FIRST HEBREWS, CANAANITES AND PHILISTINES
Canaanite God Resheph The first Hebrews were a nomadic tribe of pastorialists who lived almost entirely off their herds of goats, sheep and cattle. They were Semitic pagan nature worshippers that wandered the deserts between Mesopotamia and Egypt. Some scholars state that Jews embraced monotheism because when they settled in Israel—a lush place before the time of Christ—where their survival was less dependant on the whims of nature, allowing them to focus their attention more on creating a unified civilization.
The formation of the Jewish people is usually traced back to Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, possible under Moses, in about 1200 B.C. The word Hebrew is derived from the Egyptian word Habiru . It was the name given to a serving class of people who had been in Egypt for many generations. Sometimes the word Israelite is used to describe the early Hebrews.
The Near East at the time of the first Jews was a time of chaos. The Bronze Age was ending and the Iron Age was emerging and the Near East was a patchwork of rival kingdoms that included the Israelites, Jebusites, Amorites, Ammonsites, Hittites, Horvites and Philistines. The Assyrians and Phoenicians were rising, Egypt was in a temporary state of decline, and the Mycenaeans were fighting the Trojans in the Trojan War.
Present-day Israel at the time of the first Hebrews boasted fertile valleys with active trade routes and cultural communications with neighboring Phoenicians, Arameans, Philistines and Moabites. The Roman historian Tacitus thought Crete was homeland of the Jews. He based his assertion on the that Judeans sounded liked Ideans, the inhabitants of Mt. Ida, Crete's highest mountain.
Websites and Resources: Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; Judaism and Jewish Resources shamash.org/trb/judaism ; Aish.com aish.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; torah’org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/judaism ; Judaism.com judaism.com ; ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history ; Wikipedia article on Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Origin of Judaism adath-shalom.ca ;Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish Culture and History Resources ddickerson.igc.org/judaica ;
Books: A Short History of Judaism by I. And D. Cohn-Sherlok (1994); The Gift of the Jews by Thomas Cahill; Ancient Biblical History Books: Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times by Donald Redford; Oxford Companion to the Bible ; Palestine Bible as History by Werner Keller; The Bible Unearthed by I. Finkelstein & N. Asher Silberman ; Historical Atlas of the Holy Lands by K. Farrington
Websites and Resources with Torah and Biblical Images: Bible in Pictures creationism.org/books ; Bible Picture gallery biblepicturegallery.com ; ebibleteacher ebibleteacher.com ; Bible-History.com bible-history.com ; Visual Bible Alive visualbiblealive.com ; Pictures from Bible lavistachurchofchrist.org ; Bible Pictures karenswhimsy.com/bible-pictures ; Blue Letter Images blueletterbible.org/images ; Biblical Images preceptaustin.org
Early Hebrews in Israel
Canaanites on the Egyptian
Book of Gates Semitic tribes probably arrived in Palestine, known in the early days as Canaan (modern-day Syria. Lebanon, the West Bank, Jordan and Israel) at a very early date. Some scholars believe that Hebrews arrived in Canaan around 2000 B.C. Other scholars believe they arrived around 1200 B.C.
The name Hebrew (Irvi) is believed by some to be derived from the root meaning “to cross,” and refers to people who came to Canaan from the eastern side of the Euphrates. It is also associated with the name Ever, grandson of Shem. 'Shem' is the root of the word 'Semite.'
Most scholars believe the Hebrews did not conquer Canaan with a sudden military campaign but rather arrived in the region through the slow infiltration of semi-nomadic people from the desert. Some believe the Hebrews originally came from Egypt, and this gave birth to the Exodus story. In Canaan they settled among other Semitic peoples. Around the time the Hebrews were thought to have arrived the forests on the slopes of the Judean and Samaritan hills were quickly cut down and converted the slopes into irrigated terraces. The people that lived in Israel at that time practiced institutionalized slavery.
Other scholars believe that the first Israelites evolved out of people already with Canaan. They suggest that they were shepherd and herders who began forming their own communities in the hills outside the major towns. As they expanded they fought with other tribes in the area over water rights, which might have provided the historical kernels for the battles described in Joshua and Judges.
The fight for possession of Palestine today often draws on history to stake its claims. Jews often asserts their connection Abraham who arrived around 2000 B.C. The Palestinians have asserted they are the modern-day successors the Canaanites, who lived in Palestine before Abraham arrived. The aim of both sides is to show they were there first. Neither side has any historical or archaeological evidence to back up their claims.
Map of the Middle East in early Biblical Times
According to the Bible, the ancient Canaanites, were idol worshipers who practiced human sacrifice and engaged in deviant sexual activity. They reportedly conducted human sacrifices in which children were immolated in front of their parents on stone altars, known as Tophets, dedicated to the mysterious dark god Molech. We have some idea what the Canaanites looked like. An Egyptian wall painting from 1900 B.C. depicts Canaanite dignitaries visiting the pharaoh. The Canaanites have Semitic facial features, and dark hair, which the women wear in long tresses and the men have styled in mushroom- shaped bundles on the tops of their heads. Both sexes wore bright red and yellow clothes—long dresses for women and kilts by the men.
From what scholars have been able to ascertain, the Canaanites were a largely urban people that originated in eastern Syria, migrated southward along the Mediterranean lived mostly between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean in what is now Israel. They never were very strong or established an empire and in fact were often overrun by the great empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Anatolia. By around 1100 B.C. they had been absorbed into the Israelites.
Anat Canaanites buried 4,000 years ago were folded up with their arms and legs crossed and placed in burial pots, sometimes wearing a necklace made with gold, rock crystal and carnelian beads. The burial pot and the position of the dead, it is thought, was intended to replicate the position of a newborn in a womb ready to be reborn into the afterlife. At Ashkelon (see Below) Canaanite families placed corpses in burial chambers and kept them there until the flesh rotted off, a process that took several months, then they would bury the bones in recesses and corners of the chambers. Over time the remains of a lot of individuals could get crammed inside. At Ashkelon babies were buried with Egyptians scarabs, magical charms, suggesting, archaeologists say, that they were accorded the status of full-fledged adults.
The Canaanites are believed to have been the first people to possess an alphabet. A 13th century B.C. tablet with column of Canaanite words was found at Ashkelon. Believed to have used to teach scribes languages, the tablet appears to have contained other columns with other languages, perhaps the Semitic cuneiform language of Akkadian and another unrelated tongue, possibly Hurrian or Hittite.
Canaan objects, excavated by archaeologists include an 18.5-inch-long ivory horn with gold bands, circa 1400 B.C., unearthed at Megiddo in present-dat Israel, and a vessel with the Egyptian hawk-god Hyksos, unearthed in Ashkelon.
The desolate Valley of Hinom, just south of the Old City in Jerusalem, is where the ancient Canaanites reportedly conducted human sacrifices in which children were immolated in front of their parents.
Canaanites at Ashkelon
Around 1850 B.C. Canaanites occupied the coastal settlement of Ashkelon, one of the largest and richest seaports in the Mediterranean in ancient times. Ashkelon was located in present-day Israel, 60 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, and dates back at least to 3500 B.C. Over the centuries it was occupied by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and Crusaders. Conquered by the Egyptians and Babylonians, it was probably visited by Samson, Goliath, Alexander the Great, Herod and Richard the Lion-hearted. The presence of all these cultures and historical periods means the site is rich archaeologically but also difficult and complex to sort through. [Source: Rick Gore, National Geographic January 2001]
Canaanite Gate Ashkelon Canaanite Ashkelon covered 60 hectares. The great wall that surrounded it when it was at its height was an arc over two kilometers long, with the sea on the other side. Just the ramparts of the wall—not the wall itself—were up to 16 meters high and 50 meters thick. The towered wall on top of it may have risen to a height of 35 meters. The Canaanites built a vaulted corridor with arched gateways in the city’s mud-brick north wall. The site’s excavation has been overseen by Harvard archaeologist Lawrence Stager since 1985.
The Canaanites occupied Ashkelon from 1850 until 1175 B.C. Sanger told National Geographic, “They came by the boatload . They had master craftsmen and a clear idea of what they wanted to build—big fortified cities. With plentiful supplies of fresh water, it was a major exporters of wine, olive oil, wheat and livestock. Studies of their teeth indicate they ate a lot sand in their food and their teeth wore down quickly.”
Among the important finds made at Ashkelon were the oldest arched gateway ever found and a silver-plated bronze calf, a symbol of Baal, reminiscent of the huge golden calf mentioned in Exodus, found in 1990 by Harvard archaeologists. Ten centimeters tall and dated to 1600 B.C. the calf was found within its own shrine, a beehive-shaped pottery vessel. Baal was the Canaanites storm god. The statue is now on display in the Israel Museum.
At its height Canaanite Ashkelon was probably home to 15,000 people , quite a large number in ancient times. By comparison Babylon at that time might have had 30,000 residents. The Egyptians considered the Canaanites to be rivals and cursed the Ashkelon kings by writing their names on figurines and smashing them to magically destroy their power. Stager has suggested that the Canaanites perhaps were the Hyksos, mysterious people from the north that conquered the ancient Egyptians, based in the discovery of artifacts in Egypt from the Hyskso period that are identical with those found in Canaanite Ashkelon. Around 1550 B.C. the Egyptians expelled the Hyksos and dominated Ashkelon and Canaan.
Philistine ship of war The great enemies of the post-Moses Hebrews were the Philistines, a tribe that arrived in Canaan from Crete and lived along the Mediterranean coast in cities like Ekron (20 miles southwest of Jerusalem). Delilah was sent by the Philistines to discover Samson's strength. The Philistines themselves killed the Hebrew King Saul. Goliath, the giant slain by David, was also a Philistine.
The Philistines were a seafaring people that settled on the Palestine coast in the 12th century B.C. They brought early Greek culture to Holy Land and are thought to have originated from Aegean region. They were one of about a half dozen or more Sea People that arrived in the eastern Mediterranean in the 12th century B.C. The were expert metalsmiths and similar to Phoenicians in some ways.
In the Bible the Philistines were characterized as thugish destroyers. The word Philistine has come to mean a hedonistic, uneducated person. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a Philistine as a “smug, ignorant, especially middle-class person who is regarded as being indifferent or antagonistic to artistic and cultural values.”
The word Palestine was coined by the Romans and derived from Philistia, or "land of the Philistines." The Bible is the only lengthy written source on the Philistines. The bad rap the Philistines get seems to be based on the fact hat they fought with the Israelites for the better part of two centuries.
Philistines and the Historical Record
Philistines Pentapolis Philistines were referred to by the Egyptians as the People from the Sea. They were defeated by the armies of Ramses II in the 12th century B.C. and later hired out as mercenaries. The historical record on them between 1,000 and 600 B.C. is sketchy. In 603 B.C. they, like the Hebrews, were conquered by the Assyrians. After that there is no reference to them in the historical record.
In the late 1980s, archaeologists discovered the remains of Ekron, a 60-acre walled city with around 6,000 residents before it was destroyed in 603 B.C. Instead of being a civilization of pleasure-seeking ignoramuses, archaeologists found that the Philistines were an industrious, innovative Iron Age civilization that grew rich from selling olives and dying cloth, and developed sophisticated metal tools and olive crushing machines.
The Philistines occupied Ashkelon from 1175 B.C. to 604 B.C. , when the city was sacked by the neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. They dominated four other major cities in the region around the same time. Among the interesting things that archaeologists have dug up in Ashkelon from the Philistine period are a large winery with a storehouse and a burial ground for dogs. A thick layer of charred wood and debris marks the sacking of the city by the Babylonians. In one building the skeleton of a woman—whose skull had been smashed by a blunt instrument—was found. Nebuchadnezzar is said to have destroyed Ashkelon to send a warning to cities in the region of what would await them if they sided with the Egyptians.
Philistine captives at Medinet Habu On the discovery of a puppy in pot, Paula Wapnish, an animal bone specialist at the University of Alabama, told National Geographic, “We think that somebody killed it and placed it in a pit in the ground.” Team member Brian Hesse added, “The pot has char marks. I think someone was probably cooking the puppy for food but never came back for it.” Stager thinks the puppy was buried in a pot that was already charred to bring good fortune for the building it was buried under.
The artifacts that archaeologists have turned in Ashkelon from the Philistine period shows that Philistines were a very advanced people. While the Israelite were making crude, unadorned pottery, the Philistines were decorating their ceramics with designs similar to those produced in Mycenaean Greece, the civilization that defeated Troy in Homeric legend.
Stager believes the Philistines were Greeks. He bases his arguments on: 1) similarities between the Samson and Delilah story and the myths of Hercules and a Greek myth with a figure that loses it power when its hair is cut; 2) evidence that Goliath wore Mycenaean-style battle gear; and 3) animal bones remains that indicate the Philistines ate a lot pigs, a common practice among the Greeks but not among the Canaanites.
Mesopotamia and the Bible
The first 11 chapters of Genesis are largely set in Mesopotamia. Eden is a Sumerian word meaning “steppe,” and was a district in Sumer. The Tower of Babel was in Babylon. The Hanging Gardens may have inspired the story of the Garden of Eden. According to Genesis Abraham and Cain and Abel and numerous other Biblical figures were born in Mesopotamia and the first cities founded after the flood were Babel (Babylon), Erech (Uruk), and Accad (Akkad) there.
Cuneiform tablets found in Ebla mention the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and contain the name of David. They also mention Ab-ra-mu (Abraham), E-sa-um (Esau) and Sa-u-lum (Saul) as well as a knight named Ebrium who ruled around 2300 B.C. and bears an uncanny resemblance to Eber from the Book of Genesis who was the great-great grandson of Noah and the great-great-great-great grandfather of Abraham. Some scholars suggest that Biblical reference are overstated because the divine name yahweh (Jehovah) is not mentioned once in the tablets.
Ziggurat of Ur, a model for the Tower of Babel
The Babylonians had myths also that bore of striking resemblance to the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib and the story of Noah's Ark. The desert Semites, the ancestors of Arabs and Jews, lived at the same time as the Babylonians. They worshiped the Babylonian gods and even added a few of their own. Ebla was a great Semite city.
Abraham was born under the name Abram in the Sumer city of Ur in Mesopotamia (in present day Iraq). According to Genesis, Abraham was the great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandson of Noah and was married to Sarah. Genesis 11:17-28, reads “Terah Begot Abram, Nahor, and Haran, and Haran begot Lot. And Haran died in the lifetime of Terah his Father in the land of his birth, Ur of Chaldees.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011