Who were the ‘Philistines’ in the time of Abraham and Isaac?

Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham, Elias of Nijmegen, 1731 (Rotterdam Museum, Wikimedia commons)

Abimelech the king of Gerar is mentioned in the biblical narrative as playing an important role in the stories of Abraham and Isaac, in Bereishit / Genesis, chapters 20-21 and 26 (Vayera and Toldot). He is described as being the “king of the Philistines” and Gerar is described as being in the “land of the Philistines.”

This is seemingly a major anachronism, however.

Abimelech and Isaac renew their friendship, Wenceslaus Hollar, 17th century (Wikimedia commons)

If we take the “Age of the Patriarchs” to be roughly 4100 to 3500 years ago, this places it a good half-millennium or more before the arrival of the historical Philistines, whom the Egyptians recorded as arriving in the region around 1175 BCE. At around that time, the Philistines sought to come ashore in the East Mediterranean together with other Sea Peoples as a large mass of boat people, with warriors in the front lines and women, children and cattle floating behind them. The forces of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III repelled them in two major battles, first at the Battle of Djahy – somewhere along the coast of Lebanon or Israel – and then at the Battle of the Delta in Northern Egypt. It is thought that the outcome of these battles was that the Egyptians tacitly allowed the Philistines to settle in region stretching roughly from ‘Azza / Gaza to Tel Aviv.

At around the same time (circa 1180 BCE), the civilization of Ugarit on Syria’s northern coast collapsed following a violent invasion from the sea, as described in the panicked last correspondence of its last king. The Ugaritic language, which was written in an adapted alphabetic version of Mesopotamian cuneiform, is an important chain in the development of West Semitic languages, being very close to Hebrew and other Canaanite languages, but with all the consonants and the intact noun case system known from classical Arabic (as discussed in-depth here) and with some features more familiar from Aramaic. In the centuries prior to Sea People’s invasions, the scribes of Ugarit had written an impressive literary corpus on clay tablets that is still shedding light on the cultures of the region, including the Hebrew scriptures (such as the figure of Dan’el mentioned alongside Noah and Iyov / Job in the book of Yeḥezq’el / Ezekiel).

The arrival of the Philistines is directly mentioned in the Tanakh on several occasions. The prophets Jeremiah (47:4) and Amos (9:7) knew that the Philistines came from Kaftor, a place beyond the sea identified by some as the island of Crete. In Devarim / Deuteronomy 2:23 it is noted that Kaftorim annihilated the Avvite people who had lived in the region of ‘Azza (Gaza), and settled in place of them (וְהָֽעַוִּ֛ים הַיֹּשְׁבִ֥ים בַּחֲצֵרִ֖ים עַד־עַזָּ֑ה כַּפְתֹּרִים֙ הַיֹּצְאִ֣ים מִכַּפְתֹּ֔ר הִשְׁמִידֻ֖ם וַיֵּשְׁב֥וּ תַחְתָּֽם׃). From later centuries, as described in the stories of Samson and David, for instance, the biblical narrative and the archaeological record indicate that the Philistines were indeed concentrated in five cities known as the Philistine Pentapolis, located roughly in Israel’s southern coast and nearby inland regions. The Philistine cities still bear the Semitic names apparently given to them by the Avvite-Canaanites who lived there before them, and can potentially be understood through Hebrew (suggested potential meanings in parentheses): Ashdod (Pirates’ Place), Ashqelon (Weighing Station), ‘Azza / Gaza (Strong City), ‘Eqron (Barren Place) and Gat (Winepress). Around the year 1850 BCE, several centuries before the arrival of the Philistines, the Avvite-Canaanites at Ashqelon built what is believed to be the oldest arched gateway in the world.

The biblical tradition recounts the stories of Shimshon / Samson’s forays in and around the cities of the Philistine Pentapolis (Shoftim / Judges chapters 13-16), and David mentions some Philistine cities in his lament following the death of Saul and Jonathan in a battle against the Philistines on Mount Gilboa:

אַל־תַּגִּ֣ידוּ בְגַ֔ת אַֽל־תְּבַשְּׂר֖וּ בְּחוּצֹ֣ת אַשְׁקְל֑וֹן פֶּן־תִּשְׂמַ֙חְנָה֙ בְּנ֣וֹת פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים פֶּֽן־תַּעֲלֹ֖זְנָה בְּנ֥וֹת הָעֲרֵלִֽים׃

“Don’t tell it in Gat, don’t spread the news in the streets of Ashqelon, lest the daughters of Philistines be happy, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice!” (I Shemu’el / Samuel 1:20) David was himself at that time staying in a Philistine town, Tziqlag, as a guest of the Philistine king Achish of Gat, having fled Saul’s wrath. (Those interested in the potential historicity of these accounts are encouraged to read “In the Footsteps of King David”, by archaeologists Yosef Garfinkel and Saar Ganor.)

Philistine material culture (as known from archaeological digs) links the Philistines with the Mycenaean Greek culture of the Aegean region, as do Philistine words and names known from both the Tanakh and ancient inscriptions (such as the Achish inscription from ‘Eqron). The Philistines made beautifully decorated pottery, somewhat belying the uncultured or barbaric connotation their name has taken on in English and other languages. They ate pork and drank beer out of a kind of upside-down beer stein equipped with a filter. The northernmost known Philistine settlement was at Tel Qasile, now part of the Land of Israel Museum in northern Tel Aviv, which overlooked the Yarqon River.

Given the destruction that their arrival wrought on the region, it is not surprising that many believe their name in Hebrew and Egyptian sources, Peléshet, to be of Semitic origin, based on the P.L.Sh root, meaning “to invade”; the form of the word is used most often for various diseases and ailments. Canaanite-Hebrew speakers could be forgiven for understanding this name to mean something like an “invasive affliction”, and likely finding this to be a fitting description. Given its appearance in Egyptian sources, however, some posit that it could be an endonym, used by the Philistines for themselves, and perhaps related to the Greek word pélagos, meaning a regional sea, therefore meaning something closer to the more general term used, Sea People.

The translators of the Septuagint, some 2200 years ago (a thousand years after the Philistines’ arrival), themselves struggled with the meaning of the Hebrew term for Philistines, פלשתים (Pelishtim), and either simply transliterated it into Greek letters (as Phylistieím or something similar) or – intriguingly – translated it into Greek as allóphyloi, a common noun meaning simply “people who belong to another tribe”. This general word for “foreigners” indicates that the translators of the Septuagint sometimes interpreted the term pelishtim (in light of the P.L.Sh. root) primarily as “foreign invaders”, not as a specific ethnonym. In the Septuagint’s translation, both Delila and Goliath even use the word allóphyloi to refer to themselves and/or their fellow Philistines.

In any event, the Philistine invasion (in Hebrew: ha-pelisháh ha-Pelishtít, הפלישה הפלשתית) around the year 1175 BCE certainly did not go unnoticed, so we know the approximate year of its occurrence with a degree of certainty.

How can it be then that “Philistines” are mentioned in the Torah as living in roughly the same region (Gerar, Be’er Sheva and Rehovot are inland localities not far from Israel’s southern coast) in the days of Abraham and Isaac, perhaps more than a half-millennium before the arrival of the historic Philistines?

For some, this is a ridiculous anachronism that renders the story, or even the biblical narrative as a whole, suspect or just simply wrong. A fairy tale or later invention based on a confused, cursory conception of the past.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to ridicule this tradition, since we also know a few things about Gerar, the “Philistine” settlement in the stories of Abraham and Isaac. Gerar is identified with Tel Haror, an archaeological site known primarily for two noteworthy finds there: a Migdal temple from the Canaanite period (an architectural antecedent to the Temple in Jerusalem centuries later) and a Minoan inscription from Crete, the Kaftor of the Tanakh: three symbols inscribed on a pottery sherd dated to around 1600 BCE, within range of the Age of the Patriarchs. It can be seen here. Though the Cretan origin of the pottery sherd has been proven scientifically, it has not yet been determined if the writing on it should be identified as Linear A writing or an earlier form of Cretan hieroglyphs. Both systems were used for writing the as yet undeciphered language of the impressive Minoan civilization, which flourished on Crete between roughly 2000 and 1500 BCE. The Tel Haror inscription and another one at nearby Tel Lachish (from several hundred years later) are the only Minoan inscriptions found outside of the Aegean region (today’s Greece and western Turkey), and among the few Minoan inscriptions found outside of Crete itself. Minoan artisans were apparently brought in to create an elaborate fresco in Egypt, for instance, but left no written material there.

It would therefore seem that Tel Haror – identified with biblical Gerar – was indeed exceptionally associated with the Minoan culture during its Golden Age, whether through trade links alone or indeed, as indicated in the biblical narrative, through the presence of ethnic Minoans. As Minoans also hailed from Crete, it is not too surprising that they would be categorized as Kaftorim or Pelishti’im (“Philistines”) in the collective memory of the region.

It in any event seems to be more than mere coincidence that the very site identified in the biblical narrative as being a seat of Philistine-Aegean-Cretan settlement in the Age of the Patriarchs – a mystifying identification that would seem at first glance to be a foolish anachronism – is also one of the only places outside of Crete where a Minoan inscription on a sherd of Cretan pottery has been discovered from roughly the same time period. There was, surprisingly, some form of Minoan presence at biblical Gerar in the Age of the Patriarchs.

About the Author
Daniel Kennemer is the founder of the Mount Carmel Arabic Immersion and teacher of Hebrew, English and more through Mount Carmel Languages. He studied Archaeology and Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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