04 May 2010

The Plague on Philistia

The Plague on Philistia
By Timothy S. Wilkinson

After recording the capture of the Ark of the Covenant following the second Battle of Aphek (1 Samuel Chapters 4 and 5) and its transport by the Philistines to the city of Ashdod, Samuel writes, “And the hand of Jehovah came to be heavy upon the Ashdodites, and he began causing panic [this word could also be translated “desolation”] and striking them with piles” (1 Samuel 5:6).
Various theories have been put forth regarding the specifics of the plague that overwhelmed Philistia.  The account in 1 Samuel Chapters 5 and 6 tells us that the plague included an infestation of jerboas (according to the Septuagint) and was marked by piles (Heb. bapholim).  This word in Hebrew is associated with the human anus. The Masoretes* pointed the word with the vowels for techorim, or “tumors.”  This was likely a show of modesty on their part, but it could very well also provide us with further information as to the nature of the disease.  (Verse 10 uses a rare Hebrew verb, yisatru, to describe the location of the “tumors;” some translations render it “secret parts”). Some translators have rendered bapholim as “hemorrhoids,” but if they are accurate, these were not the hemorrhoids we know today. The Latin Vulgate (Clementine Recension, S. Bagster & Sons, London, 1977) adds the detail that “their rectums protruding began putrefying.  And the people of Gath took counsel together and made themselves seats of skins.” Apparently they had to put soft seats on their chairs, perhaps with holes cut in their center--in the style of a toilet seat--to be able to sit down.
Josephus adds:  “…they died of dysentery and flux, a sore distemper, that brought death upon them very suddenly…they brought up their entrails, and vomited up what they had eaten, and what was entirely corrupted by the disease.”  (Antiquities of the Jews, Chapter 11).
To many modern researchers, these clues add up to a divinely originated bubonic plague.  The “piles” could easily have been the “buboes,” and the infestation of jerboas, carriers as they are of fleas, could have been responsible for the spread of the disease.  The high death rate, the rapidity of the spread of the contagion, and the agonies experienced by the dying all fit the pattern of bubonic plague—albeit a particularly virulent and violent strain. 

*The ancient Hebrew language was written using only consonants; the reader was expected to supply the vowels by inference. Unfortunately, by the sixth century C.E. so few people spoke the language fluently that the pronunciation of many words was in danger of being forgotten. At that time a group of scribes, or copyists, known as the Masoretes took it upon themselves to make fresh copies of the ancient texts and developed a system by which the correct vowels could be added into the words. They used several "point" systems, symbols that could be placed around the consonants to indicate the proper vowels and pronunciation. To do this they had to formalize and codify the grammatical rules of Hebrew, which had never been done before. In some cases they would deliberately use the incorrect vowels in order to avoid writing a word that was considered "dirty" or "unholy."

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