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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Philistines and Israelites: Interaction and Conflict

The settlement process for highland Israel had begun a generation or two before the arrival of the Sea Peoples on the coast. That event would necessarily have swelled the highland polity of early Israel as the indigenous Canaanite population found itself squeezed out of the plains. The displacement and migration of the tribe of Dan from the coast to the north is a specific example of such a ripple effect. In biblical tradition there are important differences between Dan and the other tribes of Israel. The Danites never controlled the territory they were allotted, which extended to the Mediterranean coast as far as Joppa (Josh. 19.40–48 ). Moreover, unlike the other tribes, Dan has no extended genealogy (see Gen. 46.23; Num. 26.42 ). And in the Song of Deborah, Dan is characterized as serving as a client on ships (Judg. 5.17 ), although seafaring was not a characteristic Israelite activity. Because of these differences, some scholars have suggested that originally the Danites were not a part of Israel, but rather a member of the Sea Peoples' confederation, to be identified with the Danaans of Homer and the Denyen in Rameses III's inscription. Thus the Denyen should have been among those who settled along the coast during stage 1. But the Philistines did not settle in the Joppa region before 1150 BCE (stage 2), and the Sea Peoples do not figure in the twelfth-century Song of Deborah, so the identification of the biblical Danites with either Danaans or Denyen is dubious.

It is much more likely that the expansion of the Philistines into the Joppa region, marked by the founding of Philistine Tell Qasile, forced the Danites out of that area and sent most of the tribe to the far north, to the Canaanite city of Laish. There, according to Judges 18.27 , “The Danites…came to Laish, to a people quiet and unsuspecting, put them to the sword, and burned down the city.”

Evidence for this destruction has recently been discovered by Avraham Biran in his excavations at Tel Dan. Over the ruins of a prosperous Late Bronze Age city, a rather impoverished and rustic settlement was discovered. It had storage pits and a variety of collared-rim storage jars, but little or no Philistine painted pottery. The biblical traditions and the archaeological evidence converge so well that there can be no doubt that the Danites belonged to the Israelite, not the Sea Peoples', confederation.

Either before the move of the Danites to the north or after, with remnants of the tribe still remaining in the south, interaction between a Danite family and the Philistines is preserved in the legends of Samson (Judg. 13–16 ). Samson is portrayed as an Israelite “judge” from the tribe of Dan. But he is unlike other judges, typically tribal leaders of the Israelite militia of Yahweh. After the beginning of the account of Samson's birth (Judg. 13.2 ), the Danites are not even mentioned in the saga because most of the tribe had already migrated north. Philistine control over Judah is the larger issue in the stories.

Samson fights his battles alone and performs feats of strength more in the mold of the Greek Heracles than of the Israelite Gideon. Samson tells riddles, has seven magical locks of hair, and cavorts with Philistine women. His adventures take place on the border between the Israelites and the Philistines. Samson chooses a Philistine bride from the Philistine town of Timnah, where Philistine bichrome ware is abundant. This intermediate zone in the foothills between the highlands and the coastal plain was the first point of contact between the two cultures in the late twelfth century BCE and became a zone of contention and conflict thereafter.

Philistine expansion during stage 2 can be traced by the comparatively high yield of Philistine bichrome ware in the Gaza and Beer-sheba basins in the northern Negeb. The narrative in Genesis 26 concerning Isaac and King Abimelech of the Philistines reflects this era. The Cherethites, who served as mercenaries under King David, are probably to be identified with Cretans, a contingent of the Philistines (“Pelethites”) who had settled in the semiarid Negeb (1 Sam. 30.14; 2 Sam. 8.18; 15.18; 1 Kings 1.38 ).

By the mid-eleventh century BCE (the beginning of stage 3), the Philistines had expanded into the Shephelah well beyond their earlier boundaries. From there they launched a military effort to conquer the highland home of the Israelites. One need only compare the large, cosmopolitan cities of the plain and their rich, fertile countryside to the impoverished villages of the hills and their tiny tracts of arable land to appreciate the advantages in wealth and power that the Philistines had over the Israelites.

A supposed Philistine monopoly on iron and steel is a modern myth, based on a misreading of 1 Samuel 13.19–22 . But there is no mistaking their superiority in military organization and hardware. The Philistines were known as “chariot-warriors” in Egyptian inscriptions at Medinet Habu. They fielded expert bowmen (1 Sam. 31.3 ) and crack infantrymen. Bronze linchpins for war chariots have been found at Ashkelon and Ekron, but nowhere else. The top half of the Ashkelon linchpin is in the form of a Philistine goddess in the Aegean tradition. She leads and protects the elite corps of charioteers as they enter battle. These finds give substance to the biblical historiographer's lament that “Judah could not [following the ancient Greek rather than the Hebrew tradition] take Gaza with its territory, Ashkelon with its territory, and Ekron with its territory. Yahweh was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron” (Judg. 1.18–19 ). Of course the war chariot was not completely made of iron, but a most essential part of it was—the axle, which stood for the whole vehicle. Homer describes the splendid chariot of the gods as having bronze wheels on either side of an iron axle (Iliad 5.723).

The disparity in infantry is highlighted in the duel between David and Goliath. The latter is armed like the Mycenaean warriors depicted on the famous “Warrior Vase” (Myc IIIC, twelfth century BCE) found at Mycenae. These soldiers wear tunics with long sleeves, over which fit corselets; they hold semicircular shields in their left hand and in their right carry throwing spears with leaf-shaped heads. They wear greaves that reach just above the knee, and protective helmets: on one file of warriors, with two horns and a crest; on another, with a row of spikes reminiscent of the Philistine “feathers.”

The champion Goliath “had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders” (1 Sam. 17.5–6 ). He also carried a sword. His Israelite opponent, so the story goes, was armed with only a sling and a stone.

Had the Philistines accomplished their military goal, it would have been the first time in recorded history that a lowland polity had succeeded in bringing the highlands under its control. The once mighty Egyptian army of the New Kingdom had brought only nominal hegemony over this hilly, wooded frontier, where chariotry was of little or no use in battle. More often it was the highland kingdoms, such as that of Shechem under Labayu during the Amarna age, that consolidated their power over the low-landers. Ignorant of historical precedents, the Philistines made valiant attempts to turn these natural, long-term odds in their favor.

In the battle of Ebenezer (ca. 1050 BCE), a site within a day's journey of Shiloh, the Philistines took a major step toward realizing their goal. Not only did they capture the ark of the covenant—the most sacred Israelite symbol, over which Yahweh, the divine warrior, was enthroned (the equivalent of capturing the statue of the warrior god in iconic cultures) (1 Sam. 4.1–11 )—but they also advanced even farther upland, destroying the sanctuary of Yahweh at Shiloh and wiping out the Elide dynasty of priests serving there (see Jer. 7.12 ).

Recent excavations at Shiloh by Israel Finkelstein have confirmed the results of the earlier Danish expedition, as interpreted by W. F. Albright. Shiloh (Stratum V) flourished as a major Ephraimite center in the first half of the eleventh century BCE. Its temple served as a major annual pilgrimage site for the Israelite tribes in the autumn, during the wine (and New Year's?) festival. The destruction of this sanctuary by the Philistines around 1050 BCE reverberated in the memory of the Israelites for centuries (Ps. 78.60–64; Jer. 7.12 ).

After their decisive victory at Ebenezer, the Philistines continued to press their offensive against the Israelites. During the second half of the eleventh century, the Philistines reached the height of their power. This is the era of Samuel, too, and it is paradoxical that he is portrayed so positively by the biblical historiographers when actually he did so little to thwart the Philistine onslaught. In fact, military encroachment by the Philistines precipitated a crisis of leadership during Samuel's judgeship of such proportions that the people demanded a ruler capable of dealing with it. Popular pressure led to the anointing of Israel's first legitimate king, Saul of the tribe of Benjamin. By that time the Philistines had established garrisons in the hill country at Bethlehem, Geba, and Gibeath-elohim, and they were fighting the Israelites on their home turf at Michmash and near Jerusalem (1 Sam. 10.5; 13.3, 11; 2 Sam. 23.13–14 ).

It took the military genius of the outlaw and later king David to reverse the fortunes of war with the Philistines. The destruction of such predominately Canaanite cities as Megiddo, Beth-shan, and Tell Abu Hawam can be synchronized with that of predominately Philistine cities, such as Ekron, Tell Qasile, Timnah, and Dor—all in the first quarter of the tenth century BCE. The likely agent of this devastation is the Israelites under the leadership of King David. By the time Solomon set up his administrative provinces (1 Kings 4.7–19 ), Israel was in control of Megiddo, Taanach, and Beth-shan, formerly Canaanite city-states, and Dor, formerly a Sea Peoples' city-state.

The Philistines were driven back to the initial territory of stage 1, that of the pentapolis. Even there the coastal cities show signs of expansion at the expense of those in the inner plain. Ekron is reduced to one-fifth its former size, from a city of 20 hectares (50 acres) during stages 1 and 2 to one of 5 hectares (12 acres) at the end of stage 3. At the same time (after ca. 980/975 BCE), Ashkelon becomes a well-fortified seaport, covering more than 60 hectares (150 acres). Ashdod expands five times its former size to a large metropolis of about 40 hectares (100 acres). Thus as Israel expands from its highland heartland, Philistia retreats to well within its earliest boundaries.

By consolidating his base of support in the highlands and by uniting a loose-knit tribal confederation, King David was able to conquer and hold vast amounts of lowland territory, formerly under the control of the Canaanites and Sea Peoples. From his conquered capital of Jerusalem he was able to overcome the political fragmentation endemic to tribal confederations (as well as to the more cosmopolitan city-states of the enemy), creating a large territorial state under one patrimonial ruler. From the modern historian's perspective it is only after the reign of King David that the “conquest” of Canaan was complete.

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