Are the Philistines in Genesis an Anachronism?

In several verses in the books of Genesis, Exodus, and sometimes Joshua, it is charged that references to the Philistines are anachronistic. The typical charge is that these references occur several hundred years before the Philistines were in Palestine.

An immediate observation can be made. The Philistines were Israel's traditional enemies, well-known in the time when critics think that Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua were written; yet in Genesis (they are only mentioned briefly in Exodus and Joshua) they are depicted as friendly to Israel's founding patriarch.

Nahum Sarna, in his commentary on Genesis, observes: "No later Israelite writer could possibly be so ignorant of the elementary facts of the history of his people as to perpetuate such a series of blunders, and to no purpose whatsoever." [390]. It would be akin to someone reporting that Nazi Germany was our friend in the 1940s. Why depict a sworn enemy as being kind to your race's founder -- indeed, why make it look like he is the one who made a fool of himself in front of them?

This leads to a second point. If this is somehow an error of anachronism, then it is a very strange one. Victor Hamilton, in his commentary on Genesis [94ff], notes the following differences between the Philistines of Genesis and those from Judges and beyond:

  1. The Philistines in Judges and beyond are bellicose and hostile. The Philistines in Genesis are mild and friendly -- to put it in modern terms, it's the difference between the Klingons and the Vulcans.
  2. The Philistines in Judges and beyond live in a five-city confederation under "lords." The Philistines in Genesis are in one city (not one of the five from later) and live under a king.

In other words, it appears that the name "Philistines" is the only thing that was "erroneously" transported back in time. The rest of what we read is nothing like the Philistines that the alleged creator of the error would have known. If he was mistaken on this account, and anachronizing, why don't the Genesis Philistines have "lords" and reflect the nastiness of the Judges Philistines?

So what is the answer here? A couple of proposals can be made.

The main issue appears to be that it is merely assumed that this is an anachronism because no one else mentions the Philistines until c. 1200-1190 BC (in this case, the Egyptians, in an inscription; see Trude and Moshe Dothan, Peoples of the Sea, 23), and as is often the case, the Bible is assumed to be in error (rather than being instead the first bona fide mention of the term).

The first proposal is that this is a case of a later copyist using a term familiar to readers then present to replace what became an anachronistic term. The Philistines may have been known by a different name at this time, and the Genesis author was using a newer term.

MacAlister, in The Philistines: Their History and Civilization, suggests this as a charitable option to consider [39]. Or perhaps, the peoples in Genesis may have been previous inhabitants of Gerar who were absorbed by the Philistines. This idea has some backup from the known anthropology of the Philistines. Trude and Moshe Dothan, though going with the idea of the Genesis references as anachronistic errors, unwittingly support this view in writing [113]:

Whatever their origins, the Philistines were not a homogenous group. Their culture and even their physical characteristics indicated a surprising mixture of influences that had suddenly joined together in Canaan at the early phase of the Iron Age.

MacAlister [82] also suggests that the Rephaites, a pre-Semitic people who became Semitized, were a sort of "leaven" by which the Philistines were also assimilated. If the Philistines absorbed these people, and their names were unknown by the time Genesis was penned, then perhaps the name of their absorbers were put in place.

On the other hand, the references in Exodus (and perhaps Joshua) are simply likely examples of later redactive work, for they would fit into the paradigm of geographical terms of the sort we have seen examples of in secular works of ancient history.

The second proposal is that "Philistines" was a generic term used by the Hebrews to describe the "Sea Peoples" of whom the Philistines were a part. Sarna [ibid.] prefers this explanation, and it may also correspond with what is noted by the Dothans above.

Machinist, in his essay in The Sea Peoples and Their World [65-6], notes that the OT does not name other Sea People even though some of them were in Palestinian territory, and therefore suggests that:

...the Philistines became so preeminently the Western and then all-Palestinian enemy of Israel...that they subsumed in the biblical recollection all other Sea Peoples, and perhaps other coastal enemies besides -- that they served, in short, as an umbrella term for the rest.

The third proposal is that these were members of an early, minor wave of settlers from the Aegean who corresponded to who would later be the Philistines -- in other words, a type of possibility #3 in our list of reasons for an anachronism; it is not an anachronism at all, but these are genuine Philistines.

John Wenham remarks in his commentary on Genesis that there is "ample archaeological evidence of Aegean contact with the Levant as early as the third millennium BC" [189]. Hindson confirms this in his work, The Philistines and the Old Testament [15], noting particularly an expansion of Aegean trade in 1900-1700 BC and objects of Aegean origin at Ras Sharma, Hazor, and Megiddo. What we would find here, then, are peoples who would become the Philistines in later years: immigrants from the same place or area, and therefore, in the Israelite view, deserving of the same name.

Circumstantial evidence backs up this point. The Dothans, though again they do not agree with our conclusions, state [51]:

...Philistine potters appeared to have had an intimate and surprisingly eclectic familiarity with artistic trends from all over the late Mycenean world.

A people with such wide knowledge from other nearby cultures could certainly be regarded as excellent candidates to have gone exploring.

This relates to a sub-point in this issue, the matter of Abimelech. Some note that his name is Semitic rather than Philistine. This in itself offers little difficulty: Abimelech may have been one of the Semitized Rephaites noted above. But the Philistines were also known for absorbing names from the cultures around them: Bierling [Giving Goliath His Due, 235] notes that an Assyrian list of Philistines kings has 1 Philistine name, but 3 Canaanite or Semitic names. They were apparently well-suited as immigrants.

Critics may brush these off as speculations, but we have three quite reasonable suggestions, whereas they must suggest an error of quite absurd and obvious proportions, with no reason for the alleged anachronizer to traipse so far afield, and indeed, every reason not to select the Philistines as the ones to put in this place. Beyond this, it is presumptive to assume our own modern anthropological classification schemes upon people who lived 3000 years before us.

-JPH