New study argues Philistines were raiders, not conquerors
The Philistines, who enter the biblical scene around 1200–1000 B.C.E., are often thought of as a powerful invading force that ruthlessly subjugated the nascent Judahite kingdom. According to a new study published in the Jerusalem Journal of Archaeology by archaeologist Daniel Master of Wheaton College, however, both archaeological and biblical evidence indicate that the Philistines were more likely opportunistic raiders than a well-organized military force bent on conquest and occupation.
Excavations at the Philistine coastal city of Ashkelon have revealed that Philistine fortunes were quite bleak during the 11th century B.C.E., roughly corresponding to the period of the biblical Judges, when the Bible says the Philistines frequently attacked the Israelite tribes in the neighboring hill country. Instead, the archaeological remains of 11th-century Ashkelon indicate the Philistines were not nearly powerful enough to invade and conquer the hill country.
In addition, a close examination of the biblical accounts of Philistine incursions reveals them to be raiders, not conquerors. The Philistines and Judahites frequently fight in open territory, not in prolonged battles or sieges. Master also points to the Philistine attack on the town of Keilah in 1 Samuel 23:1–5, where “the attack is specifically on the threshing floors, not on the city itself, despite the fact that the city is so close to Philistia proper.” Finally, after losses, the Philistines retreat to their own territories along the coast rather than to fortified positions within Judah. Master argues, therefore, that both the archaeological and biblical evidence indicate that the early Philistines were not conquerors but rather brigands who aimed to extort and plunder the seasonal harvest of the Israelite tribes.
According to Master, the main impetus for the Philistine raids was likely the final withdrawal of the Egyptian empire from Canaan at the end of the 12th century B.C.E. The Egyptian withdrawal would have caused the collapse of many of the trade routes that formerly passed by the coastal city. Needing a new source of income, the Philistines turned towards the fertile highland, looking to plunder the poorly defended Israelite villages in the hill country. This situation did not last long, however, as towns and villages in the hill country soon fortified themselves against the Philistine threat. As Master argues, this may have been the very threat that forced a small clan from Bethlehem, under a leader named David, to occupy the fortified stronghold of Jerusalem.
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If your hypothesis is true, why then did the Philistines set their garrison in Bethlehem as a rampart against the Israelites and their Bedouin Allies? Unlike what you are trying to depict, the evidence points to the Philistines being good architects, blacksmiths, and olive oil producers, and these are not features of raiders & brigands. Also, setting a rampart shows the will to plan and prevent invasions & razzias. The Canaanites were still in the land as citadines so they didn’t constitute the real threat; while the brigands & raiders were known to be the Hebrew and Arab tribes, since at least the Tell El Amarna period. That the Israelites finally sedentarize didn’t mean they they didn’t raid from time to time; and the same applies to the Sea Peoples. Philistines may not have been as powerful as the Israelites described them in the Bible is plausible but to make « brigands and raiders » out of them just because they are not very strong is a biased attempt at staining their reputation, as was done profusely in the Bible (just as with the other main opponent of the Israelites: the Canaanites). Different time but same mentality…