And so the Jews march off into history, their initial, formative moral battle taking place in Egypt. Sure enough, the experience of Abraham is replicated on a national scale. This time the entire Jewish People is held hostage, plagues befall the Egyptian nation as a whole; then freedom results, once again with valuable parting gifts.
Then, this mysterious passage follows (Exodus 13:17): “And when Pharaoh expelled the nation, the Lord did not lead them through the Land of the Philistines, which was close, because the Lord said, ‘Lest the nation regrets [leaving] when they encounter war and they will return to Egypt.’ “
Why mention the road not taken?
Today we view this verse with an exciting new clarity. After the Jews had left Egypt, showing the world the national victory of morality as exemplified by Jews over corruption as exemplified by Egypt, the logical next step was to have a war of sorts with the Philistines, to demonstrate the superiority of God-based morality over the civil society founded on enlightened self-interest. The text perforce must explain that this skirmish had to be skipped, to be postponed until some future date, as the Jews were simply not in a condition to face another broad-based national struggle in their flegling state of development.
That battle would finally be fought in the era of Samuel, a uniquely great prophet whose leadership invited comparison to Moses. (See Psalms 99:6)
Thus, the demonstration of the power of the Ark within the Philistine camp is the very moment of national clarification that had been awaited since leaving Egypt. The Ark will show through symbols and plagues that ultimately true morality must be based on fear of God and that the finest civil society, replete with the loveliest manners, will eventually disintegrate along the fault lines of greed and lust when the voltage of temptation or desperation is turned high enough.
The first proof is in the human head and hands falling off Dagon, leaving the fish torso intact upon the pedestal. The fish represents the lesson of swimming paths around each other to avoid collision, enabling incredible quantities of creatures to coexist by circumventing the routes of others. This part of their ideology is fine and the Philistine avoidance of strife and theft is worthy of being celebrated.
But is there enough there to build a human head upon such a base, to create a thorough ideology that can provide a basis for human society? The answer is no: off with its head. Is there enough to guarantee a pair of human hands, human behaviors and actions that will withstand the push of temptation or the pull of desperation? Again no: off with its hands.
The people are punished, too, but not with externally manifest disease or violence. They maintain a society that has a nice exterior and their bodies need not be marred with wounds and lesions. But inside? Inside there is rot. So the punishment is hemorrhoids, an irritation at the border between the internal and the external.
Indeed the verse that provides the heart of that moment is this one (Samuel I 5:9): “…and they had hemorrhoids hiddenly.”
Is this familiar? Have we seen this in our time? Do we see societies, or segments of societies, that have mastered the language and rhythms of civility, but do not find a place for God in their hearts? Have we seen such societies tested at the fringes, at the less-clear points, at the beginnings and the ends of things, with great pleasure or great pain, with great loss or great gain?
Let us reflect.