New Perspectives on the Philistines in Light Recent Excavations at Tell Es-Safi - Biblical Gath of the Philistines

The Philistines and their culture represent one of the most fascinating episodes in the history of the early Near East, particularly in light of the rich archaeological, biblical and epigraphic data relating to this culture, and the central role in which the Philistines are portrayed in the early biblical narratives. The last two decades of excavations at Tell es-Safi/Gath, identified as biblical Gath of the Philistines (home town of Goliath according to the biblical text), one of the five cities of the Philistines Pentapolis, has revealed significant and groundbreaking finds relating to the origins, formation, character and transformation of the Philistine culture. Coupled with new data and new analyses of finds from other sites relevant for the study of the Philistine culture, a reassessment of the accepted paradigms regarding this fascinating culture can be suggested. This is seen in various aspects, such as:

1) There is little evidence for a major break and massive destructions between the Late Bronze Canaanite and the earliest Philistine levels at major Philistine sites.

2) One cannot define a monolithic foreign origin for the Philistines – rather, they are comprised of peoples of mixed foreign origins – including perhaps some groups with a “pirate-like” character – who then intermixed with local Canaanites, to form an “entangled” cultural entity.

3) While in the early Iron Age a strong emphasis of Philistine identity was placed on the non-local cultural facets of the Philistine culture, as the Iron Age advanced, more and more of the local traditions became of importance. Nevertheless, throughout and until the end of the Iron Age, distinct non-local attributes were of symbolic significance in the Philistine culture.

4) The dominant role of the Philistine Kingdom of Gath well into the 9th cent. BCE – in fact until the conquest of the site by Hazael of Aram Damascus ca. 930 BCE – raises doubts as to the veracity of the biblical description of Judahite control over Philistia during the reign of David and Solomon (ca. 10th cent. BCE). In fact, in recreations of the geo-political matrix of the early Iron Age Levant, the role of the Kingdom of Gath must be emphasized.

These and other points, which require a rather significant revision of the accepted paradigms on the Philistine culture and its relations with adjacent Iron Age cultures (Israel, Judah, Phoenicia, Egypt, etc.), will be presented and discussed.