Excerpts from Bible as History

Under the yoke of the Philistines

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18. Under the yoke of the Philistines.

Philistines on the coast — swan pattern pottery — beer mugs with filters — carefully guarded iron monopoly — Philistines occupy the highlands — traces of the burning of Shiloh — choosing a king from dire necessity — Allenby successfully uses Saul's tactics — surprising the Turks — Albright finds Saul's castle — two temples in Beth-Shan — the end of Saul.
And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years” (Jud. 13:1).
It was in 1188 B.C. that the Philistines suffered their severe defeat at the hands of Ramesses III. Thirteen years later they were firmly settled on the coastal plain of southern Canaan, the fertile brown plain between the mountains of Judah and the sea. The Bible lists the five cities which they possessed: Askelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gaza and Gath (1 Sam. 6:17). Each of these cities, and the land adjoining, which was cultivated by soldiers under the command of paid leaders, was ruled over by a “lord” who was independent and free. For all political and military purposes however the five city rulers always worked hand in hand. In contrast to the tribes of Israel the Philistines acted as a unit in all matters of importance. That was what made them so strong.

The Biblical narrator tells of other groups of these “Peoples of the Sea” who had arrived with the Philistines and had settled down on the coast of Canaan: “Behold I will stretch out mine hand upon the Philistines, and I will cut off the Cherethims (Cretans) and destroy the remnant of the sea coast” (Ezek. 25:16). Crete is an island in the Mediterranean which lies far removed from Israel, Since we have learned of the historical attack of the “Sea Peoples” on Canaan the otherwise obscure meaning of these words has become clear. They fit exactly the situation at that time.

When the Philistines appeared in Canaan a new and distinctive type of pottery also made its appearance. It is easily recognisable as different from the pottery which had previously been in use both in the cities of the Canaanites and in the hill settlements of the Israelites. Throughout the area occupied by the five Philistine cities — and only there — excavations have unearthed this type of ceramic ware. The Philistines must therefore have produced their own pottery.

The first find of this Philistine crockery astonished the archaeologists. They had seen these shapes and colours and patterns before. The leather coloured drinking cups and jars, with red and black geometrical designs and swans cleaning their feathers, were already known as coming from Mycenae. From 1400 B.C. onwards the wonderful pottery made by Mycenaean manufacturers was greatly sought after in the ancient world and their export trade had flooded every country with them. Shortly before 1200 B.C. with the destruction of Mycenae this import from Greece suddenly stopped. The Philistines must have come by way of Mycenae, and must have started up in Canaan the manufacture of this type of ware with which they were familiar. “Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor?” (Amos 9:7). Caphtor is Crete, the great island that lies close to Greece.

But Philistine pottery illustrates another interesting fact, which is also hinted at in the Bible. Many of their handsome mugs are fitted with a filter, and there can be no doubt what it was used for. They are typical beer mugs. The filter served to keep back the barley husks: they floated about in the home-brewed ale and would tend to lodge in the throat. Large numbers of wine cups and beer mugs have been found in the Philistine settlements. They must have been powerful drinkers. Carouses are mentioned in the Samson stories (Jud. 14:10; 16:25), where the fact is emphasised that the strong man himself drank no alcohol.

Beer is however no Philistine invention. The first great breweries flourished in the Ancient East. In the hostelries of Babylon there were in fact five kinds of beer: mild, bitter, fresh, lager, and a special mixed beer for export and carrying, which was also called honey beer. This was a condensed extract of roots which would keep for a long time. All that had to be done was to mix it with water and the beer was ready — an ancient prototype of our modern dry beer for use in tropical countries.

But another discovery was much more important. The Philistines were the first people in Canaan to process iron and they made the most of it. Their graves contain armour, implements and ornaments made of this rare and costly metal, as it then was. As in the case of the Mycenaean jars they manufactured their own iron. The first iron foundries in Canaan must have been built in Philistine territory. The secret of smelting iron was brought back as part of their booty as they drove through Asia Minor, where the Hittites had been the first iron-founders in the world until 1200 B.C.

This formula which they had acquired was guarded by the Philistine princes like the apple of their eye. It was their monopoly and they traded in it. Israel during this first period of settlement up on the mountains, was far too poor to be able to afford iron. The lack of iron farm implements, of iron nails for building houses and of iron weapons was a severe handicap. When the Philistines had occupied the mountains as well as the plains, they tried to prevent the making of new weapons by prohibiting the trade of smiths. “Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel: for the Philistines said, Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears. But all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his share and his coulter and his axe and his mattock” (1 Sam. 13:19-20).

Equipped with the most up to date weapons, tested and tried in their long experience of military campaigns, organised into a first class political system, there stood the Philistines about 1200 B.C. on the west coast hungry for conquest. They had their eye on the same goal as Israel: Canaan.

Samson's mighty deeds and his pranks are legendary tales (Jud. 14-16). But there are hard facts behind them. The Philistines were beginning to push forward and extend their territory eastwards.

Separated from each other by long valleys, lines of hills sweep up from the coastal plain to the mountains of Judah. One of these long valleys is the valley of Sorek. Samson lived in Zorah (Jud. 13;2) and in Timnath, not far from it, he married a “daughter of the Philistines” (Jud. 14:1). Delilah too lived there (Jud. 16:4). It was along this valley that the Philistines later on sent back the Ark of the Covenant which they had captured (1 Sam. 6:12ff). This penetration of the Philistines into the hill country below the mountains of Judah was only the prelude to the great clash with Israel which followed years later.

“Now Israel went out against the Philistines to battle, and pitched beside Eben-Ezer; and the Philistines pitched in Aphek” (1 Sam. 4:1).

Aphek lay on the northern rim of the Philistine domains. A mound of ruins, Tell el-Muchmar, conceals all that is left of this place which lay on the upper reaches of a river which flows into the sea to the north of Jaffa. From a strategic point of view Aphek was extremely favourably situated. Eastward lay the road to the mountains of central Palestine where Israel had settled. On the edge of the mountain range lay Eben-Ezer where the opposing forces met. At the first encounter the Philistines were victorious. The Israelites in dire straits sent to Shiloh for the Ark of the Covenant, their sacred talisman. In a second encounter they were completely beaten by the vastly superior force of the Philistines. The Israelite army was routed and the victors carried off the sacred Ark as the spoils of war (1 Sam. 4:2-11).

The hill country was occupied, Israel was disarmed, and garrisons were located in the tribal territories. At their first assault the Philistines had achieved their purpose, central Palestine was in their hands.

This advance of the Philistine must have gone hard with Israel, as can be judged from the contemporary evidence which has been discovered. The temple at Shiloh which Israel had built for the Ark of the Covenant was burnt to the ground. Fifteen miles south of Shechem lies Seilun which was once the flourishing town of Shiloh. On a neighbouring hill lay the sacred precincts, Israel's sanctuary and place of pilgrimage (Josh. 18:1; Jud. 21:19ff; 1 Sam. 3:21). After the Old Testament period early Christian and Mohammedan memorials were erected on the site.

Between 1926 and 1929 a Danish expedition carried out excavations at this spot, under the direction of H. Kjaers. The remains of Shiloh clearly indicate that the city was destroyed about 1050 B.C. at the time of the Philistine victory over Israel. Shiloh must have stood in ruins for a long time. For 400 years after its fall the prophet Jeremiah refers to it: “But go ye now unto my place which was in Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel” (Jer. 7:12). Other places in the mountains of Judah shared the same fate as Shiloh. Archaeologists found tell-tale traces of ashes in Tell Beit Mirsim near Hebron, the Debir of the Bible, and in Beth-zur, south of Jerusalem.

About 1050 B.C. Israel's very existence was threatened. It saw itself to be on the point of losing all the fruits of its conquests and all its work of colonisation lasting almost 200 years. It was on the verge of falling under the yoke of the Philistines and facing an existence of hopeless slavery. The only way to meet this frightful peril would be to amalgamate the loosely federated tribes and form a solid united front. It was in face of this pressure from without that Israel became a nation. In those days there was only one possible form of government, a monarchy. The choice fell upon Saul, a Benjamite, a man renowned for his bravery and his great height (1 Sam. 9:2). It was a wise choice, for Saul belonged to the weakest tribe (1 Sam. 9:21) and the remaining tribes would therefore have no cause to be jealous.

Saul constituted his native town Gibeah as the capital (1 Sam. 10:26; 11:4), collected round him a small standing army and began guerrilla warfare (1 Sam. 13:lff). By surprise attacks he hunted the Philistine occupation troops out of the tribal territory.

That Saul was a tactician of a high order has recently, after 3,000 years, been demonstrated anew. One example, unique in its way, shows how accurate the Bible can be even in the smallest details and how reliable its dates and information.

We owe to Major Vivian Gilbert, a British army officer, this description of a truly remarkable occurrence. Writing in his reminiscences23 he says: “In the First World War a brigade major in Allenby's army in Palestine was on one occasion searching his Bible with the light of a candle, looking for a certain name. His brigade had received orders to take a village that stood on a rocky prominence on the other side of a deep valley. It was called Michmash and the name seemed somehow familiar. Eventually he found it in 1 Sam. 13 and read there: 'And Saul, and Jonathan his son, and the people that were present with them, abode in Gibeah of Benjamin but the Philistines encamped in Michmash. It then went on to tell how Jonathan and his armour-bearer crossed over during the night 'to the Philistines' garrison' on the other side, and how they passed two sharp rocks: 'there was a sharp rock on the one side, and a sharp rock on the other side: and the name of the one was Bozez and the name of the other Seneh' (1 Sam. 14:4). They clambered up the cliff and overpowered the garrison, 'within as it were an half acre of land, which a yoke of oxen might plough,' The main body of the enemy awakened by the melee thought they were surrounded by Saul's troops and 'melted away and they went on beating down one another' (1 Sam. 14:14-16).

“Thereupon Saul attacked with his force and beat the enemy. “So the Lord saved Israel that day.”

The brigade major reflected that there must still be this narrow passage through the rocks, between the two spurs, and at the end of it the “half acre of land.” He woke the commander and they read the passage through together once more. Patrols were sent out. They found the pass, which was thinly held by the Turks, and which led past two jagged rocks — obviously Bozez and Seneh. Up on top, beside Michmash, they could see by the light of the moon a small flat field. The brigadier altered his plan of attack. Instead of deploying the whole brigade he sent one company through the pass under cover of darkness. The few Turks whom they met were overpowered without a sound, the cliffs were scaled, and shortly before daybreak the company had taken up a position on “the half acre of land.”

The Turks woke up and took to their heels in disorder since they thought that they were being surrounded by Allenby's army. They were all killed or taken prisoner.

“And so,” concludes Major Gilbert, “after thousands of years British troops successfully copied the tactics of Saul and Jonathan.”

Saul's successes gave Israel new heart. The pressure of the occupying power on the highlands had certainly been eased, but it was only a short respite. In the following spring the Philistines launched their counter attack.

Towards the end of the winter rainy season they gathered their fighting forces once again in Aphek (1 Sam. 29:1). But this time they had a different plan of action. They avoided an engagement in the mountains since Israel knew that country far too well. The Philistine princes chose rather to advance northwards across the coastal plain to the Plain of Jezreel (1 Sam. 29:11), the scene of Deborah's battle “at Taanach by the waters of Megiddo,” and then eastwards almost to the banks of the Jordan.

“By a fountain which is in Jezreel” (1 Sam. 29:1) — the spring of Harod at the foot of the mountains of Gilboa — King Saul and his army ventured to meet the Philistines on the plain. The result was fatal. At the very first attack the army was scattered, the retreating troops were pursued and struck down. Saul himself committed suicide, after his own sons had been killed.

The triumph of the Philistines was complete. The whole of Israel was now occupied — the central uplands, Galilee and Transjordan (1 Sam. 31:7). Saul's body and the bodies of his sons were impaled and exposed on the city walls of Beth-Shan not far from the battlefield. “And they put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth” (1 Sam. 31:10), the goddess of fertility. Israel's last hour appeared to have struck. It seemed doomed to extinction. The first kingdom which began so hopefully had come to a fearful end. A free people had sunk into slavery and its Promised Land had fallen into the hands of foreigners.

The spades of the archaeologists have unearthed from among the masses of heavy black rubble silent evidence of this fateful period. The wind sweeps over the broken and crumbling masonry of the walls which saw the success and the tragedy of Israel. Ruins which witnessed Saul's happiest hours as a young king and also his shameful end.

A few miles north of Jerusalem, near the ancient road which leads to Samaria, lies Tell el-Ful, which means, literally, “hill of beans.” This was once Gibeah.

In 1922 a team from the American Schools of Oriental Research began digging there. Professor W. F. Albright, who promoted the expedition, directed the operations. Remnants of walls came to light. After a long interval Albright continued his work at Tell el-Ful in 1933. A log-shaped corner turret was exposed, and then three more. They are joined by a double wall. An open courtyard forms the interior. The total area is about 40 x 25 yards. The uncouth looking structure of dressed stone gives an impression of rustic defiance.

Albright examined the clay sherds which were scattered among the ruins. They came from jars which had been in use about 1020 to 1000 B.C. Albright had discovered Saul's citadel, the first royal castle in Israel, where “the king sat upon his seat, as at other times, even upon a seat by the wall” (1 Sam. 20:25). It was here that Saul reigned as king, surrounded by his closest friends, with Jonathan his son, with Abner, his cousin and commander of the army, and with David, his young armour-bearer. Here he forged his plan to set Israel free and from here he led his partisans against the hated Philistines.

The other place where King Saul's destiny was fulfilled and which research has brought once more to the light of day lies about 45 miles farther north.

On the edge of the Plain of Jezreel rises the great mound of rubble called Tell el-Husn, which is visible far beyond the Jordan valley. This is the site of the ancient Beth-Shan. On the north and south slopes the strong foundation walls of two temple buildings emerge out of the piles of cleared debris.

Archaeologists of the University of Pennsylvania, led by Clarence S. Fisher, Alan Rowe, and G. M. Fitzgerald excavated them in 1921 and 1933 almost at the same time as King Saul's castle was rediscovered at Gibeah.

Religious objects found among the ruins, principally medallions and little shrines with a serpent motif, indicate that these temples were dedicated to Astarte, the Canaanite goddess of fertility, and to Dagon the chief god of the Philistines, who was half fish, half human. Their walls witnessed what the Philistines did to Saul, as the Bible records: “And they put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-Shan” (1 Sam. 31:10). The house of Ashtaroth is the temple ruins on the south side. ...” and [they] fastened his head in the temple of Dagon” (1 Chron. 10:10). That is the temple which has been excavated on the north slope.

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