Why, Oh Why, Delilah?

Last weekend a friend of mine referred to Rick Santorum in conversation as a Philistine , meaning someone — well, someone like Rick Santorum. I didn’t say anything at the time, (which is unusual for me, I know) but I feel that it’s important to set the record straight: Rick Santorum is nothing like a Philistine.

The people we refer to as the Philistines first appeared in what is now the southern Israeli coast and the Gaza Strip in about 1100-1200 BC, having been part of a broad coalition known to the Egyptians simply as the “Peoples of the Sea” that invaded Egypt in about 1175 BC but had their butts handed to them by Ramses III. After this defeat the Philistines settled in five coastal cities well to the northeast of the Nile delta (the southernmost of which is the place now known as Gaza) and established a loose federation of city-states there, along the way developing political and cultural ties to various other groups that we usually refer to collectively as the Canaanites.

For most of us, our knowledge of the Philistines begins and ends with the Bible: they appear first in Genesis, when Abraham establishes a covenant of peace with the Philistine king Abimelech and lives among them for some time after the birth of his son Isaac (Genesis 21:32). When Moses leads the Hebrews out of Egypt some centuries later (Exodus 13:17), God tells him not to take the short way toward Canaan, up along the coast through the Philistine territories, but instead to detour through the desert to the east to avoid a conflict with them. The Israelites and the Philistines are depicted as enemies only later (documented mostly in First Samuel) after the Israelites had begun to settle down and claim land, displacing the earlier Canaanite and Philistine inhabitants.

The story of Samson and Delilah is a bit racy by the standards of most Sunday School classrooms. Samson, an Israelite super-soldier, is seduced by the beautiful Delilah, who is in the pay of the Philistines. She convinces him to let her tie him up (in bed!), but he breaks the ropes. After several such efforts, he finally tells her that she’s wasting her time: no rope can hold him. Not the brightest of heroes, he goes on to tell her that he owes his strength to an oath he swore to God, and that if he cuts his hair it will violate that oath. She waits until he’s asleep, cuts his hair, and he loses his strength. Samson is then blinded and enslaved by the Philistines until his hair grows back (clearly no one was paying attention) and he recovers his strength, at which point he demolishes the temple of Dagon in a suicide attack. Delilah is never mentioned again, so presumably she collected her money and used it to open a day spa in Ashdod or something and wasn’t around for the final act.

We don’t know what the Philistines called themselves: they became completely integrated into the broader Canaanite culture by about 700 BC, and their language and culture become absorbed into the mix. The Hebrew word for them was Plishtim, which the Greeks interpreted as Phylistiim and then Philistinoi; the region they occupied was called Palaistinē, until by Byzantine times the region was known as Palaestina.

There is evidence to suggest (pottery, architectural remains, and some linguistic similarities) that the Philistines had been associated at one time with the Mycenaean culture (the ancient Greeks). They used an alphabet that was related to those of the Greeks, Minoans, and other Mediterranean peoples, which were in turn descended from the script of the Phoenicians. Although we have become accustomed to characterizing the Philistines as enemies of learning, it was they, in fact, who helped teach Israelites to read and write. The earliest Hebrew alphabet was adapted from that used by the Philistines at the time.

Much has changed over the last three thousand years. Philistine civilization was absorbed into that of the Canaanites, and then subsumed in turn by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. By about 400 BC, there was nothing left of the culture of the Philistines but the name, and the region was assimilated still further by the Romans, the Byzantines, the Turks, the British, and the Arabs and Israelis. There is a history and a heritage to the name and identity that has not been erased by time, however: we call the region Palestine to this day; the Arabic word is pronounced Filistim.

So, when you want to describe somebody who lacks a certain cultural depth, a certain intellectual vigor, perhaps Philistine is not the word to use. Rick Santorum? Well, language is a vast and wonderful thing: I’m sure we can think of something more appropriate.

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