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The Philistines

The problem

Philistines as a group are mentioned on many occasions during the Old Testament. As well as the series of conflicts between them and the Israelites towards the end of the Judges era, lasting until the reign of David, they are mentioned as having friendly dealings with Abraham and Isaac. However, outside the Bible, textual references to these people are more restrictive. The reference regarded as definitive by many authors is in connection with Rameses III's successful defence of Egypt against the Sea Peoples. This is the earliest non-Biblical mention of a group called Pelest, who participated in the planned invasion and following its repulse settled in the coastal plain area of Palestine. Conventionally Rameses III is dated in the first half of the 12th century BCE, and is often regarded as closely associated with the time of the Exodus. If correct, this would give a good explanation for the descriptions of conflict with Philistines in the Biblical books of Judges and Samuel, but the link with Abraham, if he is dated to the early 2nd millennium, would be anachronistic. On the other hand, the New Chronology places Rameses III in the mid 9th century BCE, in the early divided monarchy period. At first sight, this would cause difficulties for both the patriarchal and later references.

So there are several different questions to be raised:

  1. What are we to make of the patriarchal references to Philistines? Should we infer from these that the patriarchal accounts were written in the mid first millennium? or if not, with whom did Abraham negotiate?
  2. How are the (very limited) non-Biblical textual mentions of the Philistines to be linked with the archaeological remains in the coastal plain area?
  3. Is the NC placement of Rameses III in the mid 9th century inconsistent with the accounts of conflicts with Philistines in the Judges and United monarchy periods? If so, which is being misunderstood?

Possible resolution - issue (1)

First, we have to consider the possibility that the various Old Testament references to Philistines do not in fact refer to the same ethnic group. There are numerous important differences between the group mentioned in the Genesis accounts, and those mentioned in Judges/Samuel. The Genesis group are friendly, largely well-disposed to Abraham and his household, and for the most part have Semitic names(particularly Abimelech and Ahuzzath, though Phicol is of uncertain derivation). The main city they are mentioned as inhabiting is Gerar. The later group are warlike, hostile and expansionist, and have Hurrian names. Gerar is within their sphere of influence, though a little to the south-east, but the main cities are (from north to south) Ekron, Ashdod, Gath, Ashkelon, and Gaza. Collectively these five are also sometimes called the Philistine Pentapolis. The fact that the region was occupied considerably before the arrival of the group mentioned by Rameses III is shown in that the Ebla tablets (from the second half of the 3rd millennium) mention the towns of Gath and Ashkelon. Hence, someone was living in this area at the right time for Abraham to have met them, and it would be a natural choice for a Biblical writer or copyist to have used the term Philistine for them, even if (in modern sociological terms) they are a different ethnic group.

The area occupied by the Philistines

Thus there is strong indication that they are in fact unrelated peoples, linked only by the use of the same name for them by the Biblical authors. Assuming they are unrelated, there are two feasible explanations. The one adopted here is that the Semitic group dealt with by Abraham and Isaac are earlier occupants of this area. At a later stage the Hurrian group moved in, either assimilating or pushing out the Semites. An alternative explanation is that the Hurrian group were over a period of time "Semitised" through contact with other occupants of the area. This would require that the patriarchal accounts were in fact written quite late (in the mid 1st millennium BCE), which then leads to other difficulties of interpretation.

Considerations - issue (2)

The relevant Egyptian inscriptions normally referred to are:

Reliefs and texts at Rameses III's temple at Medinet Habu: These describe a series of battles conducted in Rameses' 8th year (conventionally 1177) against groups of Nubians, Libyans, and 'Sea-peoples', together with campaigns into Syria-Palestine. Fierce fighting on land and sea is depicted, with a dramatic narrative describing the hostile advance. The enemies are then listed as "Their confederation was the Philistines [Pelest], Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denye[n] and Weshesh, lands united". Other parts of the reliefs tell us "Words spoken by the fallen ones of Peleset, 'Give us the breath for our nostrils thou King, son of Amon'.", and "My [Rameses III] strong arm has overthrown [those] who came to exalt themselves: the Peleset, the Denyen and the Shekelesh.". Most images of captives are not clearly identified as belonging to one or other of the groups, but one image shows a kneeling prince/chieftain, bearded with a close-fitting cap, with inscription identifying him as representing "the countries of the Peleset whom His Majesty slew". The depiction of clothing and weapons is very similar to that of two Asiatic soldiers at the battle of Kadesh.

Papyrus Harris: This gives essentially the same list as above, but replaces Shekelesh with Shardana or Sherden. The specific phrase "Sea-peoples" is never in fact used in the original texts, though the Weshesh are described as "of the sea" in Papyrus Harris.

These are usually taken as evidence that the Philistines arrived in the Levant at this point in history from further north, typically the Aegean area. However, there are other texts too. A description of a campaign in Rameses III's 12th year records how he "overthrew the Tjeker, the land of the Philistines [Peleset], the Denyen, the Weshesh and the Shekelesh". A text above a lone prisoner speaks of "the countries of the Philistines". And indeed already in his year 8 we find mention of "the towns of the Philistines". All these references relate to the coastal area of Palestine. It must be seen as improbable - if the Peleset were purely an invading group from overseas in the reign of Rameses III - for them to already have towns and lands. There are two immediately apparent resolutions to this. Firstly the Philistines - as a complete group - might have occupied this area some considerable time prior to the year 8 of Rameses III. A fighting force from here could then have joined with other allies, some of whom really did come from over the sea, in the assault on Egypt. Alternatively the settlement process might have been carried out in stages. In this variant, some Philistines would have settled in towns well before the attempted invasion, while others would have joined the attack as part of a wider migration pattern, ending with their 'relatives' when the attempt was repulsed.

Pottery evidence provides some support for this interpretation. The distinctive pottery style associated with the Philistines - primarily because of its geographical concentration in the coastal plain, and its appearance in the decades following the abortive 'Sea-peoples' attack on Rameses III - contains a mixture of styles. Mycenaean, Cypriot, Egyptian and local Canaanite features are present, with the Mycenaean ones dominating in terms of shape and decoration. Two 'waves' of pottery style have been distinguished here, with the earlier being simpler and gradually superseded by a later style called bichrome (two-colour). There is debate as to whether this represents two groups of immigrants, or a development over time. However, the key feature of relevance to this discussion is that there was a previous emergence of bichrome pottery on the coastal plain area, but considerably earlier. Like some of the later work, this has been shown to come from Cyprus and to have spread from the coast inland. In conventional terms the arrival is dated to about 1550 BC, in other words nearly 4 centuries before the Sea-peoples' arrival in Palestine. In the century leading up to this, tombs of a design first seen on Cyprus also appear in southern Palestine and support the idea that the bichrome pottery represents actual settlers rather than, for example, just a thriving trade route.

Conventional chronology of the Philistines Thus there is some evidence, both from textual and archaeological routes, that there was settlement of people from the northern Mediterranean (Cyprus and Mycenaean Greece, probably amongst other places) in the coastal area substantially before the attempted invasion in the 8th year of Rameses III. In terms of conventional chronology this settlement begins during the Israelite Sojourn in Egypt. Thus the resolution of the Philistine issue in terms of conventional chronology is:

  1. The Genesis references would refer to the previous, Semitic occupants of the coastal region.
  2. References in Exodus, Joshua and Judges would refer to the earlier immigrants. Whether this constitutes an invasion (in the sense of using armed force) or a more peaceful but systematic settlement is open to question. There is a clear progression through these books of increasingly hostile behaviour, which could reflect increasing dominance on the part of the newcomers.
  3. The references in Samuel (and later) would refer to the last phase of Philistine occupation after the repulsed invasion attempt of Egypt.

Discussion - issue (3)

New (Rohl) chronology of the Philistines The redating of Egyptian chronology contained in the New Chronology causes some re-evaluation of this. In NC terms, the 8th year of Rameses III becomes 858 BCE. This aligns with the reigns of Ahab in the north and Jehosaphat in the south - in other words well after the time of late Judges. This of course causes a greater degree of tension regarding the chronology of events. The resolution of the patriarchal accounts is no different to that of the conventional chronology. However, there is a considerably greater degree of reliance on the early arrival of some (ethnically) Philistine groups well before the year 8 Rameses III invasion.

Even with this, the early bichrome pottery and associated changes in social customs only appear part way through the Judges era. Thus the references in Exodus, Joshua and early Judges require additional explanation. Consideration of these references (see below for a complete list) shows that they are in fact used either in relation to a description of territorial extent, or else in a parenthetical section providing some additional explanation for a reader. They are, therefore, good candidates for additions by a later copyist to assist textual understanding on the part of his audience. These references (which in any event are extremely limited in number) do not supply reasons for rejecting the New Chronology. However, it has to be acknowledged that the fit with Biblical data is less good.

There may be some trace of the new arrivals in the accounts of Jehosaphat and Jehoram (2 Chronicles 17 and 22). In Jehosaphat's time (approx 876-852 BCE) it is recorded (2 Chron. 17.11) that he was brought tribute by Philistines, and the later parts of this chapter indicate that he armed and fortified Judah for war. In Jehoram's time (approx 852-842 BCE), Libnah (in the western foothills towards the coastal plain) revolted, and a coalition of Philistines and Arabs raided the southern kingdom, reaching as far as Jerusalem. These could be interpreted as reinforcing an influx of settlers on the coastal plain. This was in fact the only major incursion of the Philistines recorded in the Old Testament after the tumultuous times of late Judges, Saul and David - Ahaz (approx 725 BCE, 2 Chron. 28.18) suffered raids in the foothills and Negev, but these were minor in comparison with the earlier attack. Azariah (also called Uzziah) and Hezekiah (approx 750 and 700 BCE respectively, 2 Chron. 26.6 and 2 Kings 18.8) defeated them in battles within territory traditionally Philistine, so were clearly carrying war to the Philistines rather than vice versa.

List of relevant references (Genesis to Psalms only)

This term is not used until the book of Psalms, appearing in 60.8, 87.4 and 108.9. In other books the term land of the Philistines is used.
Used only as a reference to the people in Genesis 10.14 (the Table of Nations). Compare also 1 Chronicles 1.12.
Philistine (singular)
Used only in the books of Samuel, overwhelmingly (32 times) in 1 Samuel 17-22 relating specifically to Goliath, and just once in 2 Samuel.
Philistines (plural)
In relation to rulers (eg King of or lords of the Philistines): Genesis 26.1, 8, Joshua 13.3 (a description in parentheses to the main flow of text), 1 Samuel x14 occurrences, 1 Chronicles 12.19.

In relation to the territory (eg. land of or towns of the Philistines): Genesis 21.32, 34, Exodus 13.17, 23.31 (the Sea of the Philistines), Joshua 13.2 (a description in parentheses to the main flow of text), 1 Samuel x8 occurrences, 1 Kings 4.21, 15.27, 16.15, 2 Kings 8.2, 3, 1 Chronicles 10.9, 2 Chronicles 9.26.

In relation to the people as a whole (eg the Philistines did something): Genesis 26.14, 15, 18, Judges 3.31, 10.7, 13-16 (29 times in the account of Samson), 1 Samuel x97 occurrences, 2 Samuel x28 occurrences, 2 Kings 18.8, 1 Chronicles x25 occurrences, 2 Chronicles x6 occurrences, Psalm 56 (title).

As part of a list of enemies or in the context of pagan worship (eg the Philistines, the Canaanites, etc.): Judges 3.3, 10.6, 10.11, 2 Samuel 8.12, 1 Chronicles 18.11, Psalm 83.7.
  PentateuchJoshuaJudges1 Samuel - 2 Chronicles
 People as a whole3031157
 List of enemies0032

To summarise, Philistia clearly arose as an alternative name for the land later than the name for the people. It could also be interpreted as a purely poetic term. The fact that Philistine used as a singular noun occurs only in Samuel - and virtually only when referring to Goliath - is interesting, and could be seen as supporting the claim that the Biblical writers wished to refer to the people inhabiting the coastal region, without necessarily identifying them in an ethnic or specific way. The overwhelming use within the book of Judges is in connection with Samson. Far and away the most common use is in the monarchy period, and in particular the books of Samuel (and parallel passages in 1 Chronicles), comprising a total of 209 occurrences (nearly 80%).

There are 11 references in the Pentateuch and Joshua, none of which use the term in the singular. Of these, the 7 in Genesis relate to the people with whom Abraham and Isaac dealt, and have been discussed above. The 2 in Exodus are used purely to delineate a region of land, and are easily understood as a later explanatory amplification to help the reader. The 2 in Joshua are also in a parenthetical section defining a stretch of land still to be occupied, again easily understood as providing a 'modern' description of the area in question. There is no real warrant for using these occurrences for questioning the early composition of the Pentateuch.