Victory of the “Defeated God”
“When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it beside Dagon. But when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of YHWH. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place.
But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of YHWH, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.”
– 1 Samuel 5:1-5
The context surrounding this story is war. The people of Israel were servants to the more powerful Philistines (1 Sam 4:9), and the Israelites had just suffered a bitter defeat at Philistine hands. In an attempt to force God into giving them victory, Israel takes the ark of YHWH into battle, however they are still defeated (even more so than before) and what is worse, the ark is captured by the Philistine army.
This is where the passage from 1 Samuel 5:1-5 begins. The ark has been captured and is taken into the temple of Dagon, the chief god of the Philistines, as a trophy of their god’s victory over YHWH and His people. This is jarring to read. The ark is the physical symbol of God’s presence, the “throne” of God on the earth, and now it has been captured and dragged into the temple of a demon….what is going on?
The story continues….in the morning, the Philistines come to see their god and find him facedown, prostrate before the ark of YHWH. Like the paralyzed and powerless god that he is, Dagon needs to be lifted up by his people and returned to his place. However, the next morning they come in and find Dagon not only prostrate before the Lord, but slaughtered. His head (representing his wisdom, knowledge, and communicative faculties) and his hands (representing his power) are severed and he is left a helpless trunk before the “defeated God,” YHWH.
What are we to make of these happenings? Well, we could draw out the fact that the supreme allegiance of God is to Himself and that when His people try to exploit Him for their own advancement, He is ready to take a “tactical defeat” (the Church closes, the pastor falls, the mission fails, the worship gathering is cancelled, the ministry implodes) in order to uphold the supremacy of His name and His glory. Or, we could comment on how YHWH is the God of gods and that every demon god of the various world religions will one day – like Dagon – fall humiliated and helpless before the presence of the One True Triune God, of whom they were only dim and twisted reflections.
But there is something else I want to consider in this story, and that is the paradigm it establishes for YHWH as the God who conquers through defeat.
The Victory of the “Defeated God”
YHWH is “defeated,” His ark is captured and dragged by violent hands into the temple of Dagon where the holy throne of the Lord is boasted over like a shamed and defeated captive. You can almost hear the scoffing of the Philistine soldiers…. “This is the God of Israel?” “This is the God who terrified Egypt? The God who said He would bring His people into a land flowing with milk and honey?” “This is the mighty and terrible YHWH?” Night falls, and YHWH lies defeated before the feet of the enemy…..hope seems lost.
And then the morning dawns. The Philistines enter their temple to find Dagon on his face before the “defeated God.” They quickly set him back in his place, but then the next day comes and Dagon the great is shattered. His head and hands are cut from his body and he lies in a heap before the presence of YHWH. So, by entering the “belly of the beast,” by allowing Himself to be “overcome,” the One True God exalts His name before His enemies and tramples the oppressor of His people under His feet.
Does this sound familiar?
Foreshadowing the Cross
I believe this story is a foreshadowing, a pre-echo, of the climactic victory that YHWH intended to win at the cross of Christ. Just as the ark – the representation of God’s presence with His people – was captured and shamed, so too Jesus Christ – God Himself with His people – was captured and shamed at the cross. Just as YHWH allowed His ark to be carried into the heart of enemy territory, so too God in Christ entered into the depths of our sin, absorbed our wickedness into Himself, swallowed the wrath that we deserved, and sank into the heart of Death itself. And just as, from that darkness of Dagon’s temple, YHWH declared Himself to be the one true God and broke the back of Israel’s oppressors, so too from the defeat of the cross YHWH shows the universe who He is, obliterates every obstacle between Himself and His people, and crushes Satan’s head under His nail-scarred feet.
The capture of the ark was no defeat…it was YHWH’s plan to glorify His name and defeat His enemies. And the same is true for the cross. When God-With-Us was nailed to the cross, when His flesh shuddered under the pangs of death and His soul groaned under the torments of wrath, when He breathed His last and was laid in the heart of the earth….it was no defeat. THIS is the victory of God, this is the conquest of the King, this is the declaration of God’s Name and Nature, this is why the universe exists. Far from a “win” for Satan, the cross is where God tramples every demonic power to the dust (Colossians 2:15), it is where He shows Himself righteous and just (Romans 3:26), it is where He breaks the bonds of our sin and ransoms His people from His own wrath (Revelation 1:5, 5:9), it is where He conquers our rebellious hearts (Galatians 6:14) and manifests the uncreated Trinitarian Love out of which Creation was born (John 17:5, 1 John 4:10).
And we know this is the case because Jesus was raised from the dead. Just as the heavy hand of God ultimately caused the ark to be driven from Philistine territory, so too it was impossible for Christ to stay dead. At the resurrection Jesus Christ is declared before the entire universe to be the Son of God in power (Romans 1:5), and everything He accomplished through His death is proven to be as sure as God’s own life.
So, millennia before He would come to earth as a man, 1 Samuel 5 prepares God’s people to know Him as the One who cannot be defeated….the God who, in the midst of sovereignly chosen “defeat,” claims victory for the sake of His name and the good of His people. I will say it again, there is no God like YHWH…..this is not the kind of God that humans invent, He is the One True and Living God, and we know His heart in Jesus Christ.