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July 30, 2011

The Philistines of Gath and Their Temple

Michelle Morris and Oren Kessler
July 14, 2011
The Jerusalem Post

Excavation where David slew Goliath sheds light on a people remembered as uncultured.

The word Philistine has come to denote boorishness, an underdeveloped sense of beauty and sophistication, and vulgar materialism.

But remnants of an ancient Philistine hub now being excavated in the ancient city of Gath tell a different story: one of an advanced society boasting sophisticated architecture and an advanced political life.

Excavators of Tell es-Safi/Gath, one of Israel’s largest archeological sites, resume work this week in search of further remnants of a Philistine temple believed to have been toppled by an earthquake in 8th century BCE – an event familiar to millions the world over through the biblical story of Samson.

The temple was discovered a year ago by a team led by Prof.

Aren Maeir of Bar-Ilan’s University’s Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology. Dating back to the Iron Age (10th century BCE), it features two central pillars in accordance with the image described in the story of Samson in the Book of Judges: “He pulled the two pillars together, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it.”

The team has also uncovered collapsed walls that appear to date from an earthquake in the 8th century BCE – an event that could be identical to the earthquake prophesied by the prophet Amos.

“What we do illuminates various aspects of the Bible,” Maeir said.

“We don’t set out to prove or disprove it. We’re just studying the periods that it was written in and bring color and flesh to the story.”

In its 15th year, experts at the Tell es-Safi /Gath Archaeological Project (situated in the Tel Tzafit National Park between Beit Shemesh and Ashdod) hope to discover more finds from the various stages of the Canaanite, Philistine and Judahite cultures.

Now their efforts have been bolstered by some 100 students of archaeology, anthropology and theology – from North America, Europe, South Korea and Australia – hoping to unearth more insights into Philistine history.

In the Bible the Philistines are portrayed as the archetypal enemy – all brawn and no brain – exemplified by the hulking, thick-headed Goliath who falls victim to the wily King David.

A 2005 dig at Gath made headlines when excavators found a small ceramic shard bearing two names similar to that of Goliath, whom the Bible says lived in Gath. The find marked the earliest decipherable Philistine inscription to date.

The Philistines’ origins lie in Crete, from which they embarked around 1175 BCE for the southern coastal plain of present-day Israel.

They swiftly conquered Gath from the Canaanites and in time they built up a five-city confederation, the Pentapolis – including Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gaza.

Information of the lives of the Philistines in the 11th and 12th century BCE is well known from excavations in Ashdod and Ashkelon conducted since the 1960s. But Seymour Gitin, director of the WF Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and an expert on the Philistines, told the Associated Press the excavation at Gath could “fill a very important gap in our understanding of the Philistines in 9th century BCE.”

“It doesn’t mean that we’re one day going to find a skull with a hole in its head from the stone that David slung at him,” Maeir added, speaking of Goliath. “But it nevertheless tells that this reflects a cultural milieu that was actually there at the time.”

Read also:

Search for Biblical Philistines Attracts 100 Archaeologists

Gath, Gaza, and Goliath

Aren Maeir's Daily Updates On the Excavation