One mageifah is upon all [of you]and your princes! (1 Samuel 6:4)
mageifah (מַגֵפָה) = plague, epidemic, pestilence. (Plural = mageifot.)
Angry gods cause epidemics. This was the obvious to writers in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan several thousand years ago, long before the germ theory of disease. The best way to stop a plague or epidemic was to determine which god was responsible, and then appease that god.
My last three posts on “How to Stop a Plague”1 concern an epidemic caused by the jealous rage of the God of Israel when “His” people are unfaithful to “Him” and worship a god named Baal Peor. The plague kills 24,000 Israelites before Pinchas halts it with an act that shocks the God-character out of “His” uncontrolled anger.2 This plague begins in the Torah portion Balak, but the repercussions continue through this week’s portion, Va-etchannan.
The God-character also kills thousands of Israelites with plagues after they worship the Golden Calf3, after they complain about the food God provided4, after they complain that God killed the 250 rebels led by Korach5, and after God becomes angry with the Israelites for some unreported reason and tells King David to order a census.6 In all of these cases, the plague is a direct result of God’s rage.
However, when the God of Israel afflicts other peoples with epidemics, “He” is offended, but calm. The God-character uses plagues to make the foreigners acknowledge the superior power of God and do the Israelites a favor. Once those objectives have been met, God simply stops the plague.
In the book of Exodus/Shemot, God creates ten miraculous disasters in Egypt, two of which are infectious plagues.7 Yet the Pharaoh keeps refusing to do what the God of Israel wants. After the second epidemic, God orders Moses to tell the Pharaoh:
…Thus says God, God of the Hebrews: Let My people go so they may serve Me. Because this time I am sending all My mageifot to you and to your courtiers and to your people, so that you shall know that there is none like Me in all the world. (Exodus/Shemot 9:13-14)
Only after the tenth miracle, the overnight death of the firstborn, does the Pharaoh admit God’s superior power and free the Israelite slaves.
The Philistines are more rational when the God of Israel afflicts them with a plague.
The problem begins when the Philistines take God’s most sacred object, the ark of the covenant. Israelite soldiers in the first book of Samuel unwisely bring the ark with them from the sanctuary at Shiloh onto the battleground at Even Ha-eizer, hoping that the magic of its presence will give them victory. It does not; God wants “His” ark in a sanctuary, not on a battlefield.
And the Philistines took the ark of God, and they brought it from Even Ha-eizer to Ashdod. And the Philistines took the ark of God and they brought it into the House of Dagon, and they placed it beside Dagon. (1 Samuel 5:1-2)
The next morning, the priests of Ashdod discover that the statue of their own chief god, Dagon, has fallen face-down in front of the ark. The second morning, the statue of Dagon has fallen again, and its head and hands are cut off. Naturally, the shocked Philistines move the ark out of the sanctuary and into a field.
Then the hand of God was heavy on the Ashdodites, and He devastated them, and He struck down Ashdod and her territory with ofalim. (1 Samuel 5:6)
ofalim (עֳפָלִים) = probably buboes—lymph nodes swollen to the size of chicken eggs due to the bubonic plague—in the groin area. (According to the Masoretic text, when this chapter is read out loud, the word ofalim is replaced with techorim (טְחֺררִים) = hemorrhoids or anal abscesses. Techorim was considered a more polite word to say in public.)
The people of Ashdod send the ark off to another Philistine city, Geit.
…and the hand of God was on the city, a very great panic, and the people of the town from young to old had ofalim in their secret parts. So they sent the ark of God to Ekron… (1 Samuel 5:9-10)
The people of Ekron protest even before they start dying of the bubonic plague, and the princes of all five Philistine city-states meet there to decide what to do. Philistine priests and diviners urge them to send the ark back to Israelite territory, along with a guilt-offering, in the hope that then the God of Israel will stop the plague and heal the survivors.
And they [the princes and the Ekronites] said: “What is the guilt-offering that we should send back to Him?” And they [the priests] said: “The number of princes of Philistine is five. Five golden ofalim and five golden rats—for one mageifah is upon all [of you]and your princes! So you must make images of your ofalim and images of your rats that are destroying the land, and you must give honor to the God of Israel. Perhaps them He will lighten His hand from upon you and from upon your gods and from upon your land.” (1 Samuel 6:4-5.)
The Philistines probably noticed a plethora of dying rats in same areas where humans were afflicted. Today we know that bubonic plague is carried by fleas that bite both rats and humans.
Perhaps the Philistine rulers hesitated to send the golden ark and ten gold statuettes to their enemies the Israelites, because the Philistine priests add:
Why should you harden your heart as Egypt and Pharaoh hardened their heart? Did He not make a fool of them, so they let [the Israelites] go, and off they went? (1 Samuel 6:6)
The five Philistine princes, unlike the Pharaoh, are willing to do whatever will end the plague. Their priests then give instructions that will prove whether the God of Israel is responsible for it. The Philistines must load a cart with the ark and also a box containing the ten gold images. Then they must take two milk cows that have never pulled a plow and separate them from their nursing calves. They must shut up the calves inside, and harness the cows to the cart.
Then you will see: If it [the ark] goes up on the road to its own territory, toward Beit Shemesh, He made this great evil for us. But if not, then we will know that His hand has not touched us; by happenstance it happened to us. (1 Samuel 6:9)
Normally, the two cows would refuse to pull the cart, since they have never been harnessed before. Furthermore, they would try to get back to their calves as soon as their udders were full. Only a divine miracle would make the cows pull the cart to the nearest town in Israelite territory.
And the cows went straight on the road, on the road to Beit Shemesh. On a single highway they kept walking, lowing as they walked, and they veered neither right nor left. And the Philistine princes were walking behind them as far as the border of Beit Shemesh. (1 Samuel 6:12)
The action then switches to the arrival of the cart in Beit Shemesh, but we can assume that God responds by halting the bubonic plague in Philistine. The Bible does not mention it again.
Today the prompt administration of antibiotics can cure people of even the bubonic plague. But humans still experience a psychological kind of plague when panic spreads because our neighbors seem like enemies. In the United States today, people have become deeply divided by their anger and fear over the perceived political and moral differences between the left and the right. On each side, we are afraid that our own compatriots will force us to change our way of life, or even let us die.
And on each side, we want to take away things that are sacred to the other side. Unlike the Philistines appropriating the ark, we may not even realize what our “enemies” on the left or right consider sacred.
The people of Ekron get upset when the people of Geit send the ark to their city, yet they neither pick a fight nor pass the ark on to the next city. They call a meeting, get expert advice, and save all the surviving Philistine people by sending off the cart, even though it means giving up some wealth and honor. The five Philistine city-states not only cooperate with each other, but also honor the sacred object of the Israelites, and make a peace offering to the God of their enemies.
May we all become realistic and flexible like the Philistines, rather than hard-hearted like the Pharaoh. May we determine the causes of our own country’s plague, and may we all find the strength to do what we must in order to bring health and peace to all people.
2. Numbers 25:6-8.
3. Exodus 32:35.
4. Numbers 11:31-35.
5. Numbers 17:6-15.
6. This story is included in the second book of Samuel, although its language and themes do not fit the rest of the book. After King David has followed God’s instructions to order a census of all Israelite men of fighting age, God makes him choose one out of three punishments for doing so. David chooses the plague, which kills 70,000 Israelites before David stops it with an animal offering (2 Samuel chapter 24).
7. Ten according to Exodus; see my post Va-eira & Bo; Psalm 78 & Psalm 105: Responding to Miracles. The two plagues are livestock pestilence (dever) and an inflammation with boils (shechin).