The Palestinians, the Philistines and Anti-Semitism Today
A Series by World Mizrachi Director-General, Rabbi Doron Perez
Part 4 – Back to the Future
In order to complete our analysis as to the true identity and spiritual mission of the Philistines, we need to go back to the very beginning – always a very good place to start.
The Philistines reached the apex of their strength during the time of King Saul and King David in the books of Samuel, as we clarified in the previous article. They start becoming a major force in the land in the century that preceded King Saul during the time of the Shoftim – Judges – when Samson famously clashed with them (Judges, Chapters 13-16).
What is fascinating, though, is that the Philistines were mentioned long before, in the very first two books of the Torah – Genesis and Exodus – in the context of interactions of confrontations, conflicts and reconciliation with our Forefathers and Mothers. This will give us a great insight into the origins of the Philistine-Israeli conflict. Here we will discover two remarkable insights as to the very essence of Philistine nationalism and their uncanny similarity to their spiritual heirs today – the modern-day Palestinians.
The Origins of the Philistine-Israeli Conflict
Whenever we find the existence of any significant Jewish presence in the land, we encounter the Philistines and their oppositional policies. In the times of our first two Forefathers, Avraham and Yitzchak, it is the Philistines in the book of Bereishit (Chapters 21 and 26) who quarrel with them and oppose them. The Philistines squabble with Abraham over land and water, as the verse says (Bereishit 21, 25):
“וְהוֹכִחַ אַבְרָהָם אֶת אֲבִימֶלֶךְ עַל אֹדוֹת בְּאֵר הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר גָּזְלוּ עַבְדֵי אֲבִימֶלֶךְ:”
“And Abraham contended with Abimelech about the well of water that the servants of Abimelech had forcibly seized.”
Avraham built a well on his own land, and yet this was stolen from him by the servants of Avimelech the king of the Philistines. Eventually, Abraham and Avimelech make a pact over this well specifically, with Avimelech acknowledging that the well belongs to Abraham and his children. The two of them make an oath, and Abraham sacrifices seven lambs as a symbol of the pact, and the place of the well becomes known as באר שבע/Be’er Sheva (Bereishit 21, verses 29-33). As the verse mentions, Be’er Sheva means the Well of the Seven/the Oath – with Sheva having the dual meaning in Hebrew of both ‘seven’ and ‘oath’, referring to the events that transpired there. Amazingly, the Town of Be’er Sheva would continue to exist until today, being Israel’s capital of the Negev, built adjacent to the ancient archeological site of Tel Sheva, and it stand as Israel’s 7th largest city, with a population of nearly 200,000.
Things start heating up a generation later, in the time of Yitzchak, where we find that the Philistines filled all the wells that Avraham had dug, and rendered them impotent, severing Yitzchak and his family from their water source. These repeated confrontations with the shepherds of the town of Grar, the seat of Avimelech king of the Philistines, led to ongoing controversy. I find it quite remarkable that Yitzchak, who was such a placid and passive individual in comparison to his father Avraham, aroused such controversy and contention amongst the Philistines. The first well was called עשק – meaning contention, and the second well was named by Yitzchak שטנה – hatred – referring to the feelings of animosity and hatred that the Philistine shepherds harbored against him. Eventually, he dug a third well which they did not contest and he called it רחובות, meaning making space and room as he felt there seemed to finally be some respite and place for both in the land.
As the verses state in Bereishit 26:
יד. וַיְהִי לוֹ מִקְנֵה צֹאן וּמִקְנֵה בָקָר וַעֲבֻדָּה רַבָּה וַיְקַנְאוּ אֹתוֹ פְּלִשְׁתִּים: טו. וְכָל הַבְּאֵרֹת אֲשֶׁר חָפְרוּ עַבְדֵי אָבִיו בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו סִתְּמוּם פְּלִשְׁתִּים וַיְמַלְאוּם עָפָר: טז. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲבִימֶלֶךְ אֶל יִצְחָק לֵךְ מֵעִמָּנוּ כִּי עָצַמְתָּ מִמֶּנּוּ מְאֹד: יז. וַיֵּלֶךְ מִשָּׁם יִצְחָק וַיִּחַן בְּנַחַל גְּרָר וַיֵּשֶׁב שָׁם: יח. וַיָּשָׁב יִצְחָק וַיַּחְפֹּר | אֶת בְּאֵרֹת הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר חָפְרוּ בִּימֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיו וַיְסַתְּמוּם פְּלִשְׁתִּים אַחֲרֵי מוֹת אַבְרָהָם וַיִּקְרָא לָהֶן שֵׁמוֹת כַּשֵּׁמֹת אֲשֶׁר קָרָא לָהֶן אָבִיו: יט. וַיַּחְפְּרוּ עַבְדֵי יִצְחָק בַּנָּחַל וַיִּמְצְאוּ שָׁם בְּאֵר מַיִם חַיִּים: כ. וַיָּרִיבוּ רֹעֵי גְרָר עִם רֹעֵי יִצְחָק לֵאמֹר לָנוּ הַמָּיִם וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם הַבְּאֵר עֵשֶׂק כִּי הִתְעַשְּׂקוּ עִמּוֹ: כא. וַיַּחְפְּרוּ בְּאֵר אַחֶרֶת וַיָּרִיבוּ גַּם עָלֶיהָ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמָהּ שִׂטְנָה: כב. וַיַּעְתֵּק מִשָּׁם וַיַּחְפֹּר בְּאֵר אַחֶרֶת וְלֹא רָבוּ עָלֶיהָ וַיִּקְרָא שְׁמָהּ רְחֹבוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר כִּי עַתָּה הִרְחִיב ה’ לָנוּ וּפָרִינוּ בָאָרֶץ: כג. וַיַּעַל מִשָּׁם בְּאֵר שָׁבַע…
…לב. וַיְהִי | בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא וַיָּבֹאוּ עַבְדֵי יִצְחָק וַיַּגִּדוּ לוֹ עַל אֹדוֹת הַבְּאֵר אֲשֶׁר חָפָרוּ וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ מָצָאנוּ מָיִם: לג. וַיִּקְרָא אֹתָהּ שִׁבְעָה עַל כֵּן שֵׁם הָעִיר בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה:
14. And he had possessions of sheep and possessions of cattle and much production, and the Philistines envied him. 15. And all the wells that his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father the Philistines stopped them up and filled them with earth. 16. And Abimelech said to Isaac, “Go away from us, for you have become much stronger than we.” 17. And Isaac went away from there, and he encamped in the valley of Gerar and dwelt there. 18. And Isaac again dug the wells of water which they had dug in the days of his father, Abraham, and the Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them names like the names that his father had given them. 19. And Isaac’s servants dug in the valley, and they found there a well of living waters. 20. And the shepherds of Gerar quarreled with Isaac’s shepherds, saying, “The water is ours”; so he named the well Esek, because they had contended with him. 21. And they dug another well, and they quarreled about it also; so he named it Sitnah. 22. And he moved away from there, and he dug another well, and they did not quarrel over it; so he named it Rehoboth, and he said, “For now the L-rd has made room for us, and we will be fruitful in the land.” 23. And he went up from there to Beer Sheba…
…32. And it came to pass on that day, that Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug, and they said to him, “We have found water.” 33. And he named it Shibah; therefore, the city is named Beer Sheba until this very day.
(It is interesting to note that the motivation of the Philistines is that of envy and jealousy of the success of Isaac and Abraham (Verse 14 above). This theme will be developed in a later article.)
As is evident from the verses above, Isaac decides to return to Be’er Sheva, the place of his father, and digs another well and settles in the town.
It is clear that as our Forefathers came to fulfill their divinely mandated quest of living in the land, they were opposed by the Philistines time and time again, even though they built the wells on originally uncontested land.
The next time we encounter the Philistines is immediately after the coming out of Egypt.
Via Maris – The Clash by the Sea
After the centuries of Egyptian sojourn and slavery, the Children of Israel emerge from the dungeons of death and servitude in Egypt as a free people en route to the Promised Land. The destination of the exodus from Egypt is made clear at the outset and is the result of a fulfillment of a divine promise made by Hashem centuries before to the Forefathers of the Children of Israel. The verse clearly states this at the opening of Parashat Va’eira, where Hashem explains to Moshe that despite the additional difficulty of the servitude, Hashem will fulfill his promise to bring them out of Egypt.
Exodus (6, 2-9):
וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקִים אֶל משֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי ה’: וָאֵרָא אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֶל יִצְחָק וְאֶל יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁ-דָּי וּשְׁמִי ה’ לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם : וְגַם הֲקִמֹתִי אֶת בְּרִיתִי אִתָּם לָתֵת לָהֶם אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן אֵת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר גָּרוּ בָהּ : וְגַם | אֲנִי שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת נַאֲקַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם מַעֲבִדִים אֹתָם וָאֶזְכֹּר אֶת בְּרִיתִי : לָכֵן אֱמֹר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנִי ה’ וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים : וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹקִים וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם : וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת יָדִי לָתֵת אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב וְנָתַתִּי אֹתָהּ לָכֶם מוֹרָשָׁה אֲנִי ה’ : וַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה כֵּן אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל משֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה:
G-d spoke to Moses, and He said to him, “I am the L-rd. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty G-d, but [with] My name Y-H-W-H, I did not become known to them. And also, I established My covenant with them to give them the land of Canaan, the land of their sojournings in which they sojourned. And also, I heard the moans of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians are holding in bondage, and I remembered My covenant. Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the L-rd, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a G-d to you, and you will know that I am the L-rd your G-d, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the L-rd.’ ” Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel, but they did not hearken to Moses because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor.
We are all familiar with these verses, as they are the expressions of גאולה – Redemption – from Egypt which are at the heart of the Haggada. What is clear from the verses is that the context of this redemption is the fulfillment of a promise to the Forefathers to bring their children back to the land that they had lived in and which had been promised to them as an eternal inheritance. Amazingly, as soon as the Children of Israel leave Egypt and make their way to the Promised Land to inherit it, we encounter the Philistines once again.
It is at this point that a potential clash with the Philistines impacts once again on Jewish history and on our journey to the land. It is the very possibility of a military confrontation with the Philistines that indeed causes Hashem, to divert drastically the course of what should have been a simple journey to the Land. As the verse states (Exodus 13, 17):
“וַיְהִי בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת הָעָם וְלֹא נָחָם אֱלֹקִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא כִּי אָמַר אֱלֹקִים פֶּן יִנָּחֵם הָעָם בִּרְאֹתָם מִלְחָמָה וְשָׁבוּ מִצְרָיְמָה: וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹקִים אֶת הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר יַם סוּף וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:”
“It came to pass when Pharaoh let the people go, that G-d did not lead them [by] way of the land of the Philistines for it was near, because G-d said, Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt. So G-d led the people around [by] way of the desert [to] the Red Sea, and the children of Israel were armed when they went up out of Egypt.”
This ancient coastal road, known at the time of the Romans as Via Maris – the Way of the Sea – was known in Tanach as דרך ארץ פלישתים – the Way of the Philistines. They had settled along the South Western region of Eretz Yisrael, south of the Gaza Strip of today, bordering the Sinai Peninsula. This coastal area is what connects the Nile Delta, the north-eastern tip of Egypt, to the south western tip of Eretz Yisrael, as can be seen from the map below.
This would have been a journey of no more than two weeks, had Bnei Yisrael gone along the coastal route. It would have been much simpler to send 3 million people, consisting of men, women and children, elderly and young, via a flat and less arduous route. What was it that caused Bnei Yisrael to go on a different path via the Red Sea and through the Sinai Peninsula which not only lengthened the time of journey significantly, but meant enduring the harsh and barren mountainous desert terrain of the Sinai Peninsula?
The above verse makes the reason clear – a potential confrontation in the region of the Way of the Philistines, with the untrained and freed Israelite slaves would have caused them to return to Egypt no sooner had they left. The question which is not clear in the above verse is the identity of the nation who would have fought against the Israelites. Rashi suggests that this could be referring to the Amalekites or the Canaanites who would have come out to the coastal road to fight. The simpler explanation, though, seems to be that it would have been with the Philistines themselves who would have come to fight along this route which bears their name – the Way of the Philistines – as a result of their proximity to it. Two of our great medieval commentators – Ramban and Chizkuni (in their commentary on the verse), as well as our Sages in the Midrash (Shmot Rabba 20,11) maintain that the battle indeed would have been with the Philistines themselves. In other words, not only would the battle have taken place on this ancient trade path, but it would have been specifically with the Philistines. This seems to be a simpler reading of the text, implying not only geographical location but also the identity of the warring people.
Once again we see another proof of our thesis that the raison d’etre of the Philistines was to oppose the potential for any sovereign presence of the Jewish People in the land. It is a potential war with the Philistines which would cause the Children of Israel to return to Egypt, and therefore it is this very confrontation in the land of the Philistines with, in all likelihood, the Philistines themselves which caused a great deviation of the very route from Egypt to the Promised Land and eventually resulted in a 40-year delay of the return of the Jewish People to their land.
Three Periods of Philistine Settlement – One Spiritual Mission
We clarified in a previous article that the Philistines were not indigenous to the land. They came from the Islands of Crete and Caphtor, widely recognized as being in the Mediterranean Sea. They are known by historians as the ‘Sea People’, who resided mainly in the area of the Greek Isles and Aegean Sea, as well as Asia Minor. They were so dominant in the Mediterranean Sea region, that indeed the Chumash refers to the Mediterranean Sea as ים הפלישתים – the Philistine Sea. As the verse states (Exodus 23, 31):
לא .וְשַׁתִּי אֶת גְּבֻלְךָ מִיַּם סוּף וְעַד יָם פְּלִשְׁתִּים וּמִמִּדְבָּר עַד הַנָּהָר כִּי | אֶתֵּן בְּיֶדְכֶם אֵת ישְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ וְגֵרַשְׁתָּמוֹ מִפָּנֶיךָ:
31. And I will make your boundary from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the river, for I will deliver the inhabitants of the land into your hands, and you shall drive them out from before you.
While referring to the borders of the Promised Land, its eastern border the Mediterranean Sea, is clearly referred to as ים הפלישתים. This seems to not only be as a result of the fact that the coastal road in the southern region was known as דרך ארץ פלישתים – the Way of the Philistines, as mentioned previously, but because the Philistines were so dominant in this area.
The Philistine Sea People began to seek new areas of settlement and invaded different parts of the coastal region, stretching from the Levant in the north to Egypt in the south. Historians detect three waves of settlement in the Land of Canaan/Israel, all in the south-western coastal and valley region of the land.
The first wave takes place around the time of our Forefathers, and the Philistines settle around the town of Gerar in the Negev area, where Avimelech was king, and it was these Philistines that Abraham and Isaac interact with in the book of Genesis, as discussed earlier.
The second wave of settlement happens hundreds of years later, around the time of the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the land at the time of Joshua. By this time, the settlements have spread to the extent that the actual coastal road joining Egypt to the Negev becomes known as דרך ארץ פלישתים – the Way of the Philistines. We also find a Philistine presence for the first time in five cities further north on the coast already in the time of the conquest of Joshua. As the verse states (Joshua 13, 3):
ג מִן הַשִּׁיחוֹר אֲשֶׁר | עַל פְּנֵי מִצְרַיִם וְעַד גְּבוּל עֶקְרוֹן צָפוֹנָה לַכְּנַעֲנִי תֵּחָשֵׁב חֲמֵשֶׁת | סַרְנֵי פְלִשְׁתִּים הָעַזָּתִי וְהָאַשְׁדּוֹדִי הָאֶשְׁקְלוֹנִי הַגִּתִּי וְהָעֶקְרוֹנִי וְהָעַוִּים:
3. From the Shihor, which is before Egypt, to the borders of Ekron northward, which is counted to the Canaanites; the five lords of the Philistines; the Gazathites, and the Ashdodites, the Ashkelonites, the Gittites, and the ‘Ekronites; also the ‘Avim.
Here the Philistines are spread out in a federation of five cities, reaching as far north as Ashdod. They don’t pose any major threat during the book of Joshua, where the major confrontation is between the Children of Israel and the seven Canaanite nations. The Philistines hardly appear thereafter in the book of Joshua and the beginning of the period of שופטים – Judges, the following book.
The third major wave of Philistines settlement transforms the Philistines into a major regional power. Additional warring tribes arrive during the period of the Judges, where from the second half of the book, in the time of Samson (from Chapter 13), through the periods of King Saul and King David, as described in the books of Samuel, they become the dominant political and military force. The Philistines are mentioned 286 times throughout biblical literature, with 152 of those times – well over half – appearing in the book of Samuel I. The federation of the סרנים – Lords – of the five Philistine cities of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gat and Ekron engage in 20 separate battles with the Israelites throughout the time of Saul and David, and have garrisons spread throughout the land.
There are two fascinating points about the Philistines which are critical and most telling as to their spiritual mission.
The first is that the Philistines are in fact not one people, but rather many different tribes from different islands who did not emanate from one specific place and therefore not part of one nation. So much so, that we can detect a clear difference between the Philistines of the book of Genesis who interacted with our Forefathers, and the Philistines at the time of Samson, Saul and David. The original Philistines of the first settlement were not a war-mongering people, but mainly built agricultural settlements, and by-and-large had reasonable relationships with the local Canaanite tribes and the Avot. They are to be distinguished from the later Philistines who came in the period of the Judges and who were primitive war-mongering tribes, fierce and powerful, and built the confederation of five cities. They would become the archenemy of the Jewish People during this time. Even though they came at different times, emanating from different places, constituting different tribes and with some cultural differences, they all bear one name in Tanach – פלישתים – Plishtim.
It is interesting that in the first Greek translation of the Tanach, the Septuagint, the translator distinguishes between the Philistines of Bereishit who are called ‘Philistines’, and the later tribes which were translated as ‘Allophylos’, meaning in Greek ‘of another tribe’. This highlights the different nature of the early Philistines as opposed to the later ones. Amazingly, though, the Torah calls both the earlier and later tribal settlers by one name: the Philistines.
The reason for this is that what united them into one people from a biblical point of view was not the fact that they were one people, since they were not, but rather what unified them from the vantage point of Tanach was their opposition of any Jewish sovereign presence in the land. This also informs us as to the meaning of the name פלישתים – ‘Philistines’ and פלשת – the land of ‘Philistia’. These come from the Hebrew root word פלש, which means to invade and to divide. Their raison d’etre was just that – to conquer and divide the land and thereby being a counter-historical force to the Jewish People’s claim to the land, constantly challenging her right to exist as a sovereign people in this land.
The second point is equally fascinating. As the Jewish People’s presence in the land became stronger and more established, so too in a direct and proportional way did the opposition of the Philistines increase.
During the first period of settlement of the Philistines, they were essentially an agricultural-based community living in agricultural settlements around water sources. During this very same period Abraham and Isaac and their families settled in the land and also created agricultural settlements with shepherds and flocks living close to water sources. It is not by chance that most of the clashes are around land ownership and wells, as we have seen. As Abraham and Isaac found open land to live in and build wells for themselves, so too was this the very bone of contention with these Philistine tribes. They were constantly clashing over disputed land and restricting Abraham and Isaac’s hold on the land.
Interestingly, just as the Jewish People return to the land as a conquering People at the time of Joshua with 12 tribes and millions of people, so too do we see the parallel rise of the Philistines. They are now not only living not around one city of Gerar, but in five established cities in a federation, and grow to become the dominant military force in the area – the archenemies of the Children of Israel.
The greatest confrontations with the Philistines come in the book of Samuel, in the time of Saul and David, as at this time the tribes are uniting under a monarchy. As they aspire for centralized governance to achieve sovereignty in the land, the Philistines unify against them and the battles intensify.
What emerges from these two points is clear. The biblical vantage point of the Philistines is that their spiritual mission is to constantly oppose any sovereign Jewish presence in the land. As the Jewish presence intensifies, we find a direct and proportionate systematic opposition. As the Jewish People strive to become a collective entity, so too do the different Philistine tribes become one in their opposition to Jewish presence in the land.
So what then was and is the historical role of the Philistine people? It is exactly as the Vilna Gaon defined in the opening article of the series and as had been borne out from our comprehensive analysis of Biblical text – to oppose systematically any collective sovereign presence of the Jewish people in this land.
It is breathtaking how to see how the Philistines of the Bible inform us to a deeper understanding of their namesake and spiritual heirs – the modern day Palestinians.