Flaccid-Phallus Philistines?

I brought the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review with me to sacrament meeting on Sunday. I glanced at the cover and saw the captioned tagline (just above “The Secret Knowledge of Judas Iscariot”). The provocative description was a reference to an article by Aren N. Maier, “Did Captured Ark Afflict Philistines with E.D.?”, which you can read here.

The short version: 1 Samuel 5-6 recounts how the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites in battle. They took it back to Ashdod and put it in front of a statue of Dagon. The next day they found Dagon toppled. They propped it back up, but this kept happening. The hand of the LORD was heavy on the Ashdodites, and he afflicted them with [or in their] ‘opalim.

The meaning of ‘opalim is uncertain. It has traditionally been taken as hemorrhoids. The KJV renders emerods; most modern translations are squeamish about this and euphemize this as tumors or sores. The root ‘ophel is used for the upper city of ancient Jerusalem, and conveys the sense of a hill, a height or a rise, and thus a swelling. It’s kind of hard to imagine what the five golden hemorrhoids would have looked like.

But there is a theory that the ‘opalim were not hemorrhoids, but rather penises. This is driven by archaeological discovery of cultic situlae in the shape of penises, which were actually a common cultic representation in Philistia. (The print version of the article has lots of pictures.) The sense of something that rises would fit.

Either way, the word is meant to be scatalogical and an insult to the Philistines.

So, what do you think of this theory?


  1. Heh-heh.. He said E.D. And penis. And rhoids.

  2. BTW, too bad Margaret stole the title for your post.

  3. Randall says:

    I can’t speak to the historicity of it, but the felling of the Dagon statue definitely reminds one of the toppling of Saddam’s statues before “Mission Accomplished”. That also seemed like an emasculation maneuver–W showing Saddam who was more endowed.

  4. Maybe it wasn’t ED, but priapism. Makes more sense to me if the word is to convey “the sense of a hill, a height or a rise, and thus a swelling.” Having actually seen a patient with this condition, I can testify that it is definitely a curse – very painful. If all the men were cursed with this when the ark arrived in a city, it would certainly prompt a rapid response to attempt to cure. ED might not go noticed for months, since men then, like men now, might be hesitant to discuss such a thing.

  5. … men then, like men now, might be hesitant to discuss such a thing.

    Yeah, but would the women?

  6. Steve Evans says:

    “ED might not go noticed for months”

    Tell me about it.

  7. Randall says:

    “ED might not go noticed for months”

    Tell me about it.

    Hmmm…. Steve’s rejoinder is ambiguous enough to engender a world of speculation. Possibilities as to its meaning include:

    –Steve is not familiar with ED and would like to know more about what the acronym portends

    –Steve is all too familiar with ED and is benefiting from this opportunity to upend the conspiracy of silence and shame that accompanies it.

    –Steve’s partner never noticed that he had ED.

    Either way Steve, as Marageret states in her post, we’ve got your back, bro.

  8. I have to say this is one of the more interesting posts (including the comments) I’ve read in the ‘Nacle.

    There are all kinds of puns screaming to be added. I’ll have to consider the theory a bit before saying what I think. I just haven’t spent any time contemplating Philistine penises prior to now.

  9. Priapism is so rare (named for the Roman Priapus, whose statues are really rather overwhelming), that I wonder whether it would have been a familiar curse. So much of culture was invested in male potency and fertility (i seem to recall bull statues of El who are impossibly well endowed), that it wouldn’t shock me if this article were correct. Now if sildenafil had been available then, I could buy the priapism argument.

  10. Maybe the Ark of the Covenant was full of steroids. That would give a whole new picture of Goliath as an ancient Barry Bonds: great big head, itty bitty testicles and lots of acne on his back.

  11. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 9

    The things one learns in the Bloggernacle! A quick Google Images search for “Priapus Statue” is indeed eye-opening. I shall refrain from posting a direct link here, however.

  12. Lovely alliteration but I am surprised my filters let it through!

  13. smb,

    At the risk of taking this conversation too seriously, do curses have to be familiar? Wouldn’t the unfamiliarity of the curse make it even more frightening?