Orthodox Israelite religion stood out in the ancient Near East because of its fierce monotheism (Isa. 45:5–6). The religions of the other nations were polytheistic, and as we have seen, these religions believed that a particular god was sovereign only over the territory where it was worshiped. When nations went into battle, the gods of each nation would fight as well, and the god of the victorious nation was then seen as stronger than the god of the defeated nation. In many cases, the defeated god was added to the pantheon of the victorious nation, often signified by bringing an idol of the defeated god into the temple of the victorious god. Even though the defeated god was weaker than the victorious god, the deity who lost was still a supernatural being, so the winning nation thought it valuable to have him on its side as well.
That explains why the Philistines took the ark of the covenant to the temple of their god Dagon in Ashdod, the leading Philistine city, after they defeated Israel and captured the ark (1 Sam. 5:1). The ark of the covenant was no idol, but the Philistines knew enough that it was associated with Yahweh, the god of Israel, so they put it beside the idol of Dagon in Dagon’s temple (v. 2). But the Philistines had no idea what they were getting into. They thought Dagon had defeated Yahweh, but Yahweh would prove who was the true Almighty.
First, the idol of Dagon fell down overnight after the Philistines put the ark of God next to it. Presumably, the Philistines thought this was an accident, so they set Dagon up again next to the ark (v. 3). The next day, however, revealed that Dagon’s fall was not merely an odd occurrence. When they returned to the temple, they found the idol of Dagon had lost its head and its hands (vv. 4–5). According to extrabiblical sources as well as biblical accounts such as 1 Samuel 17:54, ancient Near Eastern peoples frequently cut off the heads and hands of defeated foes. For Dagon to lose his head and hands in the presence of the ark of Yahweh meant that Yahweh had conquered Dagon. What is more, it happened in a territory that Dagon was supposed to be sovereign over. The Philistines learned that Yahweh is no mere tribal deity but is free to act and to conquer anywhere in the world. Yahweh’s affliction of the Philistines with tumors only confirmed this (v. 12).
Today, we worship this Yahweh through His Son Jesus Christ (John 14:6). In Christ, we serve the one God who cannot be defeated.