In 1 Samuel 5—6 (KJV), God afflicts the Philistines with emerods in His anger over their taking the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites. The word translated “emerods” in the King James Version comes from a root word literally meaning “to swell,” and the Hebrew word translated “emerods” literally means “mound.” This is basically all we know about emerods, but the context has led historians and Bible commentators to conclude that the plague of emerods was actually an occurrence of tumors, boils, or possibly hemorrhoids or “piles.” Most translations of 1 Samuel 5:6 say the affliction was “tumors”; the ISV says “tumors of the groin”; and the Darby translation says “hemorrhoids.”
The emerods were a divine punishment on the Philistines when they defeated the Israelites and captured the Ark of the Covenant on the day that Eli and his sons died. The Philistines brought the Ark to Ashdod, one of the Philistine-controlled cities of Judah. They placed the Ark in their temple next to the statue of Dagon, their pagan god. When the Philistines rose the next day, they found Dagon’s image on its face before the Ark. They placed the statue upright, only to find it on the floor before the Ark again the next day—this time with its head and both hands broken off. In addition to humiliating the Philistine god, God afflicted the worshipers of Dagon with “emerods,” which could be boils, tumors, or severe, bleeding hemorrhoids (1 Samuel 5:1–6).
The Philistines realized that their affliction was from the God of Israel, and they rightly associated their suffering with the stolen Ark of the Covenant. But they wrongly assumed a change of location would help. They sent the Ark to Gath, another Philistine city. At Gath, God “smote the men of the city, both small and great, and they had emerods in their secret parts” (1 Samuel 5:9, KJV). The Philistines tried again, sending the Ark on to Ekron, where the same thing happened: “And the men that died not were smitten with the emerods: and the cry of the city went up to heaven” (1 Samuel 5:12, KJV).
We have a couple of other clues as to what the emerods were. The condition was “devastating” to the Philistines and caused “a great panic” in Gath (1 Samuel 5:6, 9). Verse 12 indicates that Philistines were dying from the emerods. This doesn’t sound much like hemorrhoids, however severe. Then, in 1 Samuel 6:4, we have the additional detail that rats were somehow involved in the plague. It could very well be that God sent bubonic plague to the Philistines, spread by rats and causing boils and death. It is also possible that the rats were not spreading the emerods but simply destroying crops.
After seven months of suffering with emerods (1 Samuel 6:5), the Philistines called for their priests and diviners and asked what was to be done about the Ark. Their advice was to send the Ark back to Israel with a guilt offering of “five gold tumors and five gold rats, according to the number of the Philistine rulers” (1 Samuel 6:4). The smarting Philistines made the golden tumors and golden rats, placed the Ark on “a new cart,” and sent the Ark away “with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked” (1 Samuel 6:7). The cows “went straight up . . . keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left” (verse 12), and thus the Ark was returned to Israel. The Bible doesn’t say when the tumors and rats disappeared from the cities of Philistia.
Interestingly, the pagan priests and prophets of Philistia cited the plagues of Egypt as a reason to send the Ark back to Israel. They asked their fellow Philistines, “Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When Israel’s god dealt harshly with them, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way?” (1 Samuel 6:6). Such was the fame of Israel’s God and the demonstration of His power that pagan nations generations later still feared His wrath. The plague of emerods was bad enough—what if it was only the first of ten?
The word emerods first appears in the KJV in Deuteronomy 28. The Lord promised blessings upon the Israelites if they listened to His voice and obeyed His commandments. If they did not, He promised curses upon them, one of which was “the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab, and with the itch, whereof thou canst not be healed” (Deuteronomy 28:27, KJV). The “botch of Egypt” is a reference to the boils with which God plagued the Egyptians during the sixth plague (Exodus 9:9).
Whether the emerods were hemorrhoids or tumors of the private parts or a symptom of bubonic plague, the lesson is that God does not take lightly the disobedience of men. He is holy, and He did not allow the Philistines to profane the Ark of the Covenant. The Lord alone is God, and Dagon, the impotent god of the Philistines, was no match for His power and glory.