The Ark of the Covenant was now in Ashdod. Ashdod was one of the five major Philistine cities located in the Promised Land at this time (1 Samuel 6:17) and apparently was the site of the most important worship center for the god, Dagon, credited with the Philistines’ recent battlefield success. God shows the Philistines that the battlefield capture of the ark is only an apparent conquest of Israel’s God. In truth, it is a divine ruse used to gain even greater opportunities to display his unparalleled majesty.
After slaying their god, “Dagon,” in his own temple in Ashdod. God directs his judgments against the people who worshiped that pagan god.
But the Lord’s fierce judgment against Israel’s religious establishment centered in Shiloh did not conclude with the destruction of the house of Eli. Citizens of a Levitical city in Israel, Beth Shemesh, who acted contemptuously toward God’s holiness are taught in this section that the Lord is a far more fearsome and deadly adversary than any earthly foe. Philistine armies, too, are taught this lesson. When they disrupt a holy convocation to honor the Lord, they become targets of divine wrath.
The Philistines were aware that the Lord had brought plagues against Egypt in a previous generation (1 Samuel 4:8). Now they themselves would experience a shortened version of that same scourge. Like the plagues of Egypt, the Lord’s plagues in Philistia brought judgment to the foreign gods (1 Samuel 6:5; Exodus 12:12) and disease and death to oppressors of the Hebrews. The people of “Ashdod and its vicinity” (1 Sam 5:6) were afflicted “with tumors.”
The tumors were one of the troubles the Lord promised to send against those who violated his covenant expectations (Deuteronomy 28:27). Perhaps learning a lesson from history, the Ashdodites decided that “the ark of the god of Israel must not stay” (1 Samuel 5:7) among them. Calling together a Philistine council of “rulers,” of the group decided to “have the ark of the God of Israel moved to Gath” (1 Samuel 5:8). The reasons for Gath’s selection are not supplied in the text; perhaps Gath possessed a significant Israelite population or at least had favorable relations with Israel that were believed to make the city immune from the Lord’s attack.
Whatever their reasons for moving the ark to Gath, the logic proved defective. The Lord only increased the magnitude of his judgments, breaking forth in onslaughts against both the emotional and physical well-being of the citizens of Gath. In keeping with a Torah threat directed against Israel’s enemies in the Promised Land, the city was thrown “into a great panic” (1 Samuel 5:9; Deuteronomy 7:23). Additionally, all age groups in the city were afflicted “with an outbreak of tumors.”