15 April 2010

The Philistines

Most modern scholars consider the Philistines of the Bible to have been one of the "Sea Peoples" that probably originated in Mycenae, Cyprus, and surrounding lands. Homer's Iliad was a battle involving the Mycenaean Greeks of this time period. It is entirely possible that Odysseus and the Warriors who sacked Troy were the forefathers of (or at least related to) the Philistines who eventually settled in Israel.They traveled south (likely to escape a period of crop failures and famine), conquering peoples as they went. They destroyed the Hittite empire in Anatolia, ransacking its capital Hattusas and sacking Ugarit in Syria and the Cyprian capital, Enkomi. Fighting alongside the Libyans at the Nile delta, they were defeated by Pharaoh Merenptah. Returning to Egypt in the eighth year of Rameses III, the Sea Peoples were again defeated, but Pharaoh allowed them to settle in the north--in Palestine (the name of which comes from Philistine).

At this period in history, the Philistines become a significant problem for the people of Israel. Starting with the Battle of Aphek in the days of High Priest Eli and the childhood of Samuel the Prophet, Israel faced off against the Philistines repeatedly. Whether under the leadership of Samson, Samuel, or Saul, the Israelites could not gain a decisive advantage over these fierce coastal warriors.

It seems that a major reason for this was Philistine technological superiority--especially in the area of metalworking. In the book of 1 Samuel, chapter 13, Samuel reports that the Philistines had completely taken over the business of smithing in Israel. Samuel must have been referring here to iron working; archaeology substantiates the notion that the Philistines brought this technology with them from Anatolia, where the Hittites had been the first to master it.

The Philistines also owed their military greatness to their alliance with the most feared people of the eighth through the tenth centuries B.C.E.--the Rephaim. Although skeptics are quick to cry foul whenever "giants" are mentioned in ancient literature, there is solid, empirical data to support the notion that a race suffering/blessed with a form of gigantism was once prominent in ancient Palestine. Philistines used these super-warriors as champions, as in the famous case of Goliath.

"Philistine" has entered the English vernacular since the seventeenth century as a synonym for boorish or uncultured. Archaeology in recent decades has in many ways debunked this notion. the Philistines achieved high levels of artistic sophistication and a deep appreciation for aesthetic values. The fact that these qualities existed in a culture that also practiced child sacrifice, ritualized sex rites and barbarous military methods should not be surprising when one consider the obvious parallels in the "advanced" cultures of the world today.

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