Philistines in the Time of Abraham—Fallacy or Fact?
by Eric Lyons, M.Min.
The Bible declares that long before King David fought the Philistine giant named Goliath in the valley of Elah (1 Samuel 17), Abraham and Isaac had occasional contact with a people known as the Philistines. In fact, seven of the eight times that the Philistines are mentioned in Genesis, they are discussed in connection with either Abraham’s visit with Abimelech, king of the Philistines (21:32,34), or with Isaac’s visit to the same city (Gerar) a few years later (26:1,8,14-15,18). For some time now, critics of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch have considered the mention of the Philistines—so early in human history—to be anachronistic (i.e., details from a later age inappropriately inserted into the patriarchal account). Supposedly, “Philistines…did not come into Palestine until after the time of Moses” (Gottwald, 1959, p. 104), and any mention of them before that time represents “an historical inaccuracy” (Frank, 1964, p. 323). Thus, as Millar Burrows concluded, the mention of Philistines in Genesis may be considered “a convenient and harmless anachronism,” which “is undoubtedly a mistake” (1941, p. 277).
As with most allegations brought against the Scriptures, those who claim that the Philistine nation was not around in Abraham’s day are basing their conclusion on at least one unprovable assumption—namely, that the Philistines living in the days of the patriarchs were a great nation, similar to the one living during the time of the United Kingdom. The evidence suggests, however, that this assumption simply is wrong. The Bible does not present the Philistines of Abraham’s day as the same mighty Philistine nation that would arise hundreds of years later. Abimelech, the king of Gerar, is portrayed as being intimidated by Abraham (cf. Genesis 21:25). Surely, had the Philistine people been a great nation in the time of the patriarchs, they would not have been afraid of one man (Abraham) and a few hundred servants (cf. Genesis 14:14). Furthermore, of the five great Philistine city-states that were so prominent throughout the period of the Judges and the United Kingdom (Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza—Joshua 13:3; 1 Samuel 6:17), none was mentioned. Rather, only a small village known as Gerar was named. To assume that the Bible presents the entire civilization of the Philistines as being present during Abraham’s day is to err. In reality, one only reads of a small Philistine kingdom.
The word “Philistine” was a rather generic term meaning “sea people.” No doubt, some of the Aegean Sea people made their way to Palestine long before a later migration took place—a migration that was considerably larger. In commenting on these Philistines, Larry Richards observed:
While there is general agreement that massive settlement of the coast of Canaan by sea peoples from Crete took place around 1200 B.C., there is no reason to suppose Philistine settlements did not exist long before this time. In Abram’s time as in the time of Moses a variety of peoples had settled in Canaan, including Hittites from the far north. Certainly the seagoing peoples who traded the Mediterranean had established colonies along the shores of the entire basin for centuries prior to Abraham’s time. There is no reason to suppose that Philistines, whose forefathers came from Crete, were not among them (1993, p. 40).
No archaeological evidence exists that denies various groups of “sea people” were in Canaan long before the arrival of the main body in the early twelfth century B.C. (see Unger, 1954, p. 91; Archer, 1964, p. 266; Harrison, 1963, p. 32). To assume that not a single group of Philistines lived in Palestine during the time of Abraham because archaeology has not documented them until about 1190 B.C. is to argue from negative evidence and is without substantial weight. In response to those who would deny the Philistines’ existence based upon their silence in the archeological world before this time, professor Kitchen stated: “Inscriptionally, we know so little about the Aegean peoples as compared with those of the rest of the Ancient Near East in the second millennium B.C., that it is premature to deny outright the possible existence of Philistines in the Aegean area before 1200 B.C.” (1966, p. 80n). Likely, successive waves of sea peoples from the Aegean Sea migrated to Canaan, even as early as Abraham’s time, and continued coming until the massive movement in the twelfth century B.C. (Archer, 1970, p. 18).
Based on past experiences, it would seem that critics of the Bible’s inerrancy would refrain from making accusations when arguing from silence. For years, modernists and skeptics taught that the Hittite kingdom, which is mentioned over forty times in Scripture (Exodus 23:28; Joshua 1:4; et al.), was a figment of the Bible writers’ imaginations, since no evidence of their existence had been located. But those utterances vanished into thin air when, in 1906, the Hittite capital was discovered along with more than 10,000 clay tablets that contained the Hittites’ law system. Critics of the Bible’s claim of divine inspiration at one time also accused Luke of gross inaccuracy because he used the title politarchas to denote the city officials of Thessalonica (Acts 17:6,8), rather than the more common terms strateegoi (magistrates) and exousiais (authorities). To support their accusations, they simply pointed out that the term politarch was found nowhere else in all of Greek literature as an official title. Once again, these charges eventually were dropped, based on the fact that term politarchas has now been found in 32 inscriptions from the second century B.C. to the third century A.D. (Bruce, 1988, p. 324n), with at least five of these inscriptions being from Thessalonica—the very city about which Luke wrote in Acts 17 (Robertson, 1997).
Although critics accuse biblical writers of revealing erroneous information, their claims continue to evaporate with the passing of time and the compilation of evidence.
Archer, Gleason (1964), A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (Chicago, IL: Moody).
Archer, Gleason L. (1970), “Old Testament History and Recent Archaeology from Abraham to Moses,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 127:3-25, January.
Bruce, F.F. (1988), The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans), revised edition.
Burrows, Millar (1941), What Mean These Stones? (New Haven, CT: American Schools of Oriental Research).
Frank, H.T. (1964), An Archaeological Companion to the Bible (London: SCM Press).
Gottwald, Norman (1959), A Light to the Nations (New York: Harper and Row).
Harrison, R.K. (1963), The Archaeology of the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Row).
Kitchen, Kenneth (1966), Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago, IL: Inter-Varsity Press).
Richards, Larry (1993), 735 Baffling Bible Questions Answered (Grand Rapids, MI: Revell).
Robertson, A.T. (1997), Word Pictures in the New Testament (Electronic Database: Biblesoft).
Unger, Merrill (1954), Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).