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Parshat Beshalach

-The Phillistines were not living in Israel during the time of the Torah

The Problem

Parshat Beshalach begins with the following verse. "It happened when Pharoah sent out the people that G-d did not lead them by way of the land of the Phillistines, because it was near..." (Exodus 13:17).

Later in the parsha, during the song of praise sung after crossing the Sea of Reeds, the Phillistines are mentioned again. "People heard - they were agitated; terror gripped the dwellers of Phillistia" (Exodus 15:14).

However, archaeologists and historians claim that the Phillistines did not arrive in the land of Israel until centuries later. We know from the Bible that the Phillistines were a seafaring people who immigrated to Israel from Crete. For example, Amos said "Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, as well as the Phillistines from Caphtor (Crete)...?" (Amos 9:7). Similarly, Yirmiyahu said, "For G-d is plundering the Phillistines, the remnants of the isle of Caphtor" (Jer. 47:4). And Yechezkel said, "Behold, I am extending My hand against the Phillistines, and I will eliminate the Cretians" (Eze. 25:16). Historians have confirmed this from Egyptian inscriptions dating to the period of Raamses III that discuss an influx of people from islands into Israel. However, historians place this influx at approximately in the year 1170 BCE which was during the time of the Judges.

This creates a problem with a number of narratives in the Bible. For example, Genesis 21:32-34 tells us that Avimelech, the king of Gerar, lived in the land of Phillistines. After Avraham entered into a covenant with Avimelech, Avraham lived in the land of Phillistines for many years. Similarly, Yitzchak lived among the Phillistines in Gerar (Gen. 26). As mentioned above, our parsha cites the Phillistines twice. How could this be if they did not live in Israel until much later? With whom did Avraham make a pact and dwell among and from whom did G-d lead the Jewish people away? Is it possible that this is an anachronism added in by a later editor or that the entire stories were written centuries later?

Two Phillistine Civilizations

Professor Joshua Grintz, in his Studies in Early Biblical Ethnology and History (Motzaei Dorot) pp. 99-129, addressed this issue. He pointed out some interesting facts about the Phillistines mentioned in the Bible. As we mentioned above, Avimelech the king of Gerar lived in the land of Phillistines so Gerar must have been within that land. Avimelech the king of Gerar is also called the king of the Phillistines (Genesis 26:1). Therefore, Gerar must have been the capital of the Phillistine territory.

Where was Gerar? The following verse tells us that Gerar was near Kadesh, also called Kadesh-Barnea. "Avraham journeyed from there to the region of the south (the Negev) and settled between Kadesh and Shur, and he sojourned in Gerar" (Genesis 20:1). Clearly, Gerar is near Kadesh in the Negev, the south of Israel. While archaeologists claim that Gerar is near Beersheva based on Genesis 21:32, we can see that this is not conclusive at all. The verse reads, "Thus, they entered into a covenant at Beersheva; Avimelech then arose, with Phichol the general of his legion, and returned to the land of the Phillistines." Quite the opposite. We see that Gerar and the land of the Phillistines is not near Beersheva. Additionally, we see that for Yitzchak to travel from Gerar to Beersheva he first had to go past Nachal Gerar (Gen. 26:17), Esek (ibid. 20), Sitnah (ibid. 21), and Rechovot (ibid. 22). However, archaeologists need to place Gerar near Beersheva in order for it to be part of the area that later books of the Bible identify as Phillistine territory.

The Phillistines that appear in the books of Judges and Samuel lived in the five towns of Gaza, Gat, Ashdod, Ekron, and Ashkelon. Gerar, however, is never mentioned after the Torah (except for repetition in Chronicles). All of the five towns mentioned in later books as being Phillistine are near the Mediterranean Sea. If Gerar was the capital of the Phillistine territory, it must also have been near the sea and not in the Negev near Kadesh-Barnea. This land by the sea was called by earlier books Canaanite land and not Phillistine land. For example, Numbers 13:29 speaks of the expansive kingdom of the Canaanites as spanning from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea. "And the Canaanite dwells by the Sea and on the bank of the Jordan." There is no mention that the Phillistines lived by the sea.

In Genesis, we find Avimelech who is the king of Gerar and the Phillistines. In later books, each of the five towns had a governor, a seren, who are always referred to collectively (e.g. Judges 16:8). Even in the days of King David, the king of Gat was not called the king of the Phillistines. There was evidently no central leadership. Additionally, the ancient translations render seren as tyran, evidently from the Greek tyrannos. Similarly, Yirmiyahu speaks of the kings of the land of the Phillistines (Jer. 25:20) in the plural, implying that there was no single ruler like there was in the earlier days of Avimelech.

Also, Achish the king of Gat seems to have a Greek name while Avimelech the king of Gerar has a distinctly Semitic name.

More than that, we quoted above many verses later in the Bible that say that the Phillistines were immigrants from Caphtor/Crete. However, Genesis 10:14 says that the Phillistines were descended from the Casluchim and not the Caphtorim who are mentioned immediately afterwards.

What all this tells us is that there were two kingdoms of the Phillistines. In the time of the patriarchs, there was a nation that lived in the Negev called the Phillistines whose capital was Gerar. This nation ceased to exist sometime during the conquest of Israel. After that, Cretians immigrated to Israel and settled in a different part of the land - near the sea. They had a different political structure and location than the earlier group but adopted their name, perhaps to give themselves an ancient claim of authority. We see this happening today with the Palestinians who adopted an ancient name in order to lay claim to the land of Israel.

The only thing that connects these two separate people is the name Phillistines. However, their histories and civilizations were very different. The nation that historians have identified as Phillistines and corroborated as being immigrants during the twelfth century BCE were the second wave of Phillistines. They were highly influenced by the Greeks and may have been the Pelasgians mentioned in the Iliad as being allied with Troy and in other ancient Greek works. Perhaps the similarity of their name with that of the early Phillistines caused the latter's name to be adopted instead.

The earlier Phillistines, who have eluded the sight of many historians, are the people mentioned in the Torah. They had a central government with one king who had a Semitic name. Their capital was in Gerar, in the Negev.

Literary Issues

In additional to this textual explanation to the apparent anachronism, we must also note the literary difficulties with this claim. An anachronism is when a book is written about an earlier date but includes information that refers to later developments. In the context of the Bible, it is often claimed that the early books were written at a later date. Later civilizations and developments were included in this "history book" as a foreshadow of the then-current events. For example, the "demonization" of Yishmael and Eisav in Genesis is said to reflect the later political rivalries. In our case, the Phillistine civilization is said to be reflected at an earlier point in history.

However, this theory that the Phillistine narratives in the Torah are an anachronism is very difficult. It is abundantly clear that the Phillistines in the later Bible were the sworn enemies of the Jews. They were constantly battling and antagonizing the Jewish kingdom until they were subdued. In Genesis, however, we find Avraham and Yitzchak making peace treaties with the Phillistines (Gen. 21:32, 26:31). We find Avimelech saying things like:

G-d is with you in all that you do; now therefore swear to me here by G-d that you will not deal falsely with me or with my offspring or with my posterity, but as I have dealt loyally with you, you will deal with me and with the land where you have resided as an alien.
(Gen. 21:22-23)

We see plainly that the Lord has been with you; so we say, let there be an oath between you and us, and let us make a covenant with you so that you will do us no harm, just as we have not touched you and have done to you nothing but good and have sent you away in peace. You are now the blessed of the Lord.
(Gen. 26:28-29)

This is not the way a Jewish writer would anachronistically describe his great Phillistine enemy. This alone disproves the theory that the Phillistines mentioned in the Torah are an anachronism. Additionally, why would a later writer ascribe a different political system (one king as opposed to five governor-kings) and a different city than the Phillistines in his time? If the Torah Phillistines were an anachronism, they would have been placed in the five Phillistine cities with five seranim rather than in Gerar with one king.

Rather, there was an earlier Phillistine civilization in the Negev and this is what is mentioned in the Torah. When G-d refused to take Israel out of Egypt through Phillistine land, it was the land of the then-existing Phillistines. It is certainly no coincidence that Yitzchak was in Gerar when G-d told him not to go to Egypt (Gen. 26:1-2). Gerar was in the south of Israel, near Egypt. The people who were scared when they heard of the parting of the Sea of Reeds were the early Phillistines, not the nation that later sent Goliath to fight the Jews.

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Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 2/6/02
Aishdas 2002