Sunday, August 14, 2011

Say What?

1 Samuel 5:1-12

Series: Can You Believe That is in the Bible?

August 14, 2011

William G. Carter

1When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod; 2then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and placed it beside Dagon. 3When 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. 4But 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. 5This 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.

6The 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. 7And 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.” 8So 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. 9But after they had brought it to Gath, the hand of the LORD was against the city, causing a very great panic; he struck the inhabitants of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them.

10So they sent the ark of the God of Israel to Ekron. But when the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “Why have they brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people?” 11They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines, and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there; 12those who did not die were stricken with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven.

Susan Sparks is one of the funniest people I know. Trained as a trial attorney, she went to Union Theological Seminary in New York to get a divinity degree. But her real love is stand-up comedy. When Susan arrives at a speaking engagement, people are fond of saying, “A preacher, a lawyer, and a comedian walk into a room.”

She tells of discovering our scripture text. It was a hot August Sunday in the Baptist church of her youth. Susan was just seven years old. Like the other overheated people around her, she was fanning herself as the preacher stood up to read the Bible passage for the day. He announced it was a text that tells us what God does to his enemies. And he read from the King James Bible,

And it was so that after the Philistines had carried the Ark of the Covenant about, the hand of the Lord was against the city with a very great destruction and he smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had ‘emerods’ in their secret parts. (1 Sam. 5:9, KJV)

Susan said the fans stopped. People looked around. Even though the King James language was somewhat obscure, everybody knew what that meant. ‘Emerods’ was an old word for “hemorrhoids.” God smote them with hemorrhoids. Even though she was only seven years old, even though she had never actually encountered the affliction, she thought it was funny enough to burst out laughing.

Her mother whispered, “Susan Grace! We don’t laugh in church. Jesus doesn’t like it!”[1]

That was the day she discovered that Christian people are just a little too uptight to enjoy what’s in their Bibles, and that they worshiped a God who punished people by giving them hemorrhoids. It was enough to push her to find out what kind of God we really have.

I mean, there is some Jewish humor here. The Rabbi stands to recount the terrible judgment of God. Those blasted Philistines stole the Ark of the Covenant. That was the big chest that carried the original Ten Commandments. It was carried on long poles so nobody could actually touch it. The Hebrew people believed it was super-charged with spiritual energy, for it contained the very words of God. It was as if God was present wherever his Commandments were located.

And those nasty, dirty Philistines stole the Ark! They stole it. Like the Nazis in an Indiana Jones movie, they took it as a spoil of war. And how did God respond? Not by melting their faces or blasting them with a holy laser beam. The Lord God smote them . . . and gave them hemorrhoids.

I think it’s OK to laugh. That’s what the Jews would do. In Jewish practice, sarcasm is a prophetic trait. If you want to strike out against God’s enemies, you make fun of them. You trust God will humiliate them in the most degrading way. And in a day before Preparation H, that’s exactly what God did.

Oh, I know: our New Revised Standard Bible has tidied up the language. Three times in 1 Samuel 5, we hear the word “tumors,” not the word “hemorrhoids.” That is an unfortunate translation. The actual Hebrew word refers to small tumors of the tuchas. They are benign yet painful. And they were clearly sufficient to get the Philistines’ attention.

Now, this is a graphic, disgusting story to make a simple point: the Philistines should not have stolen the Ark. It contained the Covenant between Yahweh and the Jews, the two stone tablets as they were first given to Moses. The Covenant was not intended for the Philistines. It was not a prize from battle or the bottle that confines a good-luck Genie. The covenant was a special pact between a group of redeemed slaves and the God who brought them out of Egypt. Yahweh is the Liberator of Israel, the God who has no equal. You’re not supposed to mess with such a God.

This is what the Philistines discover. They steal the Ark and take it into one of their temples. It was the Temple of Dagon, who was one of their Philistine gods. In the early days, Dagon was the god of fertility, so he had a lot of worshipers. By the time of our account, however, he had been demoted in popular imagination, and was regarded as the god of good fishing.

The Philistines had built a house for Dagon and placed a statue of him inside it. That’s where they took Israel’s ark. They put it in the temple of Dagon and stood guard at the door. The next morning, when they opened the door, the statue of Dagon was tipped over on its face. So there! Told you not to mess with Yahweh!

The Philistines tipped their statue back up, and shut the door. Next morning, Dagon’s statue was tipped over again – and the hands and the head of the statue were knocked off. See, you nasty Philistines! We told you not to mess with the Lord our God.

Well, that’s about the time that the Philistines started having their posterior problems. The storyteller says, “The hand of the Lord was heavy upon them.” They were terrified and, shall we say, “tumorized.” So they moved the Ark to another place. They moved it from the town of Ashdod to the city of Gath. A few years after this, Gath would become the hometown of Goliath, the giant warrior. The people of Gath said, “Bring the Ark here. We’ll take care of it.” No sooner did it arrive, and they were similarly afflicted. To a person, they said, “We have to get this thing out of here!”

So the Philistines moved the Ark of God from the city of Gath to the city of Ekron. But as they neared that city, the people of Ekron said, “Oh no, you don’t! We don’t want that poisonous artifact around us! Get that thing out of here. Take it back to the people of Israel.” They felt the heavy, heavy hand of God when the Ark was near. In the Philistine city of Ekron, as in Gath and Ashdod, the Ark caused all kinds of painful itching – along with many other indignities. For seven months, the Philistines had the Ark, shuffling it around from place to place. And they came to believe the thing was such a pain in the . . . well, you know.

Eventually they put it on a cart pulled by two strong cows, put a bit of gold on the cart next to it, and then returned it to the Israelites. With that, their affliction disappeared.

Now, this is a really strange story. Nobody knows quite what to do with it. By the fourth century AD, when the Bible was translated to Latin, St. Jerome added a clarifying note. He said there were rats – that God released rats on the Philistines. That, he explains, was the reason for the so-called tumors and corresponding illness.

The notion continued, and no less than Martin Luther preached a few sermons on the text. At the high water mark of the Reformation, Luther thundered that the Roman Pope was the Bubonic Plague of humanity, and that God was perfectly within his right to afflict all enemies with illness.

The question, of course, is the same question that Susan Sparks asked as a seven-year-old: is this the kind of God that we have? Does God send disease and discomfort upon people?

Maybe you remember that Far Side cartoon from a few years ago. It’s entitled “God at His Computer.” The white-bearded Deity sits at his desk, computer screen before him. On the screen, a hapless slouch walks down the street. An upright piano dangles over his head. God reaches toward the keyboard to hit the SMITE button.

Is that how God is? Just waiting to hit the button and do us in? There are days when it seems so. As singer Mark Knopfler famously said, “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.”

There are seasons in our lives when it feels like the hand of God is fiercely against us – when things are not going well, where joy seems depleted, where the bad diagnoses pile up (so to speak), when all our luck is bad luck. Such moments come to us all, and it is worthy to wonder if we are bringing difficulty upon ourselves. Perhaps we are traveling in the wrong direction and God is trying to get our attention.

Yet it’s never as easy as that. In the Gospel text from the 9th chapter of John, Jesus sees a blind man in Jerusalem. Everybody knows him. He has become a fixture on the street corner, begging for a hand-out from all the passersby. The friends of Jesus ask, “Rabbi, who sinned to make this man blind? Did he do something wrong? Or did his parents grieve the Lord?”

Jesus says, “None of the above. Neither he nor his parents sinned. He was born blind, that’s all. If anything, he is an example of how God works in human lives.” With that, he made a salve, rubbed it on the man’s eyes in the manner of all the healers of that time, and told him to go and wash it away. The blind man came back seeing.

Now, that seems to be the work of God – the work of the kind of God that I want to believe in. Jesus goes to a man blind from birth, doesn’t bother to ask if he wants to be healed, and then heals him anyway. That’s the kind of goodness and mercy that doesn’t wait to be asked. It is aggressive grace. Jesus heals the man almost randomly because that is who he is – the healer – and that is how he works – out of the goodness of God’s heart.

The only way that I can make any sense out of that story where three cities of Philistines get hemorrhoids is that it is a satire – a caustic, sarcastic judgment on anybody who tries to steal God for their own purposes. The Philistines plunder the Ark so they can have what Israel has, yet they are not willing or able to live with a covenant that was not intended for them in the first place. They believe, somewhat falsely as it turns out, that if they can grab a hold of Yahweh, then he will be forced to bless them and give them success. It’s the same kind of ploy that many politicians are prone to still use. It’s the same insistence of many counterfeit pilgrims have, that if they keep repeating the old religious words, it will actually make them religious.

Ah, either you live as if God loves you or you do not. Either you live by the Torah’s instruction to be a blessing to other people or you do not. Either you honor God with everything you do, or you end up grabbing for what it not yours.

What the Philistines painfully discovered is that the one true God, the God of Israel, is strangely indifferent to all of our striving. It is possible to reach for a big piece of holiness and miss it entirely. People still do that.

Meanwhile, the deeper purpose of Yahweh is revealed. God shows steadfast love to all who honor him. God remembers those who do the commandments and not merely cart them around. God comes to us in Jesus to forgive all iniquity, to heal every disease, to lift life right out of the Pit. God is the One who crowns people with love and mercy. God alone can satisfy every hungry heart with overwhelming goodness, provided, of course, that the heart is willing to be satisfied with what God provides.

So that’s it. I’ve been trying to figure out how to end a sermon like this, but I don’t know how. I’m just going to stop. Some of the Philistines have been sitting for entirely too long. Now it’s time for all of us to stand and sing.

[1] Susan Sparks, Laugh Your Way to Grace (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2009) 32.

(c) William G. Carter
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