For the worst possible reasons, Gaza has recently been on all of our minds and news feeds. Having forcibly risen to the forefront of the collective Jewish consciousness, I thought it might be worthwhile to examine Gaza’s biblical roots and how ancient Israel interacted with this volatile and terror-ridden region.
First and foremost, we pray for the welfare, safety, and return of all captives from Gaza and for the emotional, physical, and spiritual well-being of their loved ones. May God give strength, wisdom, and clarity to Israel’s decision-makers, and may He keep their soldiers and citizens safe. Given that all life is precious, may God also protect the civilians on the other side of this brutal conflict, especially all defenseless and innocent children. Longer term, may these ongoing hostilities and needless brutalities come to a decisive end, allowing us all to thrive together in peace, security, and shared interests.
It’s important to note that the biblical city of Gaza is not the entire Gaza Strip. It’s hard to know exactly how large Gaza was, but it was one of five Philistine cities on the coastal plain of Israel. These also included Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath, and stretched from modern-day Tel Aviv-Jaffo southward to Gaza. It was this Pentapolis of the Philistine Confederacy that would later inspire the Greeks to refer to the entire country as Palestine.
Gaza first appears in Genesis 10:19 where it is demarcated as an outer border of Canaan. This is important – from the first book of the Bible, Gaza was considered geographically part of the Holy Land. This inclusion was later reinforced when Gaza was listed among Judah’s promised territories (Joshua 15:20, 47).
A source of conflict from its early beginnings, the Torah records that Gaza’s inhabitants turned over at least once. Though the original inhabitants were the Avvim¹, the Caphtorim (from, you guessed it, Caphtor) “wiped them out and settled in their place” (Deuteronomy 2:23)².
Gaza was one of the cities that Joshua failed to capture in his lifetime (Joshua 10:41 [with Rashi], 11:22, 13:1-3), leaving that task to the tribe of Judah (Judges 1:1-2). Although our Masoretic text says that Judah conquered Gaza (Judges 1:18), both the Septuagint (ibid.) and Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 5:2:4) say otherwise. Gaza certainly never developed any significant Israelite presence during the biblical period, and even if it was captured by Judah, it would almost immediately revert to a Philistine territory (cf. Judges 6:4).³
Samson slept with a prostitute in Gaza as the Gazans (unsuccessfully) plotted his assassination (Judges 16:1-3) and, in one of the most tragic parallels to our current situation, once the Philistines discovered the source of Samson’s strength (Judges 16:16-17), they took him as a captive into Gaza (Judges 16:21).
When the Philistines captured the Ark in battle (I Samuel 4:1-11), they brought it, in turn, to Ashdod, the Dagon Temple, Gath, and Ekron. In retribution, God struck them with hemorrhoids (I Samuel 5:1-12). To heal from these divine maladies, they were forced to return the Ark and pay a bizarre tribute: a figure of a golden hemorrhoid and a golden mouse for each of the five Philistine cities (I Samuel 6:1-17, especially 6:17).
The greatest and longest era of peace for the Israelites came during Solomon’s reign when he controlled “the whole region west of the Euphrates”, including Gaza (I Kings 5:4-5). Even under Solomon, however, Gaza remained Philistinian.
Finally, in the last narrative mention of Gaza in the Bible, King Hezekiah struck Gaza and its outposts (II Kings 18:1-8). Even so, the Philistines retained their presence in that region into the Second Temple (and post-biblical) period.
In terms of the prophetic books, four prophets warned Gaza of impending doom: Amos (1:6-8) predicted that a divine fire would consume Gaza’s walls, Zephaniah (2:1-4) warned that Gaza would be deserted “on the day of God’s anger”, Jeremiah (25:15-20, 27-29) promised a sword, later specifying Pharaoh’s armies (47:1-5), and Zechariah (9:5) prophesied that Gaza would tremble in fear and be rendered bereft of its rulers. Amos lived around 250 years before Zechariah, so these prophecies also indicate a protracted and ongoing negative engagement with Gaza during the biblical period.
In conclusion, biblical Gaza seems to have been a complicated mess. Although definitely part of Israel’s borders it was rarely fully conquered or controlled, remaining inhabited by hostile and occasionally violent neighbors. Like modern Gaza, it remained a constant source of tension as Israel struggled to cement its foothold in the land God promised their forefathers.
Whatever lessons are to be learned from these sources, we hope that Isaiah’s vision sounds clearly above the rest, that even in our darkest moments we strive to build a world in which “nation will not take up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
May it happen speedily and in our days. Amen.
- Bavli Chulin 60b records a dispute as to who these Avvim were. Rav held they came from Yemen while R’ Yonasan believed they were a sixth, minor Philistine subgroup. R’ Shimon ben Lakish opined that since Abraham made a peace treaty with Abimelech, king of the Philistines (Genesis 21:23), it was necessary for the Caphtorim to replace the Philistine Avvim so that the Israelites could conquer them without violating that promise.
- This verse also appears in a famous Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 1:2) that Rashi references in his first comment on Genesis.
- Here, Midianite agitators destroyed Israelite produce “עַד־בּוֹאֲךָ עַזָּה”, until the road leading to Gaza. This seems to imply that the Israelites lived just beyond Gaza but not within it.