The Philistines Early History
Did you know that there is a lot happening in the excavation of ancient Philistine sites? The Philistines were one of the famous foes of ancient Israel. They arrived in Canaan some time around 1200-1150 B.C. and are part of the migration of the so-called Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples consisted of various groups from the eastern Mediterranean (the Aegean region) who invaded Asia Minor (Turkey), Canaan, and Egypt during the 12th century B.C. (see map on the right). The Philistines are first mentioned in inscriptions by Ramasses III (c. 1184-1163 B.C.) who claims to have defeated them (and a coalition of Sea Peoples) after they had already overrun Canaan. The Philistines settled on the southern coastal plain of Canaan establishing five capital cities (Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza, Ekron, and Gath–see 1 Sam. 5-6).
The Philistines were a major threat to Israel during the later period of the Judges and into the united monarchy period. 1 Samuel 13:19-22 reveals the Philistines’ had a monopoly on iron, giving them an edge (pun intended) in weapon superiority. They first appear as a foe during the time of Samson (Judg. 13:5). Rather than rejoice in Samson’s acts of deliverance, the men of Judah insist that the Philistines rule over them (Judg. 15:11), and see him as a threat to the status-quo. During the high priesthood of Eli (while Samuel was a young man), the Philistines inflicted a major defeat on Israel, taking the ark and destroying the sanctuary in Shiloh (1 Sam. 4; Jer. 7:12). Although Samuel experienced some military success against them (1 Sam. 7:13), the Philistines inflicted another major defeat on Israel during Saul’s reign, killing Saul and several of his sons (1 Sam. 31). These incursions into Israelite territory resulted in severing the northern area of Galilee from the rest of the nation. This put Israel’s survival as a nation in jeopardy. For a short period of time David lived among the Philistines while he was running from Saul. He was given the city of Ziklag (see map on the left) in exchange for his service to Achish, King of Gath (1 Sam. 27:5-6). Once David became king of Israel, he inflicted several severe defeats on the Philistines and, from that time on, they were never again a major threat to Israel (2 Sam. 5:17-25).
In the summers of 2008 and 2009 I had the opportunity of visiting each of the sites of the major Philistine cities except for Gaza. Archaeologists have learned much about Philistine culture and have uncovered a vast amount of Philistine artifacts. The object of the rest of this article is to introduce others to these various Philistine cities by providing some basic facts and photos. My first visit to a Philistine site was actually one that I was unfamiliar with. It is known today as Tel-Qasile and is located to the north of modern Tel-Aviv (you can locate it on the map at the top just above Joppa). The ancient name of this city is not known, but many Philistine artifacts and buildings were discovered here, including a temple.
Archaeological excavations have been taking place at Ashkelon ever since 1985. At its largest extent, Ashkelon covered an area of 150 acres, one of the largest in Israel! Ashkelon is the oldest and largest seaport known in Israel and it also boasts the oldest arched city gate in the world. This gate (pictured below) dates from the Canaanite era and is roughly contemporary with the gate from Tel-Dan shown in one of my previous articles. Archaeologists have learned much about the commercial activity of this thriving seaport city. For a brief description of Ashkelon’s economics click on the following link: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/daily-life-and-practice/the-philistine-marketplace-at-ashkelon/ For a current look at what is happening at Tel-Ashkelon see the following site: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/digs-2014/excavating-ashkelon-in-2014/
Among the finds at Ashdod are a 6-chambered gate, similar to those found in Israel (e.g., Megiddo, see my article), and some mycenaean (ancestors of Greek culture) pottery, characteristic of the Philistines (see photo below under Ekron for some examples). One of the interesting features of Ashdod is the museum which houses many Philistine artifacts.
Ancient Ekron actually yielded an inscription identifying it by name. The inscription, which dates to the early 7th century, mentions the name of Ekron’s king at that time: “Achish son of Padi.” For those who know the story of David, it will be recalled that this was the name of the king of Gath that David served under during his fugitive days from Saul (1 Sam. 27–see comments above). For a picture of the inscription and its translation see the following link: http://cojs.org/cojswiki/index.php/Ekron_Inscription,_early_7th_century_BCE. At the ancient site of Ekron, I experienced a Philistine museum of a different type. This one was an outdoor museum.
Gath (Tel es-Safi)
Gath is also an extremely large site and has been undergoing excavation since 1996. In fact, one of my former students participated in an excavation there in the summer of 2009. A number of exciting discoveries have been made, including an ostracon with a name that is similar to “Goliath” (see the photo below). A large storage jar that includes the word “Rapha” (translated “giant” in 2 Sam. 21:16-22) has also been found, along with other interesting artifacts (e.g., a horned altar). For more information on the ongoing excavations at Gath click the following link: https://faculty.biu.ac.il/~maeira/
The Philistine cities remain a rich resource for understanding their culture and biblical history. With excavations ongoing at some of these sites we will continue to increase our knowledge and understanding of one of Israel’s most dreaded foes in the ancient world. For more information on the Philistines see the websites included in this article, as well as any good Bible dictionary.
(All photos, unless otherwise noted, are the property of Randy & Gloria McCracken and are to be used for educational purposes only.)