Does the Bible Err By Saying Philistines Predate Israelites in the Levant

Does the Bible Err By Saying Philistines Predate Israelites in the Levant August 3, 2016

For the past two weeks, I have been blogging occasionally about the amazing discovery of a 3,000-year old Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon, Israel, which was announced on July 10th. It is one of the greatest archaeological discoveries ever in the Levant. The Old Testament has much historical record about the Philistines being the arch rival of the ancient Israelites. The Philistines lived on the coastal plain, adjacent to the Israelites who lived predominantly in the Judean hill country and northward. The nation of the Philistines was Philistia which existed from about 1200 to 604 BCE, when Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II sacked it and Jerusalem and carried off royalty and other officials to Babylonia. Philistia consisted of five city-states in which each represented capitals of the nation. The heads of these five cities were called “the lords of the Philistines.” Bible readers know of their land as “the land of the Philistines.”

A quick look at a Bible map reveals that the eastern Mediterranean shoreline forms a smooth arc between Mount Carmel, located just south of present Haifa, and Egypt that has no natural harbors. During much of the history of the Philistines in the Levant, the three major cities of the five were Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Gaza. Ashdod and Gaza were situated four-to-five miles inland, located on the single north-south highway that joined present Egypt and Syria. It was that far inland due to the wind causing sand dunes and a lack of water resources near the coastline. (The other two Philistine city-states, Ekron and Gath, the home of Goliath, were ten miles inland.)

Ashkelon was the only major city adjacent to the coastline between Mount Carmel and Egypt, and its (manmade) harbor was the only one therein. Ashkelon was located on the coast because it had unique underground water resources due to a high water table near sea level. To avoid the sand dune problem, people built Ashkelon like an amphitheater facing the sea, with its backside elevated by fill about 80 feet above sea level. A 40-50 foot wall about 1.5 miles in length and ten feet thick at its top surrounded the half-circle arc of the city.

Ashkelon’s existence dates back to the Stone Age. Archaeologists are certain that this Canannite city was overtaken by the Philistines in about 1200 BCE. But there has been a lot of mystery about the origin of the Philistines, their migration to the coastal plain of the Levant, and even whether or not they committed their language to writing. Many of these mysteries are now being solved and will continue so.

For decades, mostly due to pottery remains at ancient Philistine sites, archaeologists have believed the Philistines migrated to the Levant from the region of the Aegean Sea, which is between Greece and present Turkey. The Bible says on behalf of God, “Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor?” (Amos 9.7). Caphtor refers to the Mediterranean island of Crete. Archaeologists think Crete served as a temporary stop for Philistines who migrated by sea in contrast to those who journeyed by land.

But the Bible says the Philistines existed in the Levant long before 1200 BCE, even way back in the days of Abraham, which would be about 2000 BCE. In my book, Palestine Is Coming: The Revival of Ancient Philistia (1990), I mention this in an appendix entitled, “The Early History of the Philistines,” which is what the Leon Levy Exhibition to Ashkelon will be trying to learn with the DNA taken from these Philistine skeletons and radiocarbon dating of the bones. In this appendix I state, “Many secular historians and archaeologists, as well as many biblical commentators, maintain that the Philistines did not migrate to Palestine until the 12th century B.C., when [Pharaoh] Rameses III of Egypt recorded an invasion from the north. The Bible, however, narrates that the Philistines lived there 600-700 years earlier, during the time of Abraham and Isaac (e.g., Gen 21.32, 34; 26.1, 8, 14-15; Exo 13.17; 15.14; 23.31). Most interpreters regard these accounts as anachronisms, i.e., references to that land or its people by the name of later inhabitants.” But people who believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible usually reject this assertion as an impingement on the Bible’s historical authenticity.

For Bible readers, remember when Abraham’s wife Sarah was taken by the Philistine ruler called “Abimelech,” and she was put in his harem? Twice he is called “the king of the Philistines” (Gen 26.1, 8). And the Bible tells three other instances in which Abraham and Isaac interacted with the Philistines because they stopped up their wells.

But the Bible first says he was “king of Gerar” (Gen 20.2), which was located near what later became known as the city of Beersheba, located southeast of the later “land of the Philistines” with which Bible readers are familiar in the its historical books of 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, and 1 and 2 Chronicles. So, Gerar probably was at this time the center or capital of where Philistines lived in this early Bronze Age.

Indeed, Jewish scholar Nahum M. Sarna (The JPS Commentary: Genesis, 1989) says of Genesis 21, “Abimelech is previously identified as ‘king of Gerar.’ Gerar is now characterized as ‘the land of the Philistines.’ In the parallel story about Isaac, Abimelech is entitled ‘king of the Philistines,’ and he resides in Gerar. His subjects are also called Philistines.

“Unlike the depiction of the Philistines in Judges and Kings, these of the patriarchal period do not inhabit the Shephelah but are situated inland in the south. There is no pentapolis with seranim but a king of a single city who acts alone. . . . the references to the Philistines in the patriarchal narratives cannot be anachronisms. No later Israelite writer could possibly be so ignorant of the elementary facts of the history of his people as to perpetrate such a series of blunders, and to no purpose whatsoever.

“Accordingly, the ‘Philistines’ of patriarchal times may have belonged to a much earlier, minor wave of Aegean invaders who founded a small city-state in Gerar long before the large-scale invasions of the Levant, which led to the occupation of the Canaanite coast.”

This source, published in 1989, was not available to me when my book was finished by then and published the next year. Nevertheless, I state the same in it, that some Philistines probably first migrated to the Levant long before 1200 BCE, even before Abraham lived there. I explain in the book that my main reason for saying this is all the Genesis narratives about Abraham and Isaac interacting with the Philistines locate those Philistines south and southeast of the present Gaza Strip, thus outside the later “land of the Philistines.”

In this book I quoted Gen 18.10, which reads, “And the territory of the Canaanite extended from Sidon as you go toward Gerar, as far as Gaza.” But failed to use it to show that Canaanites only lived as far south as Gaza during the time of Abraham. Also, notice that its mention of Gerar further indicates that it was not a Canaanite city and that it was a noteworthy city, which further suggests it may have been the center of the Philistine population.

A question I did not ask in this appendix is this: Why would a large contingent of Philistines migrate from way over in the region of the Aegean Sea to the South Levant, a distance by land of perhaps 2,000 miles? Surely there were closer places those Philistines could have chosen. And why would they choose to live so near Egypt, which was the dominant nation for so long in this region, and thereby risk being under subjection to the Egyptians and thus forced to pay suzerainty? I think it has to be because there was already a settlement of their people that had existed there for several centuries. And as I state in my appendix, there is evidence that the Philistines lived there and pushed northward during about 1200 BCE to take the major cities of Gaza, Ashdod, and Ashkelon, where they had not lived before.

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