Wednesday 15 March 2017


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 East until 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 BC.  

Israel of the 10th century under the famous king David was supposedly a sumptuous and vibrant place, at least according to bible. Jerusalem under Solomon flourished as a majestic city of opulence. Unfortunately the archaeological evidence does not bear out the biblical description and it seems the Jerusalem of the period was a small unimposing settlement. Some would even challenge the historicity of the great king David himself. The story of David contains mythic and legendary motifs recognisable throughout epic storytelling worldwide: local boy does well; defeats a formidable foe/monster against all the odds; wins the hand of the king's daughter and eventually becomes king. That said, there are passages in the bible which dramatically reveal David's all too human foibles. Even though the writer is clearly pro- David and aims to glorify his life and the city of Jerusalem he portrays a deeply flawed human being: the sending of Uriah the Hittite to his death so David can marry his wife, Bathsheba and the temporary defection to the Philistines are just two examples. On balance, I would side with those who consider David as a real person from history, although I would argue that his life, accomplishments and the splendour of his kingdom have been embellished somewhat. As the Jews are fond of telling: “If David did not exist he must have had a brother of the same name”. There is even doubt cast about whether he killed the gigantic warrior, Goliath, as elsewhere his slaying is ascribed to Elhanan, the son of Jair (II Samuel 21:19). The bible is replete with such contradictions- go seek and ye will find.

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, Ashdod, Gaza, Ekron and Gath. 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.

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 Israel 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 events.

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.