I have been reading Avraham Faust’s Israel’s Ethnogenesis not just to have a reading project this month, but because I am trying to figure something out. There has been a relatively new find (since Faust’s book) in Israel which may change the way I have to understand the history of the period that corresponds to 1 and 2 Samuel in the Bible.(See here).
My theory about that period has been that Judah, which up to then had not existed as the kind of coalition of peoples that David put together, conquered the northern tribes and installed David as king. David subjugated the northern tribes. But he was either an ally or a vassal of the Philistine city-state of Gath, which was sometimes at war with other Philistine city states.
My theory is probably wrong. The newer archeological evidence from the Elah Valley seems to show Judah heavily fortifying itself against Gath. At least that is what Yosef Garfinkel,who supervised the dig, thinks.
So Faust’s take on the Philistines is of special interest to me. I have a few items about this.
One, Faust points to evidence that the population of the Israelite village culture was a something over 2,000, while the population of the coastal strip occupied by the Philistines was well over 20,000. This was at the time the cultures encountered one another.
He never considers the Philistines as anything but a monolith. My idea that the five city-states were squabbling and sometimes warring rivals does not come up. I admit that I might be overly influenced by the rival city-states of the Amarna period.
Two, Faust shows that the Philistine culture was the richest, best organized and most complex society in the Levant at the time. Israel, on the other hand, was very poor and not very sophisticated.
Three, Faust uses the term “Egyptio-Canaanite” for the non-Philistine and non-Israelite component of the population. I had not run across this term before. It makes sense, though. The Philistine originally carved out their territory over against the Egyptio-Canaanite culture which had existed in Gaza. When they did so, they sharply differentiated themselves over against this culture. The eating of pork and lack of circumcision may have set the Philistines over against that culture as well as the Israelites.
Four, we do not know just why the Philistines made incursions into the hill country. The Egyptians and Canaanites usually avoided doing so. Faust thinks that Israel, while still poor, was beginning to grow an agricultural surplus. The Philistines may have been seeking to grab this.
Five, we know that over time the Philistines assimilated to Canaan. Their pottery becomes less distinct. They apparently ate less pork. Herodotus, the Greek historian, says they sometimes practiced circumcision.
Faust talks about all this on his way to arguing that Israel developed its distinct ethnic markers over against the Philistine culture. The Bible refers over and over to “uncircumcised Philistines” in a way it does not for other peoples. Some of Israel’s practices preexisted their encounter with the Philistines. But in that confrontation these practices became ethnic markers. They became part of the values of a people who understood themselves as a distinct, set apart, group.
It seems to me there is some evidence that the Philistines may have begun adopting Canaanite cultural practices earlier than Faust thinks. I have always wondered about the whole relationship between the Phoenicians and the Sea Peoples. The Philistines were one of the Sea Peoples, who seem to have been Viking-like sea raiders who destroyed the Hittite Empire and greatly diminished the Egyptian Empire. But they seem to have left the Phoenicians alone. Why? Trade ties? Something else in common?
The Philistines adopted the Phoenician alphabet. I am not sure if we can tell just when they did.
The Bible says the Philistines worshiped Dagon. He does not seem to have been an Aegean deity. He was worshiped as a fish god at Ugarit in northern Syria. Of course, the Bible could be reading a later practice of the Philistines back into an earlier time.
In conclusion, the thing that struck me most about what Faust says is the contrast between the few, poor Israelites and the numerous and powerful Philistines. Yet Faust attributes the service of a contingent of Philistine soldiers in David’s army to David’s domination of the Philistines. Well, then the story of David and Goliath, although it is probably not literally true, is metaphorically true. David’s weak Israel managed to overpower a materially and militarily superior nation. No wonder the Israelites attributed this to God’s power.
However, the findings in the Elah Valley may mean that Israel was not quite as poor and weak as Faust implied.