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Who Were the Philistines?

According to the Hebrew text of Genesis 10:13-14, the Philistines were descendants of the Casluchim, a people of disputed identity, who were in turn descendants of Mizraim, i.e., Egyptians. Many scholars and several English translations (NRSV, NLT, Tanakh) emend the text to make Philistine derive from Caphtorim instead. They take the phrase, “from which the Philistines come” to be a misplaced scribal gloss that belongs with the last name on the list rather than the next to last. This comports with other strands of biblical evidence that unquestionably link the Philistines with Caphtor, but either way the text leaves us with Philistines who can trace their origins ultimately back to North Africa. Is this at all tenable?

Biblical Evidence

To answer this question, we must first survey what the Bible says about Philistine origins. The Bible tells us where the Philistines came from, but not when. In Deuteronomy 2:23, the “Caphtorim” displaced the indigenous Avvim at an unspecified time. These Caphtorim are usually taken to be Philistines under a different name, following a hint provided by Joshua 13:2-3.

This is the predominant scriptural opinion: the Philistines came from “Caphtor” (Dt 2:23 [cf. Jos 13:2-3]; Am 9:7; Jer 47:4). But where is that? The majority scholarly opinion identifies Caphtor with the island of Crete, others make a convincing case for Cyprus, and a few locate Caphtor somewhere in Anatolia (LXX gives Cappadocia; others point to Cilicia). The Jewish Encyclopedia provides a full rundown of options. Wherever it is (or was), scholars do not doubt that it is the same place known to the Egyptians as Keftiu and to the Akkadians as Kaptara. Greenfield seems to hedge his bets by suggesting that, whatever its original denotation, by the Late Bronze Age the term “was used broadly for the Aegean area from which the Philistines as one of the ‘People of the Sea’ emerged” (J. C. Greenfield, “Caphtor,” IDB 1:534).

This is not the only possible biblical answer to the question, “Where did the Philistines come from?” As noted above, the Table of Nations (Ge 10:13-14), read without textual emendation, has the Philistines being derived not from the Caphtorim but the Casluchim.

Furthermore, some take the references to “Cherethites” and “Pelethites” in the army of King David (1 Sa 8:18; 20:23) to be speaking of Philistines. Some scholars see in “Cherethite” a reference to “Cretans” (the consonants are the same) and then seek to link them with the Philistines, no doubt influenced by the assumption that “Caphtor” is the biblical name for Crete. This view is espoused by Greenfield:

The name Cherethite most probably meant Cretans and alluded to the Aegean origin of part of the Sea Peoples who settled along the S coast of Palestine with the Philistines or to a band of Cretan mercenaries settled there by the Egyptians. The form ‘Pelethite’ (pelethi) for ‘Philistine’ (pelishti) is explicable as an analogous formation modeled on ‘Cherethite’ (kereti), with which it always occurs. (J. C. Greenfield, “Cherethites,” IDB 1:557).

The LXX makes this equation explicit as does, apparently, the use of “Cherethites” in poetic parallelism to “Philistines” in the prophets (cf. Eze 25:16; Zep 2:5). First Samuel 30:14 also speaks of the “Negev of the Cherethites,” suggesting they were a people living south of Philistia proper.

Other scholars believe this line of reasoning is dubious. If “Cherethites” were Cretans, the Bible seems to say that they inhabited lands different from the lands of the Philistines. And even if it is proper to identify “Cherethites” with the Philistines, it only tells us about their settlement patterns during the time of the united monarchy.

The “Sea Peoples”

Finally, we should look at the word “Philistine” itself. Everyone agrees that this term is cognate to Egyptian Prst (usually vocalized Peleset—there was no “l” in the Egyptian language), the name of one of many constituent groups that made up the loose confederation of “Sea Peoples” whom Ramesses III defeated in the Early Iron Age (see Trude Dothan, “What WeKnow About the PhilistinesBAR 8:04 [Jul/Aug 1982]). In fact, at least some of these groups actually predate Ramesses III. The Lukka, Shardana, and Peleset served as mercenaries of Ramesses II (esp. at the Battle of Kadesh), and they may have been active as early as the Amarna period.

The Peleset are depicted on the Medinet Habu relief commemorating Ramesses III’s victory. Dothan describes their distinctive appearance. They are most noted for their feather headdress:

a leather cap and an ornamental headband from which a row of slightly curving strips stands upright to form a kind of diadem. Regardless of whether the strips are feathers, reeds, leather strips, horsehair, or some bizarre hairdo, this headgear is the distinguishing mark of the group dominated by the Philistines.

Furthermore, Dothan gives this description of their customary clothing:

Each wears a short paneled kilt with wide hem and tassles. Above the waist is a ribbed corselet over a shirt. The thin strips of the corselet (made of leather or metal) are jointed in the middle of the chest and curve up. (On Sherden warriors, these strips curve down.) Perhaps these strips are meant to simulate human ribs. Similar corselets are known from Cyprus during this period and somewhat earlier; they indicate the Aegean background of the Sea Peoples.

Related groups of “Sea Peoples” include the Tjekker, Danuna or Denyen—both of whom wear the same sort of feathered headdress associated with the Philistines—the Weshesh, Shakalsha or Shek(e)lesh, Akawasha or Ekwesh, Tursha or Teresh, Lukka, and Shardana or Sherden. Some of these peoples are Greek: the Danuna have been equated with Homer’s Danaoi and the Akawasha with the Achaeans (Greek Akhaioi, called Ahhiyawa by the Hittites). Others are non-Hellenic groups from Anatolia, such as the Tjekker,who may have originated around Troy and later settled on Cyprus, and the Lukka, who should probably be identified with the Lycians. Some groups are apparently non-Indo-European groups. The Tursha have been connected to Tyrsenoi, a Greek designation for the Etruscans‚ known to the Hittites as Taruisa or Taruisha. Others remain a complete mystery.

All of this leads to one important preliminary observation. The one clear non-biblical reference to Philistines (Ramesses’ Peleset) makes them one of numerous loosely affiliated groups of “Sea Peoples,” all of whom apparently originated somewhere in the Aegean, who must have spoken various different languages and followed a variety of cultural customs. It thus should not be surprising if we found that the biblical Philistines would give evidence of a similar mixed heritage.

Next: Philistines, Cypriots, and Minoans

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