The esteemed cadre of experts participating in “Philistines! Rehabilitating a Biblical Foe” spent Sunday, Nov. 17, 2019, in the warm environs of the Forchheimer Auditorium at the Yeshiva University Museum updating the world about this ancient people who lived on the south coast of Canaan between the 12th and 7th centuries BCE, demonstrating that they were more than “an aggressive, warmongering people” ( as one website described them) represented by the gigantic Goliath of Gath in his battle with David.
The conference was ably organized by Dr. Jill Katz, clinical assistant professor of archaeology who, since 2004, has been bringing Yeshiva University students to work at the site of Tell es-Safi/Gath, one of the major Philistine excavation sites. She was supported in her organizing work by the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies, directed by Dr. Steven Fine, the Dean Pinkhos Churgin Professor of Jewish History at YU.
Dr. Aren Maeir, professor of archaeology at Bar-Ilan University, director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project and co-director of the Minerva Center for the Relations between Israel and Aram in Biblical Times, set out the parameters of the day’s discussions with his opening talk, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Changing Perspectives on the Philistines.”
In his presentation, he described how the changes in scholarship that have come about since the 1982 publication of Dr. Trude Krakauer Dothan’s seminal The Philistines and Their Material Culture have established that the arrival of the Philistines was less an invasion and more a centuries-long intermingling with the people living in and passing through the area, creating what he called an “entangled culture,” or, more colorfully, a “Mediterranean salad.” The scholarship shows that borders (both geographic and cultural) were more porous than previously thought and that such areas as genetics, botany, pottery, literature and architecture all indicate a situation more fluid than static, conflicted yet co-mingled.
The rest of the day was given over to filling in the nuances of Dr. Maeir’s broad summary, and the audience members had ample opportunities to talk to the presenters in generously timed Q&As.
Dr. Ari Berman, President of Yeshiva University, offered his thanks to the presenters for their masterful work and said that he appreciated the “excavation of identity” being done by the eminent scholars in the room, a topic of great importance to the Jewish people.
Roster of Presenters
Session 1: Chair: Ed Bleiberg (Brooklyn Museum of Art) with Aren Maeir (Bar-Ilan University, You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: Changing Perspectives on the Philistines), Louise Hitchcock (University of Melbourne, An Architectural Biography of the “Melbourne Megaron” in Area A) and Ann Killebrew (Pennsylvania State University, Philistines in Philistia: Interactions Between the Pentapolis Settlements and its Hinterland During the Iron I Period)
Session 2: Chair: David Danzig (Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York University) with David Ben Shlomo (Ariel University, Philistine Society as Revealed by its Art, Iconography, and Cultic Artifacts), Sue Frumin (Bar-Ilan University, Cereals and Fruits of the Philistines—Signs of Identity and Involvement) and Jill Katz (Yeshiva University, Dynamics of Philistine Group Identity: From Barbarism to Civilization)
Session 3: Chair: David Moster (Institute for Biblical Culture) with Aaron Koller (Yeshiva University, Language, Script, and Philistine “Assimilation” in the Iron I and Iron II Levant), Jeff Chadwick (Brigham Young University, When Gath of the Philistines Became Gath of Judah) and Shalom Holtz (Yeshiva University, Jeremiah’s Prophecy to the Philistines (Jer. 47) as Literature and History).
A Quick Q&A with Dr. Jill Katz, conference organizer
How were you able to assemble such an esteemed collection of “Philistineologists”?
Several factors went into choosing the speakers: (1) those who are part of my research team at Tell es-Safi, many of whom I have been excavating with for 15 years (Aren Maeir, director, Jeff Chadwick and Louise Hitchcock, both field directors like myself, Sue Frumin, archaeobotanist); (2) other people specializing in the Philistines who have written in depth on them (Ann Killebrew, David Ben-Shlomo); and (3) scholars from YU who could provide a more biblical or textual perspective since the rest of us are all associated with archaeology (Aaron Koller and Shalom Holtz). It was also important that the scholars come from near and far. So while there were three of us from YU, there were also three from Israel (Bar Ilan and Ariel), one from Penn State, one from BYU, and one from Australia (Melbourne).
Why care about the Philistines in this day and age?
The main reason we still care about the Philistines is that they are a Biblical people. They are Israel’s foe during the time of the Judges and early monarchy. A second reason is that they turn out to be so fascinating: origins shrouded in complexity, immigrants to the Land of Israel, exotic culture that is so foreign to Canaan yet over time their foreign culture and the local culture become entangled—they introduced us to white wine!—and the fact they share a similar fate under the Babylonians. Their story is an ancient one yet resonates with modern population movements today.
The Philistines were part of the Land of Israel for 600 years, and their existence impacted ancient Israel both directly and indirectly during our formative period and that of the First Temple. They also serve as a contrast of what could have happened to us. While they were deported to Babylon and assimilated into the larger society, we managed to maintain our religious and ethnic identity during the Exile and return to the Land of Israel transformed yet intact. How that happened, of course, is a topic for another conference!
How does the work your students did on their summer digs exemplify a YU education?
The dig experience is a paradigm of Torah U’maddah. The students approach this Biblical site of Gath with a strong background in Tanach, and it is highly relevant. They are familiar with the Biblical accounts of the Philistines and their relationship to ancient Israel. They are then exposed to current archaeological methods, which incorporate excavating principles of stratigraphy and context as well as scientific analyses of plants, animals, soil, cultural remains and architecture. They get to apply modern scientific techniques to an ancient Biblical people, and this provides so much context and breadth of understanding to the overall picture of the ancient Philistines.