Friday, May 17, 2013

The Ark of the Covenant, H.P. Lovecraft, and Dagon

In the mornings, while I'm feeding the dogs, I have begun reading a bit of The David Story by Robert Alter. This is his translation of the books of Samuel (and a tiny bit of the first book of Kings).

I am conversant with the big parts of David's life, and even the highlights of Saul's life before him. However, I haven't ever read these books from beginning to end. Therefore, I don't know a lot of the details other than knowing about Hannah's plea to God for a son (hellooo Samuel), God calling to Samuel when he was small, and a few choice bits of scolding to the kings (well-deserved, I might add).

In other words, I know the basics as much as any Catholic who attends weekly Mass and pays reasonable attention to the readings.

So, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I read this at the beginning of chapter 5.
And the Philistines took the Ark of God and brought it to the house of Dagon and set it up alongside Dagon. And the Ashdodites arose on the next day and, look, Dagon was fallen forward to the ground before the Ark of the Lord.
Dagon! Wait, I know that name!

I think I'd have listened more intently in Mass if they ever read these bits of 1 Samuel.

Hey, I may only know the basics about the books of Samuel, but I know much more about the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Dagon is an early Lovecraft story and is mentioned again in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which I just listened to recently (a fine and free narration by Mike Bennett).

Alter's note, which I read with extra interest, points out that once it was widely imagined that Dagon used to be associated with fish (aha! Lovecraft, you clever fellow, no wonder those horrible worshippers were from the bottom of the sea). However, they now believe Dagon was actually a vegetation or fertility god.

I might be kind of freaked out if my god mysteriously fell at the feet of the Hebrew's Ark of God.

But wait. Maybe Dagon's statue just happened to fall over. That could happen to any statue, right?

So the Philistines thought (and hoped and prayed, probably). Read on...
And they took Dagon and set him back in his place. And they arose the next morning and, look, Dagon was fallen forward to the ground before the Ark of the Lord, and Dagon's head and both his hands were chopped off upon the threshold--his trunk alone remained on him. ... And the hand of the Lord was heavy upon the Ashdodites and He devastated them, and he struck them with tumors, Ashdod and all its territories.
Not just tumors, y'all. Tumors "in their secret parts."

Fish god or fertility god, when the hand of the Lord falls heavy upon you, there's no mistaking it. Time to send that Ark back where you got it.

Alter's note once again adds context.
This second incident, in which the hands and head of the idol have been chopped off, offers to the Philistines clear proof of divine intervention. Hacking the hands and feet off war prisoners was a well-known barbaric practice in the ancient Near East, and similar acts of mutilation are attested in the Book of Judges.
Uh huh. Message sent. And received.


  1. At least there were no foreskins in that H.B. passage. Ick.

  2. Hey, I just ordered this book last week. And if I remember correctly, the Hebrew for those tumours is often translated hemorrhoid -- or worse, perpetual hemorrhoid!! Yikes!


    1. Alter discusses the idea of hemorrhoids and also the option that it could have been the black death (buboes often were first found in "secret parts"). That is hinged on the puzzling tribute mentioned of five golden mice. An interesting speculation. Either way, a hurtin' was goin' on!

  3. Our Hebrew Club had a riot trying to figure out the mice. I am really looking forward to Alter's notes. I am finally reading The Art of Biblical Narrative and I wish I had done it years ago.

    1. So it's not so scholarly that your brain hurts? (Or my brain would hurt?)

  4. Well, it is and it isn't. Hebrew Club (now all PhD students) told me I really should read at least the first chapter, which is VERY accessible, and you will love. I downloaded it onto my e-reader and it became my "penitential" reading (dentist's office, waiting in line, etc). Well, then I hit chapter 3 -- imagine future film-students assessing the whole corpus of Hollywood westerns based on 12 films. In 11, the hero-sheriff has such great reflexes that he can always outdraw the bad guy, even if the bad guy has his gun out. In the 12th, the sheriff has a withered arm, but his amazing reflexes allow him to be equally deadly to the bad guy with a shotgun slung across his back.

    "Now, eleven hyperreflexive sheriffs are utterly improbable by any realistic standards -- though one scholar will no doubt propose that in the Old West the function of sheriff was generally filled by members of a hereditary caste that in fact had this genetic trait. The scholars will then divide between a majority that posits an original source-western (designated Q) that has been imitated or imperfectly reproduced in a whole series of later versions (Q1, Q2, etc. -- the films we have been screening) and a more speculative minority that proposes an old California indian myth concerning a sky-god with arms of lightning, of which all these films are scrambled and diluted secular adaptations. The twelfth film, in the view of both schools, must be ascribed to a different cinematic tradition."

    As a film lover, you can see where it's going -- the audience of westerns knows the pattern, and knows what it means if the pattern is broken. Alter applies this to repetitions of narrative in the Bible.

    I laughed myself silly!! I don't read much non-fiction, but I am really enjoying this. I haven't quite finished it yet, but I've already ordered the hard copy so that I can read it side by side with the Bible passages he mentions and take notes.

    1. I am definitely going to get the Kindle sample now ... because I NEED more to read (groan!) ... but that sounds irresistible!