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Where’d He Get That Idea?

In 1 Samuel 18:20-30, Saul demands of David the foreskins of 100 Philistines as a kind of “bride price” in order to marry his daughter Michal. Not to shrink from a challenge, we are told that David went out and killed 200 Philistines and presented Saul with the requisite tribute.

I’m pondering where Saul got the idea that a pile of Philistine foreskins would make an appropriate gift. The obvious answer would seem to be Egypt. At the temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, there is in fact the depiction of piles of the severed penises and hands of the pharaoh’s enemies. Among foreigners who did not practice circumcision (such as Libyans and Hittites), the male organs were removed, tallied (soldiers were rewarded according to the number of slain enemies) and perhaps kept as war trophies. If, like the Egyptians, the foreign casualties were circumcised, the right hand served the same purpose. Diodorus Siculus seems to report the same kind of depiction at the Ramesseum of Ramesses II, but it is doubtful whether he saw the structure firsthand and, at any rate, his report is quite garbled. There is also an un-illustrated textual description of the same practice found at Karnak and describing the practice during the reign of Merneptah.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, this is the sum total of Egyptian evidence for the practice of taking the penises of slain foes as war trophies, a 120-year interval spanning the 19th and 20th Dynasties. In conventional chronology, we’re in the 13th and early 12th centuries.

Saul, however, would have reigned in the late 11th century. So I’m wondering if there is other documentary evidence I’ve been unable to track down, either of the same custom enduring in Egypt into later times or of the custom being practiced by other cultures in the Ancient Near East. In the absence of such evidence, might this strange story from 1 Samuel be circumstantial evidence in favor of a circa 200-year down-dating of Egyptian chronology such as proposed by Jeremy Goldberg or Pierce Furlong?

1 Comment

  1. mike says:

    What is it with all these posts that make us cross our legs? Memory takes me back to National Lampoon’s very Freudian retelling of the old nursery rhymes, titled “A Child’s Garden of Castration Anxieties.”

    Some people’s minds are cultural treasure chests. Mine’s a cultural storm sewer.


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