When we talk about Old Testament narratives, we often focus on the people and places found within the stories. Samson did this, David did that. Yet we cannot forget that within the Bible there is always a spiritual dimension to these stories. God is found working in each narrative; sometimes behind the scenes, and other times right out in the open.
In the conflicts between the Philistines and Israel—found in Judges and 1 Samuel—there is a greater spiritual battle taking place. On Israel’s side is Yahweh, who rescued them from Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land. On the side of the Philistines is Dagon, the mightiest of all the Philistine gods.1 In Judges and 1 Samuel, three conflicts between Israel and the Philistines can be seen as a struggle to find the stronger god.
Samson vs. Dagon
In Judges 16, the mighty Samson’s hair is cut, his strength leaves him, and he is captured by the Philistines. Samson’s eyes are gouged out and he is taken to the Philistine city of Gaza.
In Gaza, Samson is put on display in the temple of Dagon (Judges 16:23). The Philistine leaders gathered for a religious feast to Dagon, and the captured Samson served as proof of Dagon’s might and his faithfulness to the Philistines (v. 24).
While performing for the Philistine leaders, Samson calls to God one last time, asking for a final burst of strength (v. 28). Gripping the supporting pillars of Dagon’s temple, Samson collapses the temple, killing himself and all the Philistine leaders.
In the midst of a festival to Dagon, while also celebrating a conquered foe, Yahweh proves his power. Yahweh has an agent of his infiltrate the fortress of Dagon his enemy, so that he could bring it down from within. In the battle between Yahweh and Dagon, the score is 1–0.
Capture of the Ark
The next conflict between Dagon and Yahweh occurs at the start of 1 Samuel. The armies of Israel and the Philistines face off at Aphek, with the Philistines having the early upper hand (1 Samuel 4:2). Israel sought to turn the tide of the battle, so they called for Eli’s sons to bring the Ark of the Covenant. To them, the Ark was a talisman: a relic whose presence within the camp would bring them God’s favor.
But that’s not how God works. The resulting battle was a wipeout, with all Israel either laying dead on the battlefield or running all the way home (1 Samuel 4:10). Eli’s sons are killed, and the Ark is captured.
Ironically, it is the Philistines who recognize the true power of Yahweh. When they hear that the Ark is in Israel’s camp, they pass along this warning:
Woe to us! Woe can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. (1 Samuel 4:8)
When the Philistines return from the battle, they place the Ark in the temple of Dagon in Ashdod (1 Samuel 5:1).2 In the ancient cultures, it was common for a victorious army to bring the image of a vanquished deity into their own gods temple.3 This proved tangible proof of the conquering god’s power over the fallen one, just as the conquering army was stronger than the defeated one. It was also seen as a way to commandeer the power of the conquered deity: in this case, the Philistines viewed that Dagon would absorb Yahweh’s power into his own.
But this symbolism of Dagon ruling over Yahweh’s Ark did not work out for the Philistines. The day after installing the Ark in Dagon’s temple, Dagon’s statue is found prostrate, as if it were worshipping Yahweh’s Ark. The priests quickly remedy this embarrassing situation, but the next day it gets worse: Dagon is broken and bowing before the Ark. Dagon is beheaded, and his head and hands are found almost out the door.4
The power of Yahweh is felt outside the doors of Dagon’s temple: both Ashdod and Gath would physically feel the power of Yahweh against them (1 Samuel 5:6, 9).5 By the time the Ark reaches Ekron, the Philistines want to get rid of this prize of war.
Eventually it is decided that the Ark must return to Israel. Yes, this means giving the enemy a prized possession, but the Philistines have learned firsthand that Yahweh cannot be contained or controlled. There is to be no god before Yahweh, and that includes Dagon—even inside his own temple! And if Dagon cannot protect them, who will? Dagon: 0, Yahweh: 2.
David vs. Goliath
The third battle between Dagon and Yahweh is the most famous: the battle between David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17). The story is simple: the massive Philistine soldier Goliath is killed by the young Israelite shepherd boy David. But the underlaying spiritual battle between Yahweh and Dagon is the battle we are more concerned about.
For 40 days, Goliath challenged anyone from Israel to come and fight him. This was representative battle—common in the ancient world—in which one soldier from each side would fight to the death. The winner would prove that the gods were on his side, as well as on the side of his army. So the battle was not really between two soldiers, but between the two gods whom the soldiers represent.
When an Israelite finally accepts Goliath’s challenge, it is not Saul the Israelite giant and king, but rather a young shepherd boy named David. Goliath is offended at the choice, and he begins cursing David in the name of his god Dagon (1 Samuel 17:43). David, too, sees this battle as spiritual warfare: Goliath has committed blasphemy—a capital offense—and David will be the one to carry out the sentence (1 Samuel 17:26).
In a scene that echoes 1 Samuel 5, the representative of Dagon falls prostrate before and is beheaded by the representative of Yahweh. Yahweh is again proven greater than Dagon, winning this battle before the other could even make a move. Dagon: 0, Yahweh: 3.
When we discuss the Old Testament narratives, we must remember to pay attention to the action behind the scenes. These three stories point to the greater battle between Yahweh and the Philistine god Dagon. And in these stories, Yahweh vanquishes his foe handily.