|Ouch, that bloody hurt that did!
I've always thought that the Philistines have had a rough deal from 'history'. In the bible the Philistines are portrayed as depraved polytheists addicted to brute strength and strong liquor. Today, their very name is synonymous for coarse, rude and brutal behaviour. But of course, our opinion of the Philistines and their culture is almost wholly dependent on testimony from their implacable enemies, the Jews. Recent archaeological evidence and research are starting to reveal a startlingly different picture as painted by biblical writers.
As a preamble, it is worthwhile to consider the origins of the Philistines. Modern scholarship indicates that the Philistines burst upon the pages of history in the middle of the 12th century BC. They appear as part of a mass of migratory peoples seeking plunder and settlement. They attacked the whole eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean and
Aegean causing the
collapse of several powerful empires including the Hittites. They even had the
temerity to attack the Egyptians. Pictorial Egyptian evidence gives a graphic
account of a sea battle against the marauders. The Egyptians prevailed and
magnanimously resettled the defeated people in Egypt and Canaan.
The Egyptians called these people, Peleset and it is these people who
evolved into the Philistines as described in the bible. Thus, the Philistines
did not become established in the Middle
the 12th century
BC. The account in the Old Testament where Abraham encounters the Philistines
(c 2,000 BC) is clearly an anachronism. This is understandable, as according to
contextual evidence, the Old Testament wasn’t written until the 6th century
As for the Philistines themselves, we are woefully deficient in knowledge concerning important features of their lives. There is much controversy concerning the language they spoke. Some scholars aver that the Philistines spoke an Indo-European language which would be in accord with a proposed Anatolian origin. Others note that Philistines and Jews in the bible seem to converse freely during encounters suggesting that the Philistines spoke a Semitic language. However, this may have been a simple literary device aimed to maintain the narrative flow.
Archaeological findings agree that in the 10th century the Philistines were a distinct entity from the surrounding Canaanites but as the centuries progressed they lost their individual identity and became assimilated into the indigenous population. The Philistine population were originally confined to five cities: Ashkelon,
Ekron and . The ruined sites
have been extensively worked by modern archaeologists and their findings belie
the biblical reputation of the Philistines as uncouth barbarians. The rich
pottery and stoneware unearthed as well as the dwellings indicate a rich
cultural style and a high degree of civilisation. Evidence throughout the
Middle-East strongly indicates that during the 10thcentury BC it was
the Israelites who lived in rather drab, uncivilised conditions. In contrast
the Philistines had a sophisticated war machine led by a warrior aristocracy
with organised foot soldiers and archers and a flourishing economy based on
maritime commerce. In comparison to the Israelites, bound by the hill country,
the Philistines were an advanced commercial and industrial society. Gath
Thus the archaeological evidence does not support the biblical account. This is perhaps no surprise. Firstly, the written account of the 'history' of the 11th and 10th centuries BC was not transcribed until the 7th or 6th century BC, perhaps during the Babylonian exile. The Babylonian defeat and exile left a deep scar upon the Jewish psyche and heroic accounts of a supposed glorious past are perhaps forgivable. A time when the Jews abided by Yahweh's covenant and received the bounty of their Lord. The parlous state of the Jewish people in exile was a direct result of failing to please a demanding deity. For a people totally drenched in their notion of god, this was a powerful reminder that greatness could be rekindled but only if
chose to reaffirm the
compact with Yahweh. However, Yahweh was a jealous god and occasionally capricious.
And secondly, what really happened 350 tears earlier could only be darkly
discerned based on oral tradition, poetry and scraps of written disparate
texts. Add to this mix a heaped tablespoon of theological devotion and a dollop
of legendary storytelling and we end up with a purported 'history' of the Jews.
The writers of Deuteronomy were not able or interested in writing
objective history (whatever that might be) as understood by the modern mind. The
Old and New Testaments are a composite of literary genres but, for the most
part, reveal surprisingly little about the passage of real verifiable historic
Let me finish with the lamentation of David on the death of Saul and his son Jonathan at the hands of the Philistines:
"Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.