David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.
From Ashkelon, it only made sense to head towards Ashdod.
there are five rulers of the Philistines, those of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, and EkronJoshua 13:3 (NRSV)
The Philistines had five great city-states, each with their own king: Ashkelon was the only port city. Gaza was Philistia’s southernmost city-state, Ashdod to the north was a bit further inland, and even more inland was Ekron, known for its olive oil export, then Gath was to its south.
Iron Age Over Bronze Age
The Philistines feature early in Israel’s history, portrayed as pernicious foes, technologically superior with their mastery of iron smelting providing swords that could pierce bronze armor, and spiked wheels for their chariots. Time and again when Joshua was preparing his troops for battle, he would remind them of God’s edict,
all silver and gold and vessels of bronze and iron are sacred to the Lord; they shall go into the treasury of the Lord.Joshua 6:19 (NRSV)
The battles were fierce, and the text says often that God was with the people, enabling victory after victory. However, though the tribes were able to take the hill country, they were never able to gain ground in the valleys because the Canaanites had chariots with iron wheels—surely fashioned by the Philistines.
Finally, when the tribes had all come into at least partial possession of their inheritance of the land from the Lord,
Joshua sent them away to their tents and blessed them,he said to them, “Go back to your tents with much wealth and with very much livestock, with silver, gold, bronze, and iron, and with a great quantity of clothing; divide the spoil of your enemies with your kindred.”Joshua 22:7-8 (NRSV)
Yet, though they possessed iron, Israel did not yet have the ability to work iron. During the time of the Judges, up to and including King Saul’s reign, Israelites had to trade with the Philistines in order to procure iron implements, and have their iron tools repaired.
Now there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel, for the Philistines said, “The Hebrews must not make swords or spears for themselves,” so all the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen their plowshares, mattocks, axes, or sickles. The charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and for the mattocks and one-third of a shekel for sharpening the axes and for setting the goads.1 Samuel 13:19-21 (NRSV)
Probably three of the most well-known stories concerning the Philistines are Delilah’s taking of Samson’s strength, the Philistine capture of the Ark of the Covenant, and the young shepherd boy David’s startling victory over the fearsome Philistine giant Goliath.
When I read the sequence of those stories, found in Judges and 1st Samuel, it shows the shift from Philistine power to Israelite power. David was the game-changer, beginning with Goliath who personified the seemingly insurmountable strength of this sophisticated people. During David’s reign, Israel gained Iron Age technology.
Though Bible readers are most familiar with the Philistine god Dagon, I was fascinated to learn their foremost deity was Pytigaya, the mother of the gods, earth, animals and humanity.
In a sense, Delilah—for the Philistines—embodied something of Pytigaya’s power as she seduced Samson into revealing the source of his own power. It is a tragic story, and I tell it here in this video,
During Samuel’s tenure as prophet, Israel lost an important battle to the Philistines who then captured the Ark of Covenant, and took it to Ashdod where they placed it at the feet of the idol Dagon.
God was not pleased!
After causing Dagon’s idol to fall over several times and finally shatter,
The hand of the Lord was heavy upon the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and struck them with tumors, both in Ashdod and in its territory. And when the inhabitants of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is heavy on us and on our god Dagon.”1 Samuel 5:6-7 (NRSV)
Eventually, it was decided to return the Ark of the Covenant to the tribes of Israel, along with gifts of gold in the hopes Israel’s God would heal them.
Goliath of Gath
The oldest available manuscripts that describe Goliath, the Dead Sea Scrolls text of Samuel from the late first century BCE, and the first-century CE historian Josephus, as well as the Septuagint manuscripts, state Goliath’s height was “four cubits and a span” or 6’9”. The Masoretic Text, which a number of English translations use, states “six cubits and a span” which ends up being 9’9”.
And the Philistine warriors added to their height and breadth with tall feathered headdresses and large round shields.
(1) He had a helmet of bronze on his head,
(2) and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze.
(3) He had greaves of bronze on his legs
(4) and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders.
(5) The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s beam, and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron.1 Samuel 17:5-7 (NRSV)
Even at 6’9”, Goliath would have towered at least a foot, and closer to two feet above the average man, and would have terrified the best-armed soldier. Israel’s finest, the tall and well-equipped king Saul, would have felt inadequate and small next to this Philistine warrior.
And that ends up being the point when a young, passionate, shepherd boy exclaimed,
“The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.”1 Samuel 17:37 (NRSV)
Interestingly, many years later, it was to Gath David would flee for his life and take shelter under King Achish’s protection. I wonder if that Philistine king know who it was who now seemed to serve him!
I am deeply grateful to the staff at the Museum of Philistine Culture for allowing me to take photographs, the images you see here in this post.
If you ever are in Israel, this is a destination worth planning. The time flew by as we walked through this well-planned, well-curated, interactive, and guest-friendly museum. They provide a full narrative for the Philistines, so that by the end of the exhibition, not only was the experience memorable, it was “rememberable.”
I do not know how far the permission granted to me goes, so please do not reuse the images in this post.