The Hand of God, Five Gold Tumors & Five Gold Rats, and a Stone Named Ebenezer

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The ark of God has been stolen, captured, taken into exile by the Philistines. These three chapters—1 Samuel 5-7—follow the ark of the covenant around Philistia (the land of the Philistines) and back to Israel again.
Let’s pick up where we left off:
1 Samuel 5:1–8 NIV
1 After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then they carried the ark into Dagon’s temple and set it beside Dagon. 3 When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained. 5 That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon’s temple at Ashdod step on the threshold. 6 The Lord’s hand was heavy on the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation on them and afflicted them with tumors. 7 When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.” 8 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and asked them, “What shall we do with the ark of the god of Israel?” They answered, “Have the ark of the god of Israel moved to Gath.” So they moved the ark of the God of Israel.

The Lord is more powerful...

The Lord is more powerful than Dagon, that’s for sure. In case you don’t know anything about Dagon, Dagon was a vegetable and grain god. He was widely worshipped throughout Mesopotamia.
What we see here, though, is that Dagon is no god at all. The Philistines think they’re onto something. They take the ark of the Lord, the symbol of Israel’s God, into Dagon’s shrine, presenting before their god the God of the people they defeated. In their minds, the Lord Yahweh was the loser and their god, Dagon, was the winner.
The next morning, however, it’s Dagon on his face before the ark of the Lord. Dagon has bowed in worship to the One true God.
It’s pretty funny actually—the whole scene—but what happens after they find their god face down before the ark.
The Philistines had to lift Dagon back up. They took Dagon and put him back in his place.
Some god, huh?!? This god has to have people stand him back up. He can’t stand himself back up; he’s not real! What kind of god is that, dependent upon its subjects to pick him up when he falls down!?!?
This is laugh-out-loud kind of stuff. Lol! ROFL!
It gets worse (from the Philistine’s perspective). Dagon’s head and hands pop off. The next morning they find their god beheaded and an amputee.
There is nothing divine about Dagon. He is no god.
The Philistines have to admit, 1 Samuel 5:7When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.”
The Lord is more powerful than Dagon, of course. Of course He’s more powerful than a false god who is no god at all. Of course He’s more powerful than a god who is nothing more than a statue that has to be picked up by those who worship it. Of course, the Lord Yahweh is more powerful.
Yahweh, unlike Dagon, doesn’t have to have someone come and set Him up again. The Lord can fight the Philistines all by Himself. He doesn’t need His people to cheer Him on; He will bring back His ark all by Himself.
Our God is self-sufficient. He doesn’t need us. Our God is supreme. He is greater far than any other.
Don’t begin to think that you can manipulate the living God like a lucky charm or a mascot (1 Samuel 4).
And please don’t begin to think that He needs you to support Him or carry Him. He’ll do the carrying.
Isaiah 46:3–4 NIV
3 “Listen to me, you descendants of Jacob, all the remnant of the people of Israel, you whom I have upheld since your birth, and have carried since you were born. 4 Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.
The Philistines aren’t used to a God who needs nothing. They don’t have experience with the One True God whose self-sufficiency and supremacy are clearly displayed.
Their gods are dependent upon them. The Lord Yahweh, on the other hand, doesn’t need cuddling, protecting, or care from His worshippers.
Sometimes we say—with good intention, I’m sure—that “we are the hands and feet of God.” The idea that creeps-in is that if we don’t, God can’t.
“He doesn’t have any hands or feet! What’s He going to do?!?!”
Let’s not stop serving God and going and doing things for Him, but let’s not cast the Lord in Dagon’s image. One of these is not like the other.
The God of the Bible does not need us—and that’s good news.
Acts 17:25 “And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”
The Philistines living in Ashdod admit that Israel’s God—Yahweh—is too much for them. “He can’t stay here with us. His hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.”
The glory of God is weighty. Heavy, a word repeated throughout these chapters.
The Lord is more powerful than Dagon and more powerful than His enemies (or the enemies of His people). Neither the people nor their false, feckless deity can stand up to the Lord.
The Lord Yahweh, the One true God, the God of Israel struck the people with tumors. This is terrifying stuff. It brought suffering and death.
1 Samuel 5:8–6:12 NIV
8 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and asked them, “What shall we do with the ark of the god of Israel?” They answered, “Have the ark of the god of Israel moved to Gath.” So they moved the ark of the God of Israel. 9 But after they had moved it, the Lord’s hand was against that city, throwing it into a great panic. He afflicted the people of the city, both young and old, with an outbreak of tumors. 10 So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. As the ark of God was entering Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people.” 11 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, “Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people.” For death had filled the city with panic; God’s hand was very heavy on it. 12 Those who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven. 1 When the ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months, 2 the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it back to its place.” 3 They answered, “If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it back to him without a gift; by all means send a guilt offering to him. Then you will be healed, and you will know why his hand has not been lifted from you.” 4 The Philistines asked, “What guilt offering should we send to him?” They replied, “Five gold tumors and five gold rats, according to the number of the Philistine rulers, because the same plague has struck both you and your rulers. 5 Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country, and give glory to Israel’s god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. 6 Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When Israel’s god dealt harshly with them, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way? 7 “Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. 8 Take the ark of the Lord and put it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, 9 but keep watching it. If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us but that it happened to us by chance.” 10 So they did this. They took two such cows and hitched them to the cart and penned up their calves. 11 They placed the ark of the Lord on the cart and along with it the chest containing the gold rats and the models of the tumors. 12 Then the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left. The rulers of the Philistines followed them as far as the border of Beth Shemesh.
The Lord is more powerful than Dagon or the people. The Lord is more powerful…more powerful than anyone can comprehend.
The Philistines start playing “pass the ark”, moving the ark of the covenant from town to town. “We don’t want it, you take it. We don’t want it, it’s all yours. No, thanks; we’re good. You keep Him.”
The presence of the ark had brought disease and death to Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron. It was a long 7-months for the Philistines.
The people’s priests give them instructions on how to send the ark of the covenant back to Israel. “Send it back with gifts!”
5 gold tumors and 5 gold rats! Since there are 5 Philistine rulers and 5 Philistine towns (6:18), there need to be 5 of each tumors and rats.
Tumors and rats. I can honestly say, I’ve never, in all my years of church, heard a word about these tumors and rats. What about you? Are you familiar with this?
Depending upon what version of the Bible you have, you might be in for a surprise. The King James Version says, “Five golden emerods and five golden mice.”
Emerod is an archaic term for...are you ready for it? Hemorrhoid. So, “tumor” may have replaced “hemorrhoid” as a more polite term for the plague that afflicted the Philistines.
5 gold tumors/hemorrhoids and 5 gold rats…this is one of the reasons to read and preach through the OT, for these fun and gross details.
The Philistines make gold images of their tumors, and gladly. “If making these gifts to accompany the ark gets the ark out of the land, let’s hurry up and make them.”
They know something about what the Lord did to the Egyptians, striking them with plagues, one after another. They’ve already suffered tumors and death. What does God have in store for them after this?
They get everything ready for the transportation of the ark. A cart, a pair of cows, the 10 gold objects.
The Philistines’ priests tell them there’s a way for them to tell if all of this is really from the Lord, or if it’s just been a rough year. If the cows pull the cart, ark and tumors and rats, straight up the road to Beth Shemesh, then they’ll know the Lord has brought all this upon them.
If, however, the two cows don’t do that, they’ll know it wasn’t the Lord who afflicted them; it just happened. Just some bad luck. Nothing to do with the heavy and of Israel’s God.
The deck is stacked against the Lord. They’ve made it as difficult as possible: two untrained cows with babies penned up to take the cart.
Even this city boy knows that any cow, with all her motherly impulses, would naturally go back to their suckling calves that were penned up at home.
1 Samuel 6:7 “Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up.”
No one would expect them to go against their maternal nature and walk off toward Israel…but for the hand of God. The cows do what no normal cows would do. The Philistines know, unmistakably, that the Lord Yahweh’s hand was heavy upon the people of Philistia.
The cows didn’t so much as turn. They went straight on the road to Beth Shemesh. The Lord made it clear to the watching Philistines just exactly what He was up to.
The God of Israel, the God of the Philistine’s enemies stoops to reveal Himself even to them—a non-covenant people. This, then, is a hint that God will some day bring near to Himself those who are far off, and this by the blood of the Promised One.
Watching the cows take this unexpected route was a direct witness to the Lord Yahweh.
It was the Lord of Israel who had destroyed their god, their land, their bodies. His power—the power and weight of His hand—is unmissable.
Do the Philistines repent, in reverent fear, and begin to serve the Lord who is obviously real and very much alive?
Or do you think they return and repair the image of their false god, Dagon?
Maybe they’re just happy to have survived the great plague of 1070 B.C. “Glad that’s over! Now we can get back to normal.”
“It’s so easy for us sinners—Philistine or otherwise—to respond only to the pain and not to the truth of a situation. Our immediate fears are alleviated, but our heads are no wiser, our hearts are no softer.” -DRD
The ark has made it back to Israel after a 7-month sabbatical in Philistia. This sets the scene:
1 Samuel 6:13–18 NIV
13 Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. 14 The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 The Levites took down the ark of the Lord, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. On that day the people of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices to the Lord. 16 The five rulers of the Philistines saw all this and then returned that same day to Ekron. 17 These are the gold tumors the Philistines sent as a guilt offering to the Lord—one each for Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron. 18 And the number of the gold rats was according to the number of Philistine towns belonging to the five rulers—the fortified towns with their country villages. The large rock on which the Levites set the ark of the Lord is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh.
The Lord Yahweh was obviously too much for the Philistines. They played hot-potato with the ark, moving it from town to town as quickly as they could, and then they sent it on its way.
When it arrived, some of the Israelites there were, understandably excited—they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight.
Just as Eli and Phinehas’ wife were broken by the capture, the return of the ark is wonderful news.
They did what was proper. They worship. They sacrifice. They line up the gold tumors and rats and the ark on the large rock. It has all the appearance of proper, rightful response to the Lord.
But then we come to verse 19
1 Samuel 6:19 NIV
19 But God struck down some of the inhabitants of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they looked into the ark of the Lord. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the Lord had dealt them.
What’s going on here?
First off, there are some versions of the English Bible that say the Lord struck down 50,070 men. The problem is the “50,000” is missing in several Hebrew manuscripts. What’s more, the population of Beth Shemesh couldn’t have been that large.
The Hebrew text is puzzling. It reads: “seventy men, fifty thousand men.” This could possibly mean “seventy men, five people out of every thousand.” That would make the population of Beth Shemesh a much more likely 14,000.
It’s better to read this as 70 men put to death.
But still, what’s going on? Why does the Lord strike down 70 of His own people?
Because they looked into or gazed upon the ark. The expression indicates staring, gloating. They’re being irreverent. Not even the Kohathites, a priestly group entrusted with transporting the ark, were allowed to go in and look at the ark. It was to be covered by Aaron and his sons, so that people wouldn’t die when they came near.

The Lord is more holy...

He’s too much for the Philistines. He’s far too holy for any one to even gaze at the ark.
These 70 men in Beth Shemesh violate the sanctity of the ark. It took them 7 months to forget how holy, how untouchable, how un-lookable the ark was.
The Lord Yahweh is holy, holy, holy. Because His holiness, His sanctity was violated, the Lord struck down the offenders.
The people mourn. The Lord had dealt them a heavy blow.
1 Samuel 6:20 NIV
20 And the people of Beth Shemesh asked, “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?”
Their first question is right on. “Who can stand in His presence?”
The second is way off base. “To whom will He go up away from us.”
Here’s the truth: no one is safe in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God. They believe their only option is to be rid of Him.
The Gerasenes try this with Jesus. Jesus heals a man, casting out the legion of demons into a herd of pigs. And instead of reckoning with what just happened and who this man Jesus might be, they ask Him to leave; they beg Him to leave.
So here with the people of Israel. They act just like the Philistines— “let’s get rid of Him.” The only option is for the ark to be removed.
Don’t we fall into the same kind of thinking? We can forget that the Lord is holy—more holy—and different and that He doesn’t fit into our nice, little theological boxes. We want an easygoing god. We want a god who is our buddy (my buddy and me). We want god who is safe and always in our corner.
We want the Holy Lord Almighty to be chummy. Tolerant. Think about how He’s referred to: “the man upstairs”, “my co-pilot”, “my friend.”
So long as we think of Him in those categories, we can be sure that we have not come to know the King, the Lord Almighty.
We need to ask the first question— “Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this Holy God?” But we shouldn’t want to be rid of Him.
The Lord is more holy than we can imagine.
The Israelites who treat the Lord casually—looking into the ark, gazing upon the ark—don’t get a free pass from the judgment of God.
Simply because the Lord’s loves Israel with a steadfast love doesn’t mean His justice ceases. No, no. The Lord is just. He is holy. There is no exemption.
The Lord is more holy than we can imagine.
The judgment of God experienced by the Philistines and the 70 Israelites in Beth Shemesh is the outworking of the Lord’s holiness. He is not tame and passive. He is holy and powerful.
We cannot stand before a Holy God. Before Him, sinners will perish.
Romans 3:23–26 NIV
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
My sinfulness, your sinfulness will slam up against the holiness of God. We will, on our own, meet the same fate as those who caught the judgment and justice of the powerful, holy God.
Or, OR, OR we will by grace through faith be found in Jesus Christ—the Holy and Powerful Son of God—and be able to enter the presence of God unhindered and unafraid.
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