The Genesis Philistines

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Excerpt The Philistines we encounter in the books of Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel are well known to us. However, skeptics have claimed that references to the Philistines in the book of Genesis are a fictional anachronism. According to the Bible, the Philistines originated in “Caphtor” identified as the island of Crete... Continue reading

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This article was first published in the March 2006 ABR Electronic Newsletter.

The Philistines we encounter in the books of Judges and 1 and 2 Samuel (11th century BC) are well known to us. Not only do we have detailed information about them in the Bible, but we have evidence from extra-Biblical sources as well. Pharaoh Rameses III recorded that the Philistines were one tribe of a coalition of “Sea Peoples” who swept across Anatolia (modern Turkey) and down the Mediterranean coast intent on taking up residence in Egypt. In his eighth year (ca. 1177 BC), Rameses III turned them back at the border and the various tribes of the Sea Peoples were forced to settle elsewhere. The Philistines ended up in one of the choicest areas of Palestine, the southwest coastal region. Archaeologists have been able to track their presence there because of their distinctively Aegean material culture, especially their pottery (Wood 1991). According to the Bible, the Philistines originated in “Caphtor” (Jer 47:4; Am 9:7), identified as the island of Crete (Hess 1992).

But what about the mention of Philistines in the book of Genesis some 900 years earlier? Scholars have a ready answer: ­the Bible is wrong! For example, in The Anchor Bible Dictionary article on the Philistines, author Katzenstein states, “The references to the Philistines in Gen 21:32–34; 26:1, 8, 14–15; and in Exod 13:17; 15:14; 23:31 are all anachronisms” (1992: 326), that is, material that is chronologically out of place. Let us probe this “Bible problem” a little deeper.

The Phaistos Disk

An important find relating to the early Philistines is the Phaistos Disk, a 6.5 inch diameter, 0.5 inch thick, baked clay disk with undecipherable inscriptions on both sides (Robinson 2002: 297–315). It was discovered in 1908 by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in the ruins of a Minoan palace in southern Crete. Based on the archaeological context, the date cannot be later than about 1700 BC. The signs, running in a spiral from the outer edge toward the center, were impressed in the wet clay with a punch or stamp, resulting in the world’s first typewritten document. No other texts in this script have since been found.

The PhPhaistos Diskaistos Disk

The significance of the Phaistos Disk for our purposes is that it connects the Philistines with the island of Crete and places them there at a period far earlier than the 12th century BC. One of characters on the disk, in fact, the one that occurs most frequently, is a warrior with a feathered headdress. It is very similar to the depiction of the later Philistines in reliefs on the walls of Rameses III’s mortuary temple in Medinet Habu, Egypt (T. Dothan 1982: 22; T. and M. Dothan 1992: 35–36). This is not an isolated find, as identical signs, including frontal views of the feathered warrior, have been found inscribed on an axe found in a cave in Crete (Robinson 2002: 306–307).

The name “Philistine,” therefore, may simply be the Biblical term for Aegean peoples from Crete, from any time period. Another name used in the Bible for the people from Crete is “Caphtorites.” Deuteronomy 2:23 states, “as for the Avvites who lived in villages as far as Gaza, the Caphtorites coming out from Caphtor destroyed them and settled in their place.” According to the Bible, then, peoples from Crete took over the southwest coastal area of Canaan prior to the time of Moses. That is precisely the area where Abraham and Isaac encountered “Abimelech king of the Philistines.”

The Minoans  

The scholarly label for the ancient inhabitants of Crete is “Minoans.” This artificial appellation was coined by Arthur Evans, excavator of Knossos, a major site on Crete, based on Minos, an ancient ruler of Crete known from Greek mythology. We do not know what the ancient inhabitants of Crete called themselves. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Minoans were engaged in maritime trade throughout the Levant in the Middle Bronze period (ca. 2000–1500 BC). Some of this evidence suggests that they established trading colonies in Syria, Canaan and Egypt. A small, but growing, number of finds in Palestine provide tangible evidence for contacts between Canaan and Crete long before the 12th–11th century Philistines.

Gerar (Tel Haror)

Abimelech, the Philistine king or kings Abraham and Isaac had dealings with, ruled at Gerar (Gn 26:1). Ancient Gerar has been identified as Tel Haror, 17 miles east of Gaza in the western Negev (Oren 1992: 989). The Middle Bronze urban settlement there is one of the largest in southern Canaan, occupying an area of about 38 acres. It was enclosed by an elaborate system of earthen ramparts fronted by a deep ditch (Klenck 2002: 30; Oren et al. 1996: 91). Within the city a sacred precinct was excavated, including a “migdol temple,” remains of animal sacrifice, and cultic and imported pottery (Klenck 2002; Oren et al. 1996: 91–92). Also found within the fortified enclosure was a 10 foot diameter well, excavated to a depth of 38 feet (Klenck 2002: 34; Oren 1993: 581). The wells of Gerar were a major issue between both Abraham (Gn 21:25) and Isaac (Gn 26:17–22), and the Philistines.

Of particular interest is a Minoan graffito found in the sacred precinct dating to ca. 1600 BC. Analyses of the sherd determined that it originated in Crete, most likely the south coast (Day et al. 1999; Oren et al. 1996). There are four Minoan signs on the graffito, inscribed prior to firing, which represent a bull’s head, cloth, branch and figs (Oren et al. 1996: 99–109). In addition to the graffito, an unusual chalice of Canaanite shape and fabric was found in a room on the east side of the sacred area. What makes the chalice unusual is its high arching handles, a well-known feature of Minoan chalices, but not of Canaanite (Oren et al. 1996: 95, 96; Oren 1993: 581).

Maritime Trade Between Crete and the Levant

The similarity of harbors in Crete and the Levant in the Middle Bronze I (=IIA), period, ca. 2000–1750 BC, strongly suggests contact between the two areas:

the sea crossing between Crete, Egypt and the Levant was not only theoretically easy and simple, but had been used as such since early days…The data…suggest a close technical and conceptual resemblance for the type of siting and the layout of the portal installations in the Aegean, Crete and the Levant…the soaring demand for maritime facilities which [was] instigated by the rapid urbanism of the Levantine coast and the palatial economy of Crete…had brought about the new type of estuarian harbours, the extensive artificial remodification of coastal topography and the introduction of stone blocks [sic] quays in Crete and in the Levant (Raban 1991: 145).

There were harbors all along the Canaanite coast in Middle Bronze I and it is highly likely that it was commerce that brought the Minoans to Canaan. The harbors of Tel Ridan, 12 miles southwest of Gaza, and Ashkelon, 12 miles north-northeast of Gaza, would have served Gerar, which, in turn, acted as a gateway for transshipping goods throughout southern Canaan (Marcus 2002: 248). At Ashkelon, a sherd of a decorated Minoan cup from ca. 1800 BC was found (Merrillees 2003: 136).

Harbors at Yavneh Yam, 10 miles south of Tel Aviv, and Tel Gerisa, 2 miles east of Tel Aviv, provided anchorages for central Canaan. Further north, Dor, 14 miles south of Haifa; Tel Nami, 9 miles south of Haifa; Acco 8 miles north of Haifa; and Achziv, 17 miles north of Haifa, met the maritime needs of the northern sector.

At Tel Nami, excavators found 259 charred seeds of the legume Lathyrus clymenum in four storage jars and on the floors of two storerooms dated to the Middle Bronze I period (Kislev, Artzy and Marcus 1993). The seeds are exotic on two counts. First, they are not native to the Near East, but to the Aegean and regions further west, and thus were imported. The Tel Nami seeds most closely resemble samples from Crete (Kislev, Artzy and Marcus 1993: 148). Secondly, the seeds contain a toxic substance that causes permanent paralysis of the lower limbs if consumed in large quantities. Those using L. clymenum need specialized knowledge of how to process and prepare the seeds in order to avoid the accompanying health risk. The excavators conclude:

More than likely the demand for L. clymenum came from a person or persons who were either native to, or familiar with the Aegean region and were acquainted with the plant’s consumption and its palatable taste. The discovery of L. clymenum at Tel Nami could be evidence for the presence of Aegean people on the Israeli coast during the Middle Bronze IIA period…In the light of the nature of the archaeobotanical find at Tel Nami, we must consider that Minoan-Levantine contacts were not of an ephemeral disposition, but were of a sufficient scale to create the conditions whereby either local inhabitants (merchants, sailors?) acquired a presumably expensive taste for an Aegean food plant, or Aegeans abroad imported the ingredients for their own haute cuisine! (Kislev, Artzy and Marcus 1993: 152).

Tel Kabri

Tel Kabri is located 3 miles southeast of the port of Achziv. During the Middle Bronze I period it was fortified with an earthen rampart and city wall, and covered an area of ca. 80 acres, making it one of the largest Bronze Age sites in Israel. It was a major trading center, acting as an entrepot for northern Canaan (Marcus 2002: 248; Dothan, Zuckerman and Goren 2000: 13). That Minoans were present at the site was evidenced by a Minoan painted plaster floor and fragments of a wall fresco dating to the 17th century BC (Dever 1995: 114). They were found in a Middle Bronze palace which occupied ca. 22,000 square feet. The floor, in a 33 feet square ceremonial hall, was painted with a grid pattern of red lines imitating a pavement of stone slabs. The wall fragments were from a miniature fresco depicting a rocky shore, including flora and fauna, elements of buildings on shore, the sea, boats and a mythical griffin, all done in Minoan style (B. and W.-D. Niemeier 2000: 767–80).


Rather than being a “Bible mistake,” the accounts in Genesis 20–21 and 26 concerning Philistines ruling in Gerar in the days of Abraham and Isaac provide a rare glimpse into the history of southwestern Canaan in ca. 2000 BC that is otherwise undocumented.

 Recommended Resources for Further Study

Bible and Spade
Archaeology and
the Old Testament
100 Reasons to Trust
Old Testament History


Day, Peter M., et al.
1999 Petrographic Analysis of the Tel Haror Inscribed Sherd: Seeking Provenance Within Crete. Aegaeum 20: 191–96.

Dever, William G. 
1995  Orienting the Study of Trade in Near Eastern Archaeology. Pp. 111–19 in Recent Excavations in Israel: A View to the West, ed. Seymour Gitin. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt.

Dothan, Trude
1982  The Philistines and Their Material Culture. New Haven: Yale University.

Dothan, Trude and Moshe
1992  People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines. New York: Macmillan.

Dothan, Trude; Zuckerman, Susan; and Goren, Yuval
2000  Kamares Ware at Hazor. Israel Exploration Journal 50: 1–15.

Hess, Richard S.
1992  Caphtor. Pp. 869–70 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 1, ed. David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.

Katzenstein, H. Jacob
1992  Philistines, History. Pp. 326–28 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 5, ed. David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.

Kislev, Mordechai, E.; Artzy, Michal; and Marcus, Ezra
1993  Import of an Aegean Food Plant to a Middle Bronze IIA Coastal Site in Israel. Levant 25: 145–54.

Klenck, Joel D.
2001  The Canaanite Milieu: The Zooarchaeological Evidence from Tel Haror, Israel. BAR International Series 1029. Oxford, England: Archaeopress.

Marcus, Ezra
2002  The Southern Levant and Maritime Trade During the Middle Bronze IIA Period. Beer-Sheva 15: 241–63.

Merrillees, Robert S.
2003  The Fist Appearances of Kamares Ware in the Levant. Egypt and the Levant 13: 127–42.

Niemeier, Barbara and Wolf-Dietrich
2000  Aegean Frescoes in Syria-Palestine: Alalakh and Tel Kabri. Pp. 763–800 in Proceedings of the First International Symposium, The Wall Paintings of Thera, ed. Susan Sherratt. Athens: Thera Foundation.

Oren, Eliezer D.
1992  Gerar (Place). Pp. 989–91 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary 2, ed. David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday.
1993  Haror, Tel. Pp. 580–84 in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land 2, ed. Ephraim Stern. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society & Carta.

Oren, Eliezer D., et al.
1996  A Minoan Graffito from Tel Haror (Negev, Israel). Cretan Studies 5: 91–118.

Raban, Avner
1991  Minoan and Canaanite Harbours. Aegaeum 7: 129–46.

Robinson, Andrew
2001  Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Wood, Bryant G.
1991  The Philistines Enter Canaan. Were they Egyptian lackeys or invading conquerors? Biblical Archaeology Review 17.6: 44–52, 89–90, 92.



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Comments Comment RSS

6/19/2008 10:46 PM #

one question.  you say that the philistines originated in caphtor and may be the caphtorites.  Yet Gen. 10:13 states the philistines came from  the casluhites (son of mizraim son of ham).  there is one verse which in amos 9 which states:  'Did i not bring Israel  up from egypt, the philistines from caphtor...'

now it is possible the philistines originated from caphtor but it is also possible that they migrated there earlier and then when thera exploded they moved on to the levant.

who are the casluhites and where did they originate?

it is possible that the minoans were the casluhites not the caphtorites and the philistines were the minoans who escaped destruction (no skeletons have been found at santorini)  and fled to other lands.

dr. david thiessen - 6/19/2008 10:46:02 PM

6/21/2008 12:26 AM #

Dear Dr. Thiessen,

Little is known about the Casluhites, as Gen. 10:13 and the parallel in I Chr. 1:12 are the only references we have to these ancient people. Since they descended from Mizraim (Egypt), it appears that they originated in Egypt. The fact that the Bible says the Philistines came from the Casluhites, and also that they came from Caphtor (=Crete—Jer. 47:4; Amos 9:7), suggests the Casluhites migrated from Egypt to Caphtor and from there came to the Levant. See Gary A. Rendsburg, “Gen. 10:13–14: An Authentic Hebrew Tradition Concerning the Origin of the Philistines,” Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages 13 (1987): 89–96.

Hope this helps- Bryant Wood

hsmith - 6/21/2008 12:26:49 AM

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