The Plague on the Philistines

It is known from Egyptian records that the attacks on the Egyptians by the Sea Peoples from the Aegean occurred during the second half of the thirteenth century and the first half of the twelfth century b.c. Again, in the Bible this is the period of the judges, which ends with Samuel in the eleventh century. Our examination of the Bible thus far has concentrated on specific verses and words which have helped answer our questions about who the Philistines were and where they came from. The Bible also contains a story which can be used to examine the relationship between the Philistines, the Aegean, and western Anatolia and even suggests that some of the Philistine forebears may have been Mycenaean Greeks present on the plains of Troy in that classic battle for Troy between the Achaeans and the Trojans in the second half of the thirteenth century b.c.

First Samuel 4-6 records the capture of the ark of the covenant by the Philistines due to the incorrect assumption on the part of the Israelites that taking the ark into battle guaranteed the presence of God on their side. The Lord God of Israel caused great consternation and death by means of a plague among the Philistines while the ark was in their hands, and so the Philistine lords joined together to plan how to return the ark to Israel. The ritual used by the Philistines to return the ark in 1 Samuel 6 has an older and parallel account in the Iliad, book 1, and to a lesser extent, is similar to a Hittite/Arzawan ritual. I believe that the similarities between the ritual used in the Iliad, book 1, and the ritual used later by the Philistines in 1 Samuel 6 provide us with evidence that some of the biblical Philistines were Achaean. It is logical to assume that the Sea Peoples, when they migrated from the Aegean and from western Anatolia and the plains of Ilium to Egypt and Palestine, carried with them the stories and rituals of their culture.

The parallel accounts are listed in the order they occur in their narratives.

Some biblical commentators see two separate afflictions recorded in the Samuel account: a plague of boils or tumors and a plague of mice or rats. The Philistines themselves may have seen two disconnected afflictions, not associating the rats with the tumors. However, since boils are a symptom of the bubonic plague and the plague is frequently carried by the fleas on rats, most authorities identify what is described in 1 Samuel as the bubonic plague, a malady endemic to the Near East during this Late Bronze/Iron period (Gaster and Frazer 1969, 452; Mendenhall 1973, 107). By making golden models of the rats and sending them away out of their cities with the ark, the Philistines were reacting to the plague from Yahweh with a practice standard in the worship of their own gods (Gaster and Frazer 1969, 452; Wainwright 1959, 77-78).

Absent from the Iliad account is the driving of the oxen on the road. However, even if this were part of their ritual, the Achaeans would have been prevented from carrying it out, since the priest of Apollo Smintheus, whom they had offended, lived on the island of Tenedos, off the coast of Anatolia southwest of Troy, and it was to this island that the girl had to be returned along with holy offerings. They did, however, put cattle for an offering on board the ship to Tenedos.

East of the Troad lived the Hittites who, during the Late Bronze Age, developed an empire that rivaled Egypt. Among the religious rituals that the Hittites used to rid themselves of the plague was one of driving animals down the road away from the community:

These are the words of Uhha-muwas, the Arzawa man. If people are dying in the country and if some enemy god has caused that, I act as follows:

They drive up one ram. . . . They drive the ram onto the road leading to the enemy and while doing so they speak as follows: "Whatever god of the enemy land has caused this plague -- see! We have now driven up this crowned ram to pacify thee, O god! Just as the herd is strong, but keeps peace with the ram, do thou, the god who has caused this plague, keep peace with the Hatti [Hittite] land! In favor turn again toward the Hatti land!" They drive that one crowned ram toward the enemy. [ANET, 347]

In performing this ritual the Hittites followed the advice of an Arzawan priest. Arzawa was a political entity and was already a rival of the Hittites beginning early in the sixteenth century B.C. Arzawa continued to be a rival throughout the Late Bronze Age, obliging the Hittite kings to repeatedly campaign against it. At times Arzawa was independent, and we know from a fourteenth-century B.C. letter addressed to the king of Arzawa that an Arzawan daughter was given in marriage to the pharaoh of Egypt (Mercer 1939, 1:183-85).

Arzawa, south of Troy, apparently included the area where Ephesus is located (Macqueen 1986, 37-39; M. Wood 1986, 179-81) and was a neighbor of Caria and Lycia, one or the other of whom is mentioned in every list on the chart on page 64. It became an ally of its rival the Hittite empire against Egypt (Barnett 1975, 360). Because Arzawa, Lycia, and Caria used the same or similar Luwian dialects (Gurney 1952, 130; Albright 1975, 513),11 the possibility exists that the ritual of the Arzawans (and Hittites) could also have been an accepted ritual of the Carians and the Lycians, who were allies of the Trojans and were among the Sea Peoples that invaded Egypt.

Now let us return to the "mouse god" of the Iliad on the island of Tenedos. Apollo has numerous epithets, but in the Iliad, book 1, he is called Smintheus, the mouse god. Smintheus shrines have been found only in the northwest sector of Anatolia, one of the possible places of origin for the Philistines. "The chief shrine was at Chyrsa on the coast of the Troad . . . in which temple mice were kept, and in which a mouse was carved at the foot of the statue of Apollo. There was also a temple dedicated to Apollo Smintheus on nearby Tenedos, and here as Smintheus he was the ruling divinity" (R. Miller 1939, 34-35; M. Wood 1986, 234 has similar information).

Apollo also had a temple on Chios, a large island south of Troy, and there were sites with Smintheus as part of their name on the Troad south of Troy (Cook 1974, 37-40) and on the island of Rhodes. The island of Chios is directly off the coast of Izmir/Smyrna near Mount Sipylus, which is the region where George Mendenhall matches the word Philistine (Peleset) with a Greek dedicatory inscription (Mendenhall 1974). The area around Mount Sipylus was probably part of Arzawa, with the Carians and Lycians to the south. The Greek geographer Strabo (late first century B.C. to early first century A.D.) quotes the Greek poet Kallinos, who claimed that Troy was colonized by Cretans. Smintheus may be a Cretan word, though it has also been identified as western Anatolian (Mysian) (Leaf 1923, 240; R. Miller 1939, 35; M. Wood 1986, 180). The nth sound of Smintheus, according to A. R. Burn, is characteristic of Cretan, Carian, and southern Aegean (1930, 89). Whether the movement of culture and language was from Crete to western Anatolia or vice versa cannot be determined, and places in both regions sharing similar names are common and widespread. For example, Mount Ida in the Troad shares its name with the sacred mountain in Crete. Thus, many ties have been demonstrated between the Troad and Crete.

Presently there is not much archaeological evidence for Late Bronze and early Iron Age (fourteenth-eleventh centuries B.C.) settlements in western Anatolia, especially in the southwest, in Lycia and Caria (Cook 1974, 37-40). Too little archaeology has been done in this large area, and of what has been done, little seems to have been dug below the layers of the Classical Age. Another problem in excavating Lycia and other places in western Anatolia is the silting up of rivers along the Anatolian coast. Ephesus, a little further north, is a prime example of an area being buried in silt. Currently, the archaeological evidence is somewhat inconclusive as to precisely which sites in western Anatolia the biblical Philistines might have come from, but hopefully more work can be done in Turkey to match the extensive excavations in Israel.

Apollo Smintheus was recognized in the Iliad, book 1, as being the sender of and the averter of the plague, and the mouse symbol was used to counteract the force of the plague. The Philistines saw the Lord God of Israel as the sender of and the averter of the plague, and they made the models of the mice and tumors to appease this god. G. A. Wainwright, using Strabo, mentions that the Tjekker, one of the Sea Peoples accompanying the Philistines in the attack on Egypt (see p. 64), were from the Troad, where Apollo Smintheus was revered (1959, 77-78). It is certain that the Tjekker settled just north of the biblical Philistines at Dor on the coast on the Plain of Sharon south of Mount Carmel (Wainwright 1959, 78; Negev 1986, 118; M. Dothan 1989, 64). Wainwright would like to link David's Philistine city, Ziklag (1 Sam. 27, 30), with the Tjekker name, Zakkal (1959, 78).

Another epithet for Apollo was the "Lycian god" (Iliad 4.101, Rieu 1950, 79), and his mother, Leto, was also considered to have been from Lycia of southwest Anatolia. Apollo and the Semitic god Dagon, whom the biblical Philistines adopted, were both associated with agriculture (more about Dagon in chap. 4; see also 1 Sam. 5). In any case, it is unlikely that the biblical Philistines were unaware of Apollo Smintheus.

The plague account in 1 Samuel 5-6 follows the plague account in the Iliad, book 1, very closely, and we have found no other account that is similar to them. It is improbable that the two arose independently of each other. Rather than being only the result of transference by means of trade, this resemblance between the two accounts is probably a result of direct cultural transmission through the migration of the Sea Peoples from the Aegean world to Palestine. Archaeological and textual data -- including Greek legends -- show that Cretan, Mycenaean, and western Anatolian history are tightly interwoven in the Late Bronze Age of the fifteenth-thirteenth centuries B.C. In spite of this evidence, the paucity of recent excavated sites in western Anatolia that go back to the Late Bronze Age makes it difficult to state unequivocally that the biblical Philistines came from western Anatolia.

One major exception to this lack of archaeological excavation in western Turkey is Troy. It is to this site I wish to go next. I believe that the Trojan War was indicative of the upheavals in the latter half of the thirteenth century B.C. that led to the movement of the Sea Peoples through western Anatolia, Cyprus, and the east coast of the Mediterranean, and down into Egypt, where they were repulsed to settle in Canaan, later referred to as Palestine. We also know from the lists on page 64 that some of the Trojans' allies during the Trojan War were Sea Peoples. What then does the mound of Troy tell us about the events up to and following the legendary Trojan War?