From ancient idols with archaic names to battles over territories that no longer exist, the Old Testament of the Bible is filled with stories that may sometimes seem irrelevant to the present day. However, even though human civilisation has changed tremendously over the past millennia, human nature has not; upon closer analysis, we can find lessons in the accounts that are perhaps surprisingly relevant to us today.
Recently, I was reading through 1 Samuel 5-7, and came across an interesting story. To set the context: the Philistines fought the Israelites, defeated them, and captured the Ark of God. After that,
5 When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod; 2 then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and placed it beside Dagon. 3 When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But when they rose early on the next morning, Dagon had fallen on his face to the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off upon the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. 5 This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not step on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.
6 The hand of the Lord was heavy upon the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and struck them with tumors, both in Ashdod and in its territory. 7 And when the inhabitants of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us; for his hand is heavy on us and on our god Dagon.” 8 So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” The inhabitants of Gath replied, “Let the ark of God be moved on to us.” So they moved the ark of the God of Israel to Gath.
Remarkably, when God showed his sovereignty over Dagon, the people didn’t turn away from Dagon and instead to Yahweh, like we might expect them to. They didn’t think it was a contradiction or irrational to put the image of Dagon and the Ark of God in the same temple; they clearly believed that both gods had power and didn’t think that just because they worshipped Dagon, Yahweh was not God (or a god). In fact, the Old Testament is filled with stories of people fearing the gods of their enemies, gods whom they didn’t worship — it didn’t seem like they had a problem with recognising a few gods simultaneously. So when Yahweh showed his might, it came as no surprise revelation to them (“oh no, looks like we’ve been worshipping the wrong god all along! Our god doesn’t have power! We’d better turn to the Israelite God!”) but rather, they tried to make the two coexist (more like “we always knew that Yahweh was powerful — but now that we’ve captured his Ark, can’t he get along with Dagon, our god?”). When that didn’t work out and God kept striking the image of Dagon to the ground, they sent the Ark away, because they couldn’t give up Dagon. Dagon was their god! Even if he was shown to be powerless, they could not let go of him.
That sounds a lot like what we do with our modern day idols (pride, ambition, wealth, success, relationships etc) to me. When God shows his sovereignty over our false idols that we create for ourselves, we don’t recognize that God is sovereign and then give up our idols; our first response is often to try to make them coexist in the same temple. Like being a Christian while also trying to pursue personal worldly ambition. Or being a Christian while hanging on to our wealth. Or being a Christian while treasuring grades and GPAs and success in the eyes of men. And when that doesn’t work out because they remain at conflict — we sometimes turn away from God, because we have been too entrenched in our worship of these idols and find it hard to give them up.
In 1 Samuel 7, when the Ark was returned to Israel,
3 Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you. Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” 4 So Israel put away the Baals and the Astartes, and they served the Lord only.
Interestingly, it’s mentioned, “they served the Lord only” — implying that before that, they didn’t think they were not serving God. They didn’t see themselves as having turned away from God; they thought that they were still serving God while they were serving the other idols, Baal (god of the weather, who could bring good harvests — wealth) and Astarte (goddess of love and sex). But when Samuel told them to return to God, the people realised that these cannot coexist with God (cf. no one can serve two masters, Mt 6:24).
These gods still exist, albeit in different forms today. Seeing Baal (wealth and money), Ashtoreth (sex and relationships) and Dagon (grain, fishing and resources) in modern day contexts was a good reminder to me about what cannot coexist with God in my life, in the context of an interesting story. Especially as we approach finals and are also in the midst of applying for jobs and internships, stories like this in the Old Testament might be more relevant than they appear!