The following is a sermon I’ve been kicking around for a while, and will soon deliver. I’ve been thinking about how to preach the collapse of the idol of Dagon in a way that is not triumphalistic but as an idol of desire. I’m not sure this is the most theologically uniform sermon I’ve ever developed and it’s definately still a work in progress. The tearing down of the Paterno statue in State College, PA, and the community’s reaction immediatley called me to connect this Bible Story to current events.
The Sandusky / Penn State Sex Abuse Scandal is tragic and unfortunate, and disturbing. It has also been interesting for me, as someone native to central Pennsylvania, to see how the unraveling of facts from the Sandusky case and the cover-up have de-centered central Pennsylvania culture. I also write this as someone who has a formal connection to Penn State, too, as an adjunct professor, and as a teacher I have a deep resepct for the academic culture and mission of Penn State. (I found this article, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, be be a particularly interesting take on how all of these events may or may not impact the academics of Penn State.) As a pastor in a rural part of Pennsylvania whose church’s context is directly connected with agribusiness and farm culture, I am also a fan of the positive impact of Penn State’s agricultural extension programs.
The preaching lection will be long 1 Samuel 4:2-11 and 5:1-12. Let me know what you think?
This is an obscure story in the Bible, and I’ve been thinking about preaching a sermon on this story for quite some time, because I think it’s an important story, and I always thought it would be kind of funny to have a sermon titled “That Dagonne Dagon!”
To recount the story: There ‘s a huge battle, between the Israelites (Jews) verses the Philistines. Who were the Philistines? The Old Testament presents the Philistines as Israel’s most dangerous military enemy, and their kingdom is roughly the area we today would call Gaza. Their culture was somewhat integrated with the Canaanites, with whom the Jews made peace with later, but this was long before. The Philistines were known as a costal people, and their political power was that they had a lot of costal access, and a lot of convenient costal access to the Mediterranean Sea, so the Philistines not only had a large military presence in the region but were trade rivals with the Jews.
We don’t get a whole lot of background as to why Israel finds itself suddenly at war with the Philistines, as the chapters of 1 Samuel leading up to this story don’t give any background, since the story is about Samuel. But to the Jews, the reason why they were at war is to be assumed to be kind of obvious: The Philistines live next door, they are military and trade rivals, so they fight. That’s kind of how history goes.
So: Israel is in battle with the Philistine army, and they’re getting beat badly, to the tune of 4,000 dead. But the Jews believe that they have a secret weapon: The Ark of the Covenant! If they could bring the Ark of the Covenant out onto the battlefield, surely they could win the battle!
The Jews brought out the Ark of the Covenant and it scared the Philistines. They were afraid that the Jews’ gods were about to become manifest and kill them all. But instead of retreating, they stood their ground. The Israelites trusted that God would save them by virtue of the covenants established with them through the divine writ exposed to Moses—and they were wrong.
They were so wrong that the death toll went from 4,000 dead to 30,000 dead very quickly. And the Ark of the Covenant was stolen as part of the spoils of war; the Philistines took it as treasure.
Now that the Ark of the Covenant was taken into custody, the Philistines took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod, which is a city that still exists today on the Mediterranean coast, about 37 miles north of the costal border between present day Gaza and Israel. This is to say that Ashdod was a sea town in the heart of Philistine back then. There, in Ashdod, was the high temple of Dagon.
Who was Dagon? Dagon was the God of water, and a god of fish, and apparently a god of the farming of certain grains. Dagon was a god among many Gods for the pagan Philistines, but Dagon was a particularly important God because what connected his symbolic cult of water, fish, and farming, was that Dagon controlled the fertility of the earth. Dagon is who one prayed to for children, for grandchildren, for the fish to replenish, for the crops to grow. For grains to grow, water had to come from the skies, so away from the sea Dagon’s power was believed to control the rain and moisture. In most pagan societies, fertility gods were female, but when fertility gods are male, as in the case of Dagon, Dagon would also be associated with the God of male power, the God of the phallus, the God of the penis.
Now, this is all important because when it comes to military power, it says something about the potency and sheer male power of the winning army’s fertility God if they killed 30,000 of the neighboring army, and steal the Ark of the Covenant of the Jews. We should remember that for the Jews, they needed the Ark of the Covenant to worship, and they believed that the presence of God was explicitly connected to the physical presence of the ark. So it was a devastating loss that the worshippers of Dagon captured the Ark.
So, what do you do when you capture the very box where God lives? You put it in front of the idol of your best God, as if to worship the idol! And that’s what they did: The Philistines placed the Ark in a subservient position in the temple of Dagon in Ashdod.
But the next day, the idol of Dagon was found toppled, with its face down before the Ark, as it it had been defeated, but the symbolism is clear: the water god’s face has been grounded. Was Dagon worshiping the God of the Jews? The citizens of Ashdod placed the idol of Dagon back where it belonged, but the next morning they found the idol of Dagon again grounded, but this time, the arms and legs, and head were dismembered from the torso of the statue.
And suddenly people got a plague of tumors and rats infested the city. The leaders of Ashdod got together and said, “let’s give the Ark of the covenant to the city of Gath as a present!” So they moved it to Gath.
And the same plagues ravaged Gath! And the people of Gath gave it to Ekron, and the same thing happened again. Eventually, they gave the Ark of the Covenant back to the Israelites, along with golden statues whose images depicted the plagues that the God of the Israelites brought upon them, and the Jews accepted the Ark back and eventually built a home for the Ark a special inner room called the Holiest of Holies.
What I think is funny about this is that the most important object in the world for the Jews, the very thing that is needed for worship, becomes the most hated thing to the Philistines that they can’t give it away, that the Philistines think they need to give gold statues explaining themselves to the Israelites just so they would take the Ark of the Covenant back!
I think the point of the story, the way it was written down by the Jews, was clearly to demonstrate what happens when you take something that isn’t yours. The Jews lost the war, but in doing so they lost the most devastating thing they could have lost, and those that took it were gravely punished.
But at the same time, it seems to me that there is a strong message about idols and idolatry here. The Israelites thought that just because God was on their side, they wouldn’t encounter any suffering. Don’t we hear people talk this way a lot? There is an expectation that since God is with me, “who could be against me?” But the fact is, the Israelites got pretentious, and flaunted the object that symbolizes their covenant with God. And while this act frightened their enemies for a moment, since their enemies had “courage,” as the Bible says, they didn’t fall for it.
Yes, it is possible to take something good, and take something God-given, and make an idol out of it. We can take things and ideas and language that are gifts from God, and mistakenly believe that because they’re mine, this is about me. We do this with our time, and our talents, and our treasure all of the time. And sometimes we can get burned if we’re not careful. The Israelites made a Dagon idol out of the Ark of the Covenant, something that was believed in so pretentiously that it was very easily knocked down and sacked.
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That being said, what strikes me the most about this story is the crushing and dismemberment of the idol of Dagon once the Ark is stolen from the Israelites by the Philistines. The only cultural reference to this story in American literature of which I am aware is the great poet Herman Melville’s poem about the battle of Gettysburg, in which Melville likened what little innocence or deserved good will from God toward the United States to have been finally crushed. The battle of Gettysburg itself didn’t doom God’s love of America, but the sheer violence and remaining graves represents what happens when brothers and sisters can’t get along and can’t agree. The battle between the north and south represented neighbors fighting and stealing from each other, like the Israelites and the Philistines, and both were doomed.
When giant statues or idols collapse, we are often led to believe that there is a crushing of the old and a bringing in of the new. Schools teach that the battle of Gettysburg was a turning point for the Civil War, and it may have been, but there was a lot of carnage and death and violence after Gettysburg. In World War II, the death of Hitler only signified the end of one phase of the war, and began the carnage that proceeded in the Pacific Theater.
We all remember the statue of Saddam Hussein being taken down by Iraqis when we invaded Iraq in 2003, but we know today that the Iraqis who celebrated the tumbling of that Dagon did so to elevate the power of Muqtata al-Sadr, one of the most powerful clerics in Iraq today.
And just two Fridays ago, I was in State College and happened to drive by the Paterno Statue, which is right across the street from the Centre County Visitor’s Center. I was kind of shocked and in disbelief to see people lined up down the block to have their photo taken with the statue. And, of course, now that the statue has been taken down, and the site demolished, people are still flocking to the site as some kind of religious pilgrimage.
When Dagon gets knocked down, do we mourn for the loss of the statue of Dagon? Do we intentionally let the facts and truths of what is happening around us simply wish to, and long for nothing more fervently than to re-member the dis-membered remains of the Dagon statues that have fallen? How often do we let these idols give legitimacy for the fact that we participate in idolatries and in sin in our culture? And the more we focus attention away from the evil and injustice around us, and focus upon the crumbling of statues, how do we recognize that we participate in a kind of ritual dance that simply passes the problem on to someone else?
There are Dagon statues all around us, and we are more than happy to obscure our own participation in the worship of idols and pass the buck on to someone else. The problem happens when that “buck” that we want to pass on is the prophetic witness of God, calling upon a society to repent, to change, and to speak justice in a faithful way for those who have no voice.
So the question today is: What is your Dagon? Like the Paterno statue, the absence of which has now created a new wailing wall in Centre County, Pennsylvania, is a Dagon-site of prayer and devotion to an idol of the glory days of the past, of history that has been rewritten by outsiders with power, of believing that what was represented was in fact more important and deeply grounded in what it simply was. What do we have left to cling on to when our Dagons disappear? And at what point do we make our God to be a Dagon that is very easily knocked down, but can very conveniently be taped and glued back together when it is convenient to do so? And a Dagon we keep worshiping no matter what plagues and horrible things happen to us? Again: What is your Dagon?