Most people who get a bad press thoroughly deserve it, present writer excepted. But call me soppy, I’ve always had a soft spot for The Philistines. I don’t mean crappy reproductions like Simon Cowell, Sun hacks or Toby Young: I’m talking about the ill-begotten Biblical originals. So it’s hardly surprising that this tweet attachment caught my eye yesterday.
You see, that’s what I mean: they’ve uncovered a cemetery full of the poor buggers. The Good Book is full of folks – mostly Jewish, the anti-Semites will rush to point out – who smote the Philistines…..
‘…he inquired of the LORD, saying, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” The LORD answered him, “Go, attack the Philistines and save Keilah.”‘ (Samuel 23:2)
….so nobody should be surprised that the first thing archaeologists come up with is a graveyard. What else can you expect if the Lord suggests smiting Philistines purely to save Keilah? I never liked her singing anyway.
But the thing is, what happens if, on this latest dig, the next thing they unearth is an enormous sealed library full of ancient texts, explaining everything from the Pyramids to black holes? The entire view we have of the Philistines will have to be revised. And not before time, that’s what I say.
To find out why we have this view of them as boorish yobs, I did some digging. I’m not up on the Old Testament, chiefly because as a kid we all had to read it at Sunday school, and it always struck me as an endless series of slayings, ass jawbones, and things that begat other things which then came to pass. In turn, much of it involved lots of wandering about in Egypt, Canaan and elsewhere, with Moses having an argey-bargey with God every time the Israelites (obviously a feckless lot) turned to worshipping craven idols.
Anyway, looking anew at what the ancient history sources have to say, I’m bound to observe that, on balance, the evidence of Philistines having been the BC equivalent of Millwall fans is decidedly flakey.
Many believe that the Philistines originated in Caphtor, the Hebrew name for the island of Crete. For reasons still unclear, they migrated from that region to the Mediterranean coast near Gaza, where they quickly established a reputation for being a sort of Middle Eastern equivalent of the Vikings: heavily into war, pillage, maritime invasion, rape and three decidedly uncompromising Gods called Ashtoreth, Dagon, and Baal-Zebub…..the last of which has been passed down to us the Devil, Beelzebub.
But what’s very clear is that knuckleheads they weren’t: the Philistines understood the chemistry of iron weapons (and how to sharpen them) so well that much of the time it must have been a bit like Blitzkrieg tanks against Polish lancers once they got going. And being warlike shouldn’t automatically suggest idiocy…pacé Mohammed, the military head on Earth of Allah’s religion of peace. It may well present evidence of male stupidity, but as the last thing I need right now is a fatwah against me, I couldn’t possibly comment.
In fact, the sole source of the reputation for yobbishness is the legend – which, to be fair, appears to be solidly based in fact – in the Book of Judges, which claims that ‘The Philistines were infamous for their production and consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially beer’. Samson’s wedding feast was supplied with wallop by Philisteineken – probably not a brand as such, but nevertheless severely mind-altering stuff. Judges goes on to talk about the Philistine practice of holding week-long drinking parties, and the general tendency of this People to be violent just prior to becoming legless.
The Oxford dictionary tells us that a philistine [small p] is a person ‘hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts’. This would be true, I submit, of Alistair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg, Andrea Leadsom, Theresa May, Tony Blair, George W Bush, John Prescott, Jeremy Hunt and pretty well every member of the Western political class with any real power.
But to call them Philistines is, I think, Philistinist. They’re actually barbarian vandals….more nomenclatures with a derivation in history, but ultimately far more accurate.
At least the Philistines had a voyager gene, and some creativity involving the production of weapons and alcohol. These things provided them with a living. If you cast our current crop of politicians adrift with a mission to survive by invention, they would all starve within a year at most.