David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.
The Mycenean emigration did not come about without conflict. The collapse of civilization was happening all around the Mediterranean, as the same ecological and economic pressures were beleaguering peoples throughout the known world. What few resources were left available were jealously guarded.
As one enters the Museum of Philistine culture, we are met with a reconstruction of what a Philistine warrior might have looked like.
Egypt kept careful records of their dealings with the Philistines.
The “Peleset” are first mentioned in the records of Ramesses III from his fifth and eighth regnal years (ca. 1182-1179 BCE). They are named, together with other lesser-known peoples, among the enemies from “the islands” that have come to attack Egypt from both land and sea (KRIT V: 34-35). These nations are collectively referred to by modern scholars as the “Sea-Peoples.”
Egyptologists were quick to equate the Peleset, justly, with the biblical Philistines (Hebrew: Pelishtim).Dr. Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, The Philistines: Ancient Records, Archaeological Remains, and Biblical Traditions, TheTorah.com (2015).
Dread and terror preceded the Sea Peoples’ migration, as Egyptian inscriptions recount.
“(As for) the Foreign countries, they made a conspiracy in their isles. Removed and scattered in battle, were the lands at one time. No land could stand up against (‘before’) their arms, beginning from Hatti; – Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alasia, cut off (all) at [once]. A camp [was placed] in a place within Amurru [Amurru are known from the Bible as “Amorites”]. They slew its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming, as the fire was prepared before them, towards Egypt. Their confederation was the Philistines, Sikila, Shekelesh, Danuna and Weshesh, lands united.” (KRIT V: 34-35)Dr. Shirly Ben-Dor Evian, The Philistines: Ancient Records, Archaeological Remains, and Biblical Traditions, TheTorah.com (2015).
The Battle of Delta (depicted below), in particular, records Ramses III’s defeat of a great influx of Sea Peoples who had already marched through and conquered the island of Cyprus, just off the Canaanite coast to the north, and a large portion of the southern Levant.
This great battle occurred around 1175 BCE, somewhere along the Nile Delta. Rameses found a way to lure the Sea Peoples into the mouth of the Nile where he had already lined the shores with rank upon rank of archers. As their vessels approached, Rameses cut off their way of escape and ambushed the entire regatta. Rameses wrote of them,
Those who reached my boundary, their seed is not; their hearts and their souls are finished forever and ever. As for those who had assembled before them on the sea, the full flame was their front before the harbour mouths, and a wall of metal upon the shore surrounded them. They were dragged, overturned, and laid low upon the beach; slain and made heaps from stern to bow of their galleys, while all their things were cast upon the water.James H. Breasted, Extracts from Medinet Habu inscription, trans. 1906, iv.§§65-66
According to Rameses’s own account, the Pharaoh took what captives had survived and settled them as mercenaries in Egypt’s forts all up and down the Canaanite coast.
Later, when Egypt weakened in power, and had abdicated its control over Canaan, the Philistines established their home in the region where they had once served Egypt.
Whenever it was that Pharaoh released the Hebrew captives and allowed them to follow Moses into the wilderness, the Philistines were already established in Egyptian garrisons along the Mediterranean Sea.
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer, for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.”Exodus 13:17 (NRSV)
The Sea Peoples were a strong force, ransacking cities, and overwhelming naval forces, as described in one ancient diplomatic mission to secure aid against the invaders.
My father [Eshuwara], behold, the enemy’s ships came (here); my cities(?) were burned, and they did evil things in my country. Does not my father know that all my troops and chariots(?) are in the Land of Hatti, and all my ships are in the Land of Lukka? …Thus, the country is abandoned to itself. May my father know it: the seven ships of the enemy that came here inflicted much damage upon us.Jean Nougaryol et al. (1968) Ugaritica V: 87-90 no.24; letter RS 18.147
One of the more tragic images is of a Philistine family in their ox cart, attacked by an Egyptian soldier. The mother hangs over the back of the cart in a posture of lament, while a child lifts its hands in a desperate appeal to the gods.
Not depicted is another ox cart with a child being crushed beneath its wheels. The mother, again in a posture of lament, her arms hanging over the side of the cart, has just thrown her child below in sacrifice to the gods in a final, frantic plea.
Some scholars posit that women joined the battles, as the survival of their family depended upon every hand to the struggle.
The Bible offers a decidedly one-sided view of the Philistines. They are cast as enemies of God and God’s people (as they were). From their first mention, they were a force to contend with. Eventually, a profile developed of a treacherous (Delilah) egotistical (Goliath) people who were coarse, sensual, unintelligent, and uncultured. Even when David allied with the Philistines, and later in their history, when the Philistine kings allied with King Hezekiah, their reputation did not improve.
Still, theirs was a highly developed culture, with superior technology, exquisite art, skilled in crafts such as ceramics and textiles, skilled in warfare, strategic in their diplomacy and military campaigns.
So how is it that such a fierce and distinctive people group simply disappeared?
Well, their material remains actually reflect a largely generous and welcoming people, mixing with the Canaanite society around them through trade, intermarriage, and adaptation. Inevitably, the distinctives of Philistine culture faded away.
What remnants were left were obliterated by Babylon.
It seems appropriate to complete this brief overview of the Philistine people with portrayals of grief. Below are figurines of men and women tearing out their hair in mourning over death. The Land of Philistia was hard won, with much loss of life, and their hold on their new home was often challenged. They, too, were a people born out of Egyptian enslavement, and they, too, were immigrants to a land they sought as refugees from famine, calamity, and disaster.
The last mention of the Philistines in scriptures is found in the Book of Zechariah. Prophet after prophet had already delivered oracles against Philistia, warning of God’s final destruction.
So I will send a fire on the wall of Gaza,Amos 1:7-9 (NRSV)
and it shall devour its strongholds.
I will cut off the inhabitants from Ashdod
and the one who holds the scepter from Ashkelon;
I will turn my hand against Ekron,
and the remnant of the Philistines shall perish,
says the Lord God.
Zechariah delivered God’s final word on the Philistines.
Ashkelon shall see it and be afraid;Zechariah 9:5-7 (NRSV)
Gaza, too, and shall writhe in anguish;
Ekron also, because its hopes are withered.
The king shall perish from Gaza;
Ashkelon shall be uninhabited;
a mongrel people shall settle in Ashdod,
and I will make an end of the pride of Philistia.
I will take away its blood from its mouth
and its abominations from between its teeth.
Every prophecy was proven true when, in 604 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed whatever was left of Philistia after centuries of its servitude to the Neo-Assyrian Empire.
After becoming part of his empire and its successor, the Persian Empire, [the Philistines] lost their distinct ethnic identity and disappeared from the historical and archaeological record by the late 5th century BC.Meyers, Eric M. (1997). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East: Volume 4. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506512-3, p313.
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.