"So they made a covenant at Beersheba; and Abimelech and Phicol, the commander of his army, arose and returned to the land of the Philistines. Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God. And Abraham sojourned in the land of the Philistines for many days." Genesis 21:32-34.
Some have suggested that the mention of the Philistines in Genesis 21:32-34 and Genesis 26:1-18 demonstrates that Genesis is not historical because, they reason, the Philistines were not in Canaan at the time of Abraham. In fact, it is contended, the Philistines were not even a people at the time. To some it may seem a little odd to be asking whether the Philistines existed when Abraham was alive for several reasons. For those who are Biblical inerrantists, the fact that the Philistines are mentioned in Genesis 21:32-34 and Genesis 26:1-18 resolves the question. But even for those who don't accept Biblical inerrancy, it seems pretty difficult to determine if the Philistines existed at the time of Abraham because historians and Biblical experts cannot come to a concensus as to when the Exodus occurred. Consequently the dates of the events prior to the Exodus are equally uncertain. If the dates of the Genesis events are uncertain, then how can we determine with any certainty whether the Philistines were around?
In order to answer this question, we must first come to some type of idea as to the time frame for the life of Abraham. Several dates have been suggested, and some of these dates are listed in "Abraham: An Introduction to His Life and Times" by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson, who notes,
Depending upon how one views the evidence, Abraham might fit into Middle Bronze I (2100-1900 BC, Nelson Glueck and William F. Albright), Middle Bronze II (1900-1550, Ephraim A. Speiser), or the Amarna Period of the Late Bronze Age (early 14th century, Cyrus H. Gordon).
So, before someone can object that the Philistines were not in Canaan at the time or that they weren't even in existence, they have to show that the Philistines were not in Canaan during the Amarna period. In my view, if they are taking the affirmative position of saying that the Philistines were not in Canaan, they bear the burden of proof for that position. Of course, it is true that it is impossible to prove a negative, so their argument becomes untenable. But because I don't want to win this argument on a debating point, I think it is appropriate to see if there is any evidence that establishes a Philistine presence in Canaan and what the evidence suggests was the date that the Philistines first came to Canaan. To answer those questions, we must ask who were the Philistines and where did they come from?
Bryant G. Wood, Ph.D. of the Associates for Biblical Research has written a fascinating article entitled "The Genesis Philistines" for the March 2006 ABR Electronic Newsletter (no article link available) which investigates the Biblical Philistines and makes a case that the Philistines have been around as a people for a long time and had ties in ancient Canaan very early in recorded history.
First, who were the Philistines and where did they come from? According to the Jewish Encyclopedia,
"The Biblical record states that [the Philistines] came from Caphtor (Amos ix. 7; Deut. ii. 23), that they were Caphtorim (Deut, l.c.), and that they were "the remnant of the seacoast of Caphtor" (Jer. xlvii. 4, Hebr.). The table of nations (Gen. x. 13, 14) names the Philistines and the Caphtorim as descendants of Mizraim. The gist of these references leads one to look for Caphtor as the native land of the Philistines. There is a variety of opinion as to the location of this place. The Egyptian inscriptions name the southern coast of Asia Minor as "Kefto." The latest and with some plausibility the best identification is the island of Crete. The Septuagint makes the Cherethites in David's body-guard Cretans. Others have identified Caphtor with Cappadocia, or Cyprus, or with some place near the Egyptian delta. The prevailing opinion among scholars is that the Philistines were roving pirates from some northern coast on the Mediterranean Sea." (Emphasis added.)
Dr. Wood's article provides the evidence that supports Crete as the ancient home of the Philistines. The article begins by examining 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)" "discovered in 1908 by Italian archaeologist Luigi Pernier in the ruins of a Minoan palace in southern Crete." The disk has a depiction of a warrior with a feathered headdress which 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 significance of the Phaitos Disk is that it, at minimum, ties Crete in as a base (if not the home) for the Philistine people. Since a consensus exists that the Egyptian depiction of the warrior in the feathered headdress is a Philistine, the Phaitos Disk coupled with a similar finding of an axe with the same depiction is evidence that Crete was the home of the Philistine people. But to add to the significance of the Phaitos Disk, it is strongly believed to have been made prior to 1700 B.C. -- establishing that the Philistine people were in Crete earlier than 1700 B.C.
So, what else do we know about these ancient inhabitants of Crete? For one thing, we know how scholars generally reference them -- Minoans. However, according to Dr. Wood, there is no reason to believe that the people of Crete called themselves Minoans. That name was given to them by "Arthur Evans, excavator of Knossos, a major site on Crete, based on Minos, an ancient ruler of Crete known from Greek mythology." The Minoans
"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. (Emphasis added.)"
So, were the Minoans the people that the Bible calls the Philistines? The Phaitos Disk and the archaeological research that has provided information about the Minoans and their lifestyles and trading partners suggests that they may have been one and the same.
But were the Minoans present in Canaan? Is there any reason to believe that these Minoans occupied the portion of Canaan attributed to the Philistines? Yes, says Dr. Wood. The account of Isaac's visit with the Philistines in Genesis 26 speaks of the city of Gerar which was the home to the Philistine king Abimelech (who is also mentioned in Genesis 21). Gerar, it turns out, has been "identified as Tel Haror, 17 miles east of Gaza in the western Negev (Oren 1992: 989)." Many archaeological digs have been conducted there, but Dr. Wood focuses on the following major connection between Tel Haror and the ancient Cretes/Minoans:
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).
Thus, once again, there are signs of connections between the Minoan culture and the city that is identified as the home of the Philistine king in Genesis. Moreover, the existence of the graffito (which is the singular form of "grafitti") from around 1600 A.D. suggests that the Minoans were living in Gerar and had been for a significant time prior to that date (when building a new settlement, painting Minoan reliefs would hardly be among the first tasks undertaken, but would probably only happen after the city has been firmly established).
Remember, that the range of dates for Abraham extended from the Middle Bronze I (2100-1900 B.C.) through the Amarna Period of the Late Bronze Age (early 14th century). While the Middle Bronze I period may still be problematic, it seem evident that the evidence presented by Dr. Wood, if believed, would certainly support a Minoan/Philistine presence in Canaan during at least the Middle Bronze II period, and possibly earlier. Thus, it appears that the case can be made for the Philistines' presence in the land of Canaan during the times of the Patriarchs -- exactly as shown in the Bible.
One last thing: someone may think that the evidence presented by Dr. Wood is pretty sketchy -- a disk here, a hammer there, a chalice and graffito elsewhere. I agree that it isn't much to go on. But one must remember that a lot of archaeological discoveries are based on fairly small bits of evidence. The farther back in time the archaeologist investigates, the less likely it is that any significant evidence will survive. Much of the archaeological reconstructions of ancient civilizations, their dates and their lifestyles, is based on little more than building foundations and pottery shards -- rarely are written records found. It may be that the identification of the Philistines with the Minoans and indisputable proof of a Philistine presence in Canaan can never be established with strong certitude. However, the evidence is good enough to state with certainty that such a view -- while not indisputable -- is supportable.