The Ark of the Covenant in Dagon’s Temple

By Rev David A Moffat


Based upon 1 Samuel 4.

This story happens when the prophet Samuel is still a young boy. Although he has already heard the voice of the Lord, he is not yet the judge of Israel. The events recorded here show us how the people did not understand how they should behave.

Throughout the book of Judges (which precedes this story), and even throughout Israel’s history, the people are attacked by various tribes and nations who lived near their homes. This story concerns a group of people called the Philistines. [It is worth saying that our modern use of the word “Philistine” has little to do with the Old Testament nation, who were an intelligent and cultured people.] On this occasion, the Israelites and Philistines were at war, and the Israelites were being defeated. They wondered what to do, and remembering the many miracles the Ark of the Covenant had brought about in their history, they decided that they would bring the Ark to the battlefield. They thought it would bring them victory over their enemies.

Now, when the Israelites brought the Ark from the Tabernacle to the battlefield, the Philistines heard the people shouting, and they were very scared, because they realised that something special had happened. They also knew that they had no choice but to fight, even though they thought they were going to die. But they did not die – in fact, they beat the children of Israel, and captured the Ark of the Covenant.

What does this story mean for us?

What did the Israelites FORGET to do? They did not pray to the Lord for guidance! In fact, it is the Philistines who recognise the power of God. No wonder the Israelites lost the battle.

What did the Ark of the Covenant contain? It carried two special tablets of stone, on which were written the ten commandments (you can find them in Exodus 20). They thought that just by bringing the Ark to the battlefield, they were sure to win the fight.

Where did the Ark belong? Not in the Temple, which had not been built yet, but in the special tent the people had made while they were travelling to the promised land many years before. It is called the “Tabernacle”.

Not only did the people forget about the Lord, they forgot that the commandments should be obeyed, not only in their actions, but in their hearts and minds. It is usually very easy to obey the commandments, because they describe actions which most people never do. But it is not so easy to obey them inside ourselves. Let’s look at some examples.

You shall not murder. Have you ever killed someone? Hopefully no one here has ever killed another person. But have you ever said, “I’ll kill you if you do that!”? Or have you ever thought you would LIKE to kill or even just hurt someone else very badly, because of how you felt about something they did? It is easy to obey this commandment in our actions, but if we break it in our hearts, it becomes easier for us to break it in our actions too. That commandment should be “written on our hearts” (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 & Psalm 119:11) – when we know that even thinking bad things about other people is wrong and when we hate to think those things, we will NEVER actually hurt them in any way. That is what it means to leave the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle, which is where it should be.

Here’s some more.

You shall honour you father and mother. Most people do as their parents tell them – can you think of thoughts or feelings you might have which would break this commandment?

You shall keep the Sabbath day. How do we keep this commandment in our actions? We come to church. But how do we keep it in our hearts and minds. One way is to realise that our religion ought to be something which doesn’t begin and end on Sunday. We should obey the commandments every day of the week, otherwise we cannot really call ourselves Christians.


He next part of our story (1 Samuel 5) is a fascinating lesson for us all. Once the Ark is captured, the Philistines take it to the temple of Dagon. Presumably they did this as an offering, thinking that Dagon had granted them victory over the God of the Israelites (look how they trembled in fear once they thought that God was on the Israelites’ side – 1 Samuel 4:6-9). Overnight, the statute of Dagon falls over. The people put him back in his place, but when he falls over again, he smashes.

The effects extend beyond the temple. The Philistines experience a disease – tumours, and an infestation of rats. So, they move the Ark from city to city, and find that the disease follows the Ark.

Idol worship in general is religion from an unbalanced perspective. It is taking a facet of God or of life, and making it god, so it represents an approach to life or a doctrinal stance which takes a part of the truth and makes it the whole.

Dagon represents a religion based upon knowledge and reasoning, a fish-man. Correspondences show us that fish represent knowledges. We can see this in the story of the disciples’ first encounter with Jesus (Luke 5:1-11). In that story, after fishing all night to no avail, Jesus instructs the fishermen to go back out onto the lake and try again – this time they are able to catch a great number of fish. This reflects how, through the Lord’s presence in our lives, and our willingness to follow his instructions, we can gain a great many knowledges from the Word, where previously it may have seemed barren and fruitless. But Dagon is also part man, which represents our ability to reason – to apply and assemble knowledges together into a coherent system of thought.

Now, we can worship this intellectual religion, but when we do this, we don’t feel any need for obedience or real commitment. So, to worship Dagon is recognising the value and power of the 12 step programme without putting it into practice in our lives. It is acknowledging the power of prayer without actually praying. It is Christianity which is thought about, but never practised. This is the very reason the children of Israel were defeated by the Philistines.

The Philistines represent a life lived according to the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. An intellectual religion is not, of itself, a threat to our spiritual lives. But living as though intellect is all that matters is. It is the Philistines WORSHIP of intellectualism that is a problem, as though that will bring them happiness, even salvation. This is their unbalance.

We should recognise the distinction between a point of doctrine and a life lived by that principle. The doctrine alone cannot harm us, even if we subscribe to it with our minds, but if we live it, we are in great danger. Jesus’ Parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32) teaches us this. It is not the son who SAYS he will obey his father, but the son who ACTUALLY obeys his father, despite what he has acknowledged with his lips, who has responded to his father’s call. So, it is possible to hold to the doctrine of faith alone with the lips and yet live a life of obedience to God. It is possible to acknowledge the true way of living, and yet never come anywhere near doing it!

What is interesting is how the Ark affects this scenario.

The Ark [SLIDE] represents the Word, because it contains the ten commandments. When the two are set side by side, even when the Word is taken captive by the reasoning of a religion which is merely thought about and reasoned from and not applied to the life, the Word shows clearly that such a life is preposterous. No matter how we read the Word, we cannot fail to notice the Lord’s commands to action. A false prophet is known by his fruit (Matthew 7:15-23); The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46); Fasting acceptable to the Lord (Isaiah 58) – we can fill page after page of such references. “The commandments condemn the worship of learning without living. To know the way and not walk therein results in the defilement of character and our environment.” (Hoeck, The Tree of Life, vol 2, p. 47)

So, we can prop up our intellectual doctrine all we like, but ultimately it will be destroyed. And that destruction is brought about when the intellect is separated from the knowledges it once rested on. What remains, if anything at all, is reasoning which has no connection with reality whatsoever. It is, in fact, madness!

I feel that this story has particular relevance for the New Church, which claims a special knowledge of the Scriptures, through correspondences. That knowledge alone will not save any one of us. Indeed, it is possible to devise the most spectacularly erroneous beliefs from that knowledge, and from misplaced reasoning. This is why Swedenborg writes that this knowledge should always be checked against doctrine derived from the literal sense of the Word (Doctrine of the Sacred Scripture, paragraphs 50-61). Genuine truth is available to all through reading the literal sense of the Word. It does not need to be constructed via some hidden and mysterious code requiring a minimum degree of human intellectual prowess. This is the presence of the Ark.

So, what is the solution? Chapter 6 details a rather bizarre ritual, devised by the Philistine Holy men. They arrange for a new cart to be tethered to two cows whose calves have been taken away. On this cart they place the Ark of the Covenant, accompanied by golden images of the diseases which afflicted the people – five golden tumours and five golden rats. Then they watch and see where the cart goes – will it wander aimlessly or will the cows take it home?

How do you understand this strange scene? It is repentance from the heart, a simple acknowledgement of the reality of our lives, and the disease we find present there. It is not that the Word CAUSED this disease, rather it showed them the reality of their disease. The golden images represent this heartfelt repentance.

Although I don’t want to explore the full implications of this chapter (which I haven’t really done for the preceding two chapters either, by the way), I will make one final observation. The Philistines set up this strange ritual based upon the sneaking suspicion that there was a connection between the Ark and their disease, even though they were quite uncertain that this was the case. Their reasoning probably dismissed the link – putting it all down to coincidence. But at some point, it has become too obvious to ignore any longer. This is what repentance is like for us too. We can fail to see the connection between our suffering and our life practices. The wonderful thing is we don’t need to see it – we only need to act upon it. We can test it out – try the path of repentance, and see if it makes a difference.

But beware! Just thinking about repentance won’t work. It requires a life change, and some real effort.