to apply to the first bit or what. Anyways, we can be certain that at least 70 men, and maybe as many as 50,070, died for this impudence (for reference, the 50,070 figure is, like most of the large numbers in the Bible, completely implausible. Modern Beit Shemesh is a city in its own right, with modern population density, and it only has 80,000 people in total). So, anyways, if you wanted your divine wrath bloody and destructive, now you get it. Shame that it’s being visited on the good guys.

Incidentally, I went back to parallel translations to see how other English-language translations dealt with this odd phrase in verse 6:19. About half of them ignored the “fifty thousand” entirely, and many of the remainder set the body count at 50,070. Among the oddities, the Douay-Rheims and Wycliffe bible opaquely suggest that the 70 were extraordinary people and the 50,000 mere commoners; the Holman Christian Standard suggests that 70 died out of 50,000 inhabitants; and the New Revised Standard has a completely different explanation for why they (only 70 in their translation) died at all.

Understandably, the Beth-shemeshites, like the Ashdodites and Gathites before them, would just as soon be rid of this burden, and ask Kiriath-Jearim to take it off their hands. It’s not entirely clear why KJ would be a better home for it, mind. Beth-Shemesh is at least a Levite town, and theoretically the Levites are supposed to be cool with serving God’s whims (including, apparently, toasting them).

Now, you might notice that Samuel, the namesake of this book, has been absent from all these goings-on. But we timeskip twenty years and Samuel figures he’s got Israel’s attention now (why wait twenty years? Dunno), and demands an idol purge and a grand convention of all the people at Mizpah for a grant fast-off and sacrifice-fest.

The Philistines decide to march on this grand gathering, presumably thinking that getting all the people in one place makes it easier to rout them at once (which seems like a dumb military strategy, actually, since a large force is a strong force), or perhaps just to catch them unprepared and unaware (which makes more sense). Samuel heartens the Israelites, makes sacrifices, and, boom! suddenly Israel’s got its military mojo back and routs the Philistines, pushing them back and basically winning the war (for the time being).

This is, apparently, the state of affairs for much of Samuel’s life. The cowed Philistines and other neighbors refrain from attacking Israel, and peace reigns, while Samuel makes a regular circuit of different parts of Israel to keep the people honest and faithful.

Sounds pretty boring, but don’t worry, it won’t last.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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