The Blurred Lines of Biblical Timnah

Who were the people of this Iron Age City?

Who were the people of biblical Timnah—Philistines? Israelites? Judahites? Canaanites? In the article “Blurred Lines: The Enigma of Iron Age Timnah,” from the July/August/September/October 2019 issue of  Biblical Archaeology Review, author Mahri Leonard-Fleckman seeks to answer that question, using evidence from Tel Batash, the excavation of the Iron Age city that scholars have identified as Timnah.

Samson Slays a Thousand Men

Much of the Samson story (Judges 14-15) takes place around biblical Timnah. What can the site teach us about how heroes like Samson viewed themselves?
Credit: James Tissot

Timnah is in the Shephelah, a region situated between the highlands to the east and the coastal plain to the west. It is near the Philistine cities of Gath and Ekron, but also a bit west of Lachish and Beth Shemesh, cities of Judah’s western border. Thanks to its location between both geographical and political boundaries, Iron Age Timnah—and some of its neighboring cities—served as an area where different peoples and cultures could mix and interact.

Mentioned in the Bible several times, including 2 Chronicles, Joshua 15:10 and Joshua 15:57., Timnah is most prominently referred to in two narratives. As Leonard-Fleckman explains,

“Aside from the land allotments, Timnah is at the heart of two biblical stories: Tamar (Genesis 38) and Samson (Judges 14–15). In contrast to Joshua’s carefully constructed boundary lists, these stories describe Timnah as a place of liminality and cultural ambiguity. Questionable sexual or cross-cultural activity takes place there, activity outside the appropriate contours and structures of society.”

Timnah has a brief role in the Tamar-Judah story. The road to Timnah became, in Leonard-Fleckman’s words, “the space for, well, let’s call it unusual sexual activity between Judah and his daughter-in-law.” In the Samson cycle, however, Timnah (and the Shephelah in general) serves as the setting for a story scholars have referred to as, “about ‘borders’ and ‘border-crossing’ between Judah and Philistia.”

But are the “borders” of cultural identity as solid as the biblical story leads us to believe? Would the mighty Samson have identified himself as an Israelite, a Danite, or simply a man who grew up between Zorah and Estaol, alongside people of varying cultural backgrounds such as Philistines and Canaanites?  What can a culturally elusive site such as Timnah tell us about the socio-political identities of people living within the confines of the area in which biblical stories take place?

Want to know more about the role of Timnah, identity, and social categories in the Bible? Read “Blurred Lines: The Enigma of Iron Age Timnah”, published in the July/August /September/October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Read more about the Shephelah in Bible History Daily:

Lachish: Open Access to BAR Articles on Lachish Archaeology

Khirbet Qeiyafa and Tel Lachish Excavations Explore Early Kingdom of Judah

Lachish 2014 Field Report: Ancient Jewelry, a Scarab and More

Eshtaol Excavations Reveal the Oldest House in the Shephela.



: Read  Blurred Lines: The Enigma of Iron Age Timnah by Cecilia Wassén in the July–October 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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