According to the Bible, the Philistines originated in a place known as Caphtor. In Amos 9:7, God declares: ‘I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor.’1 Jeremiah 47:4b refers to the Philistines, the remnant from the island of Caphtor, while the Table of Nations lists the Philistines and Caphtorites as ethnic cousins (Gen. 10:14; cf. I Chron. 1:12). Ancient Near Eastern records suggest that Caphtor referred to the region encompassing the Aegean Sea, parts of the Greek mainland, the western coast of Anatolia, and the island of Crete.2 For example, Egyptian chronicles identify Crete and its satellites as Keftiu (also K-f-t-r), Akkadian documents from Mari and Assur use the term Kaptara, Ugaritic texts call the area Kapturi or Kptr, and an Old Babylonian geographical document states that Kap-ta-ra was located “beyond the Upper [i.e., Mediterranean] Sea.”3 Of particular note is a Theban topographical list from c. 1400 BCE headed by the word Keftiu, under which rubric are listed the Cretan cities of Cydonia, Knossos, Amnisos, Lyktos, and possibly Phaistos.4 According to Theodor Gaster, the place-name Caphtor likely derives from a single Aegean island, Carpathos, the modern Scarpanto.5
If the biblical Caphtor indeed refers to the region of the Aegean Sea, and if the Philistines were truly of Caphtorite origin, then it might be expected that evidence corroborating the Caphtorite/Aegean origin of the Philistines could be found in a comparison of the Bible to Homer’s great epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, with their settings in the ancient Aegean world.
In Judges, the first biblical book in which the Philistines play a significant role, we find at least two occasions in which contact between the Philistines and the Israelites finds remarkable parallels in the Homeric epics. The first instance describes Shamgar son of Anath, who slew six hundred Philistines with an ox- goad (Judg. 3:31). This unique choice of weaponry finds an astonishing parallel in the Iliad, where the Achaean warrior Diomed, upon being accosted by the Trojan Glaucus, reminds him that
even the son of Dryas, mighty Lycurgus, lived not long, seeing that he strove with heavenly gods – he that on a time drave down over the sacred mount of Nysa the nursing mothers of mad Dionysus; and they all let fall to the ground their wands, smitten with an ox-goad by man-slaying Lycurgus (Il. 6.130-134 [emphasis added: all biblical and Homeric emphases in this paper have been added by the author]).
In an ironic twist, Shamgar’s unusual taste in weaponry seems to have been borrowed from the very people against whom he wielded it.
The second example involves Samson. To the chagrin of his parents, the youthful and headstrong Israelite opts to marry a Philistine woman (Judg. 14:2); during the nuptial feast at Timnah, he strikes a deal with his Philistine hosts in the following manner:
Let me propound a riddle to you. If you can give me the right answer during the seven days of the feast, I shall give you thirty linen tunics and thirty sets of clothing; but if you are not able to tell it to me, you must give me thirty linen tunics and thirty sets of clothing (Judg. 14:12-13a).
This use of sumptuous6 clothing as economic barter finds its counterpart in the Iliad, where a despondent Priam uses gorgeous apparel, along with precious metal, to ransom the body of his son Hector from an unforgiving Achilles, who is still enraged over Hector’s slaying of Patroclus. Homer states that the Trojan monarch opened the goodly lids of chests, wherefrom he took twelve beauteous robes and twelve cloaks of single fold, and as many coverlets, and as many white mantles, and therewithal as many tunics (Iliad 24.229-230).
A similar situation, in which sartorial finery is held on par with jewels and precious metals, appears in the Odyssey:
For Antinous he brought a large and beautiful robe, richly broidered, and in it were golden brooches, twelve in all, fitted with curved clasps (Odyssey 18.293-294).
It appears that Samson, well versed in Philistine/Aegean custom, knew precisely how to arouse his opponents’ venality.
Of all the books in the Bible, First Samuel has the largest number of references to the Philistines and their dealings with the Israelites. It also contains a considerable number of similarities to the writings of Homer, particularly on the issue of warfare. For example, when the Philistine soldiers cower before the power of the Ark of the Covenant, which the Israelites have brought into battle, they exhort each other to ‘be men, O Philistines! Or you will become slaves to the Hebrews as they were slaves to you. Be men and fight!’ (I Sam. 4:9). In a comparable Homeric scene, Ajax exhorts his fellow Achaeans, whose resolve is weakening in the face of a Trojan onslaught, to “be men, my friends, and bethink you of furious might” (Iliad 15.734).
A more striking parallel between the Homeric epics and First Samuel occurs slightly later in the book: . . . as Samuel was presenting the burnt offering and the Philistines advanced to attack Israel, the Lord thundered [va-yarem] mightily against the Philistines that day. He threw them into confusion, and they were routed by Israel (I Sam. 7:10). The Israelite God is portrayed as knowing precisely which miraculous intervention would have the greatest effect on the Philistine descendants of Achaean soldiers. According to Homer, there was nothing quite as effective as a peal of ominous thunder from Zeus to take the fight out of the Achaeans:
Then himself [Zeus] thundered aloud from Ida, and sent a blazing flash amid the host of the Achaeans; and at sight thereof they were seized with wonder, and pale fear gat hold of all (Iliad 8.75).
In an example that mirrors the biblical episode even more closely,
Zeus took his tasselled aegis, all gleaming bright, and enfolded Ida with clouds, and lightened and thundered mightily, and shook the aegis, giving victory to the Trojans, but the Achaeans he drave in rout (Iliad 17.594ff.).
At the close of the Odyssey, when the eponymous hero and his companions are about to slaughter their enemies, who have dropped their weapons in terror, Athena entreats them to desist. All but Odysseus obey, and it is only the literally thunderous intervention of Zeus that induces him to relent:
And now would they have slain them all, and cut them off from returning, had not Athena, daughter of Zeus, who bears the aegis, shouted aloud, and checked all the host, saying: ‘Refrain, men of Ithaca, from grievous war, that with all speed you may part, and that without bloodshed.’ So spoke Athena, and pale fear seized them. Then in their terror the arms flew from their hands and fell one and all to the ground, as the goddess uttered her voice, and they turned toward the city, eager to save their lives. Terribly then shouted the much-enduring, goodly Odysseus, and gathering himself together he swooped upon them like an eagle of lofty flight, and at that moment the son of Cronos cast a flaming thunderbolt, and down it fell before the flashing-eyed daughter of the mighty sire (Odyssey 24.528-545).
Thus, in both epics Homer makes it clear that thunder from the king of the gods is the necessary divine manifestation to cause the Achaeans to desist from hostilities. On numerous occasions, the biblical tradition credits God with miraculous intervention to defend Israel from its military enemies: He drowns the Egyptian army in the Red Sea (Ex. 14), rains hailstones upon the Amorite forces (Josh. 10:11), uses a plague to annihilate the Assyrian army besieging Jerusalem (II Kgs. 19:35), creates the illusion of a huge army of chariots against the Aramaeans (II Kgs. 7), and so forth. However, on no occasion does the God of the Israelites use the sound of thunder, as did Zeus in Homer’s tales, except against the Philistines, almost as if the biblical authors knew perfectly well what the Philistine warriors feared the most.
The most famous episode involving the Philistines and Israelites is of course the clash between David and Goliath. The central theme of this classic encounter is that each army, facing the other on opposite sides of the battlefield, produces a single champion to fight as a representative of his side:
. . . the Philistines [were] stationed on one hill and Israel [was] stationed on the opposite hill; the ravine was between them. A champion of the Philistine forces stepped forward; his name was Goliath of Gath . . . .He stopped and called out to the ranks of Israel, and he said to them: ‘Why should you come out to engage in battle? I am the Philistine, and you are Saul’s servants. Choose one of your men and let him come down against me. If he bests me in combat and kills me, we will become your slaves; but if I best him and kill him, you shall become our slaves and serve us.’ And the Philistine ended, ‘I herewith defy the ranks of Israel! Get me a man and let’s fight it out!’ (I Sam. 17:3-4, 8-10).
This motif of a single champion from each opposing army engaging in hand-to-hand combat to determine the outcome of the battle betrays an Aegean origin of the biblical Philistines.7 It is found frequently in the Iliad, and is in fact a highly important element of the tale. In one example, when Paris is stung by Hector’s rebuke of his cowardice in battle, he states:
[I]f thou wilt have me war and do battle, make the other Trojans to sit down and all the Achaeans, but set ye me in the midst and Menelaus, dear to Ares, to do battle for Helen and all her possessions. And whichsoever of us twain shall win, and prove him the better man, let him duly take all the wealth and the woman, and bear them to his home (Iliad 3.68-72).
In a later battle, Apollo and Athena conspire to induce Hector to come forth as Troy’s single champion:
[Thus] spake king Apollo, son of Zeus: ‘Let us rouse the valiant spirit of horse-taming Hector, in hope that he may challenge some one of the Danaans in single fight to do battle with him man to man in dread combat. So shall the bronze-greaved Achaeans have indignation and rouse some one to do battle in single combat against goodly Hector.’ So he spake, and the goddess, flashing-eyed Athene, failed not to hearken. And Helenus, the dear son of Priam, understood in spirit this plan that had found pleasure with the gods in council; and he came and stood by Hector’s side, and spake to him, saying: ‘Hector, son of Priam, peer of Zeus in counsel, wouldst thou now in anywise hearken unto me? for I am thy brother. Make the Trojans to sit down, and all the Achaeans, and do thou challenge whoso is best of the Achaeans to do battle with thee man to man in dread combat’ (Iliad 7.38-52).
When Goliath harangues the Israelite ranks to produce a champion to contest him, he almost seems to be saying, “Don’t you Israelites know how we Philistines conduct our battles? Where is your champion to fight me?” The implication here is evidently that the Philistines were well known, even to their enemies, for this Aegean method of combat.8
In addition to his distinctive fighting tactic, Goliath is described as wearing armor and bearing weaponry that find unmistakable echoes in Homer’s world:
He had a bronze helmet on his head, and wore a breastplate of scale armor, a bronze breastplate weighing five thousand shekels. He had bronze greaves on his legs, and a bronze javelin [slung] from his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver’s bar, and the iron head of his spear weighed six hundred shekels (I Sam. 17:5-7).
This is highly reminiscent of Homer’s depictions of Trojan and Achaean soldiers, particularly in the wearing of greaves, the enormous size of the spear, and the use of two spears by a single warrior (in Goliath’s case, a spear and a javelin): “The greaves first he [Achilles] set about his legs” (Iliad 19.369); as for Hector, “in his hand he held a spear of eleven cubits” (Iliad. 6.318-319). Odysseus carried a “helmet and shield and two spears” (Odyssey 1.256); elsewhere the same hero declares, “I had put on my glorious armor and grasped in my hand two long spears” (Odyssey 12.228-229); still later “he took two mighty spears, tipped with bronze” (Odyssey 22.125). Down to nearly every detail, Goliath is depicted as an Aegean warrior par excellence.
When the Israelite forces finally manage to produce their own representative champion in the person of David, Goliath hurls the following threat at the youth: ‘I will give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field’ (I Sam. 17:44). This expression finds parallels in the Iliad, where Achilles, exulting over the death of Hector, boasts that “dogs and birds shall devour thee utterly” (Iliad 22.354), while earlier, Athena predicts that “of a surety many a one of the Trojans shall glut the dogs and birds” (Iliad 8.378-379). Ironically, before dispatching Goliath, David speaks to his adversary in nearly identical terms: ‘I will give the carcasses of the Philistine camp to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth’ (I Sam. 17:46b). This is not the only instance in which David adopts Philistine/Achaean conventions of warfare. Upon dispatching the towering braggart with a well-aimed slingstone, David uses Goliath’s sword to decapitate his fallen foe (I Sam. 17:51); then David took the head of the Philistine and brought it to Jerusalem; and he put his weapons in his own tent (I Sam. 17:54). This morbid deed was actually something practiced by the Philistines themselves – as well as by Homer’s Achaean warriors. When Goliath’s countrymen subsequently defeat the Israelites at Mt. Gilboa, King Saul is slain. The next day, First Samuel 31:8-10 recounts: the Philistines came to strip the slain, and they found Saul and his three sons lying on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped him of his armor. . . .They placed his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they impaled his body on the wall of Beth-shan.
The Philistine custom of stripping a fallen opponent’s corpse of its armor appears with great frequency in the Iliad (4.466; 5.48-49, 163-164; 6.27-28; 13.550-551; 15.343; 16.500, 545, 560ff.; 22.367-368, etc.). In fact, Book 17 focuses on Hector’s stripping Patroclus’ corpse of its armor (125ff.) and the Achaeans’ overwhelming desire to avenge this effrontery. Further, the gruesome habit of decapitating the defeated soldier’s corpse after stripping it of its armor, as David did to Goliath and the Philistines did to Saul, finds parallels in Homer’s Aegean world:
Now Hector, when he had stripped from Patroclus his glorious armour, sought to hale him away that he might cut the head from off his shoulders with the sharp bronze, and drag off the corpse, and give it to the dogs of Troy… (Iliad 17:125ff.).
In a less famous scene,
Aiantes held Imbrius on high, and stripped him of his armour. And the head did the son of Oïleus cut from the tender neck, being wroth for the slaying of Amphimachus, and with a swing he sent it rolling through the throng like a ball… (Iliad 13.201-204).
As far as Homer’s epics inform us, then, Goliath and his countrymen represent true Aegean warriors in almost every way possible.
The biblical accounts show the various aspects of the Philistines mentioned in this essay, especially their material culture, to be unique characteristics that they shared with the Bronze Age Aegean world rather than with the contemporary, local cultures with which Israel was familiar. This is borne out by archaeology. Excavations at various Philistine sites in Israel, especially the well-known “Philistine Pentapolis,” have revealed a culture that is noticeably different from the earlier one that this branch of the Sea Peoples replaced. Such is the stark difference between the Philistine/Aegean material culture and that of the Canaanites before them that Trude Dothan, the foremost excavator of Philistine sites, concluded that, in areas settled by the Philistines, “the end of Canaanite civilization, with its specific economic, social, political and cultural traits, heralds the beginning of another, characterized primarily and predominantly by the undiluted recollection of an advanced Aegean civilization.”9 The David and Goliath episode illustrates these differences perfectly. Goliath’s armor and weapons are highly characteristic not only of the Aegean world, but of the areas that were settled by other Sea Peoples. As Trude Dothan and Moshe Dothan pointed out: “Excavations at the Early Iron Age cemetery at Glasinatz near Sarajevo had uncovered the tomb of a warrior buried with a helmet, greaves, shield, and spear that were strikingly similar to descriptions of the armor of both the Philistine champion Goliath and the Homeric heroes. To make the connection even more persuasive…the other grave offering in Glasinatz included numerous kraters and bowls similar to those [unearthed] in the Philistine layers of Ashkelon.”10 Bronze Age burials at Dendra and Achaia in Greece have been unearthed containing the remains of Mycenaean warriors wearing bronze greaves and bronze armor in general that, in the words of Emily Vermeule, the great scholar of pre-Classical Greece, “agree with formulas in Homeric poetry.”11 Similar greaves were unearthed at Enkomi on Cyprus, dating from the same era, as well as at somewhat later sites on Sardinia.12 Goliath’s bronze helmet is called a koba, which is not a Hebrew word. As Edward Sapir of Yale University pointed out, “The cultural evidence points to the [Philistine] helmet, in various forms, as originally more properly at home in Asia Minor than in Palestine.”13
Goliath’s paired spear and javelin match the famous Egyptian depictions at Medinet Habu of allied Sea Peoples during their invasion of the northern coast of Egypt in that same era, with the invaders being shown carrying two spears apiece.14 The gigantic Philistine warrior’s huge spear, moreover, is a hallmark of Bronze Age weaponry in the Aegean area and the Balkan Peninsula, as archaeologist Nancy K. Sandars has observed. By the 13th century BCE, she noted, “the long spear [was] now the principal weapon” in that region; she further commented, “In the Aegean of the 13th century the spear was the fighting and hunting weapon par excellence . . . ”15 One particularly telling aspect of Goliath’s enormous spear is that it is described as being like a weaver’s bar (I Sam. 17:7). This not only conveys the sheer size of the implement, but also reveals an exotic form of weaponry that was utterly new and foreign to the author of the Books of Samuel, as Yigael Yadin pointed out:
this type [of spear shaft] had not been seen in Israel and had no name in Hebrew. What was meant by ‘weaver’s beam’ is the leash rod of a loom. This is a block of wood which separates the threads of the warp to offer passage for the threads of the weft. Its characteristic feature was the loops or leashes of cord tied to it . . . A typical Aegean javelin has a loop and a cord wound round the shaft so that the weapon could be hurled a greater distance with greater stability by virtue of the resultant spin. The Greeks and Romans called such a javelin ‘the loop.’16
In other words, this feature was a weapons modification that was totally foreign to the Hebrew author, who certainly would have been familiar with the material culture of the peoples around him, particularly the Canaanites. However, a well-known artifact demonstrates that this new, foreign weapon was a unique characteristic of the Bronze Age Aegean world: the so-called Warrior Vase, discovered by no less a personage than Heinrich Schliemann, at no less a place than Mycenae, the very heart of Late Bronze Age Aegean civilization. This exceedingly important find, which dates to the mid-12th century BCE, depicts Mycenaean warriors marching in single file, carrying long spears and wearing greaves, bronze helmets, and coats of mail similar not only to those which Goliath is described as wearing, but to the images of related Sea Peoples on the Medinet Habu paintings, as well as to Homer’s descriptions of Aegean soldiers.17 What is particularly noteworthy about the long spears of these Mycenaean warriors is that they all have a strange, bulbous object jutting from the shaft. These unusual appendages are the earliest visual representations of the uniquely Aegean “throwing loop” which so mystified the author of the Books of Samuel. A Greek kylix from the fifth century BCE, featuring a warrior in full armor and weaponry, provides additional visual evidence for this throwing loop, which is clearly a descendant of the bulbous appendages on the Mycenaean spears of the Warrior Vase.18
Despite this evidence, the claim that the Philistines and other Sea Peoples actually came from the Aegean world remains controversial. Some have posited that they were a socio-economic rather than ethnic phenomenon, a loose confederation of sea merchants, operating out of Cyprus, whose main commodity was Mycenaean-type pottery. Others strongly oppose this hypothesis, maintaining that the preponderance of archaeological, artistic, literary, and linguistic evidence places the homeland of the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, squarely in the Aegean world.19 Further dispute centers on the dating and historical reliability of both the Homeric and Biblical records. However these controversies may ultimately be resolved, there are undeniably remarkable similarities between the biblical tradition and the Homeric corpus in their respective descriptions of Philistine and Aegean warriors. Numerous expressions, weaponry, armor, fighting techniques, and even religious beliefs are mentioned in the biblical record as being unique to the Philistines, having known literary, artistic, and archaeological parallels only in the Homeric writings and in what physical evidence remains to us of the Sea Peoples. Immaterial of how the controversy over the origin of these seaborne invaders comes to be settled, the extraordinary parallels between Homer’s epics and the biblical descriptions of the Philistines clearly demonstrate a degree of contact between the Aegean world and the Biblical authors. Just how early this contact began, and how deeply it ran, remains to be determined.
- All Bible citations are from The New JPS Translation, 2nd ed.; all Homeric citations are from the Loeb Classical Library.
- Michael Astour, “Second Millennium BC Cypriot and Cretan Onomastica Reconsidered” Journal of the American Oriental Society 84 (1964) p. 248, n. 103; R. D. Barnett, “The Sea Peoples,” in I. E. S. Edwards et al., eds., The History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region, c. 1380-1000 BC, vol. 2, no. 2 of Cambridge Ancient History, 3rd ed. (Cambridge University Press, 1975) p. 375.
- Astour, “Second Millennium BC,” p. 249, n. 109.
- Kenneth A. Kitchen, “The Philistines,” in D. J. Wiseman, ed., Peoples of Old Testament Times (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1973) p. 54.
- “The Religion of the Canaanites,” in V. T. A. Ferm, ed., Forgotten Religions (Freeport, NY: Books for Library Press, 1970) p. 124. This island, near the Peloponnese, is mentioned by Herodotus (Histories 3.45). The fact that Carpathos is a single island may be why Jeremiah 47:4 uses the singular “the island of Caphtor.”
- In the ancient Near East, linen was considered a fabric worthy of the aristocracy, exemplified by the fact that it was used to mummify pharaohs. A passage of Egyptian wisdom literature called the Harper’s Song (3rd millennium BCE) instructs the listener to enjoy the finest luxuries in life: “Put myrrh on your head,/Dress in fine linen,/Anoint yourself with oils fit for a god” (Karel van der Toorn, “Did Ecclesiastes Copy Gilgamesh?” Bible Review 16:1 , p. 26). The Hittite king Hattushili III (13th century) mentions “the silver and the linen which I have given to the physician” (Kathleen R. Mineck et al., “Hittite Historical Texts II,” in Mark W. Chavalas, ed., The Ancient Near East: Historical Sources in Translation [Oxford: Blackwell, 2006] p. 278). Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II (9th century BCE) received tribute that included “silver . . . gold . . . [and] multicolored linen garments” (Sarah C. Melville et al., “Neo-Assyrian and Syro-Palestinian Texts I,” in Chavalas, p. 288). The only Biblical episode that resembles the Samson incident is that in which Joseph, now vizier of Egypt, supplies his brothers with provisions for the journey back to Canaan to collect their father, including a change of clothing for each of them (Gen. 45:21-22). However, the passage does not specify if the garments were particularly luxurious, and no economic barter was involved.
- Barnett “The Sea Peoples,” p. 373; Trude Dothan and Moshe Dothan, People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines (New York: Macmillan, 1992) p. 10.
- Even the Trojan-born Aeneas is portrayed as having been steeped in this peculiarly Aegean form of combat. First, he challenges a native Italian warrior-prince, Turnus, to single combat (Aeneid 11.434-5, 440-2); following this, Book 12 recounts in vivid detail the fight between the two while their respective armies look on (12.697-790, 887ff.).
- “Archaeology and the Study of Cultural Diversity,” in A. Biran and J. Aviram, eds., Biblical Archaeology Today 1990 (Jerusalem: Keter Press, 1993) p. 724. This author had the honor of personally attending one of her lectures during his participation on the Ashkelon dig.
- People of the Sea, pp. 48-9. Moreover, according to R. D. Barnett, writing in The Cambridge Ancient History, scholars “see in the challenge to single combat between David and the Philistine champion Goliath a typically European, Hellenic idea” (“The Sea Peoples,” p. 373).
- Greece in the Bronze Age (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1964) p. 135.
- Nancy K. Sandars, The Sea Peoples: Warriors of the Ancient Mediterranean 1250-1150 BC (London: Thames and Hudson: 1978) pp. 188, 199.
- “Hebrew ‘Helmet,’ a Loanword, and Its Bearing on Indo-European Phonology, Journal of the American Oriental Society 57 (1937) p. 75; cf. Barnett, “The Sea Peoples,” p. 373.
- Barnett, “The Sea Peoples,” pp. 367, 372.
- Nancy K. Sandars, The Sea Peoples, op. cit. pp. 73, 92 [italics original].
- The Art of Warfare in Biblical Lands, vol. 2 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963) pp. 354, 355 (emphases added).
- Lawrence E. Stager, “Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel,” in M. D. Coogan, ed., The Oxford History of the Biblical World (Oxford University Press, 1998) p. 169; Sandars, The Sea Peoples, pp. 188-9; T. Dothan and M. Dothan, People of the Sea, pp. 46-7.
- Y. Yadin, The Art of Warfare, p. 355; Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville & London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) pp. 153-4.
- See, in particular, Tristan J. Barako, “The Philistine Settlement as Mercantile Phenomenon?” American Journal of Archaeology 104 (2000) pp. 513-530.