8. The Final Destruction of Philistia1


Ashkelon shall see it and be afraid;

Gaza too, and shall writhe in anguish;

Ekron also, because its hopes are withered.

The king shall perish from Gaza;

Ashkelon shall be uninhabited;

a mongrel people shall settle in Ashdod,

and I will make an end of the pride of Philistia.

I will take away its blood from its mouth,

and its abominations from between its teeth;

it too shall be a remnant for our God;

it shall be like a clan in Judah,

and Ekron shall be like the Jebusites.

[Zech. 9:5-7]

Nebuchadnezzar is a name known to all students of the Bible. Children listening to Bible stories know that Nebuchadnezzar was the one who destroyed David's city of Jerusalem and its temple and led the Jews away to captivity in Babylon for seventy years. We learn other stories as well about Nebuchadnezzar, such as the account in the Book of Daniel about the fiery furnace. What we learn from extrabiblical sources is that Nebuchadnezzar made at least three military campaigns into Palestine, that Jerusalem and Judah were not alone in being attacked and destroyed, and that Ezekiel and Daniel and his friends were taken to Babylon in one of the earlier campaigns. It was also in one of the earlier campaigns, probably the one in which Daniel was taken, that Philistia was attacked, ravaged, and destroyed. That destruction is the focus of this final chapter.

I learned the Bible stories as a youth, but it was not until the summer of 1990 that the devastation caused by Nebuchadnezzar became very real to me. One of the areas that I supervised at Ekron that summer was in field INW, the upper city. Due to the steep slope of this area, the Ekronites built huge terrace walls and then constructed their buildings against the walls in a stepped-down fashion. We began excavating a room built against one of these terrace walls and almost immediately dug into destruction debris. The students took out vessel after vessel of pottery, many of them whole forms and the others all restorable.

But the effects of the fire that destroyed this room made at least as lasting an impression on us as the abundance of good pottery specimens. The fire next to this terrace wall had been hotter than the fire in the middle of the room, and as the flames shot up against the wall the soil on the other side of it was blackened. We found sherds of limestone everywhere in the room, and we wondered where they had come from. It took a few days to figure out that the fire had been so intense and the limestone the walls were made of had become so hot that sherds of it began to pop off the boulders and shoot across the room until eventually its side walls collapsed. We also recovered a large quantity of animal bones there, many of them distinguished by their hardness and grey color, which are additional signs of an extremely hot fire.

Finding large quantities of pottery was a daily experience for us for the first three and a half weeks, until we got below the destruction debris, which was all, we determined, caused by a military campaign of Nebuchadnezzar. Our experience, minus the huge boulders of the terracing, was duplicated at other points of the tell where evidence of Nebuchadnezzar's destruction was also being excavated. In all of these places, the destruction debris layer was nearly one meter deep and was packed with ceramic vessels and animal bones.

The huge city of Ekron and its olive oil industry had been completely destroyed, and the evidence of this destruction could be seen wherever we excavated. Ekron has not been occupied again as a city or even as a village in the twenty-six hundred years since, and for this reason the olive industry vats and basins, the four-horned altars, the thousands of ceramic vessels, and other seventh-century artifacts lie close to the surface or are even poking through the surface.

When did the destruction happen? Can all this destruction that was foretold by the prophets be attributed to Nebuchadnezzar? Was what was true for Ekron also true for the other Philistine cities mentioned in the prophecies? Again, sources other than the Bible can be used to obtain a clearer picture.

King Josiah lost his life to the Egyptians in 609 B.C. (2 Chron. 35), and after that the Egyptians were again able to exert some influence over Judah (2 Kings 23:31-35; 2 Chron. 36:1-4), even in choosing the king. The Egyptians were also able to gain control over Philistia again for a short time (Gitin 1990, 42; Malamat 1979, 207). Egypt had already made two recent campaigns into the Euphrates area (616, 610 B.C.) to aid the ailing Assyrians (Malamat 1979, 205). In 605 B.C., however, before Nebuchadnezzar became king over Babylonia, he defeated the Egyptians in Syria. After assuming the kingship, Nebuchadnezzar journeyed into Philistia. His records specifically mention the capture of Ashkelon (see also Jer. 47:1-7) since it had not delivered tribute, whereas other cities, including Philistine cities, had apparently brought tribute (Malamat 1979, 207-8; Thomas 1958, 78-79; Miller and Hayes 1986, 380-81). "All the kings of the Hatti-land came before him and he received their heavy tribute. He marched to the city of Askelon and captured it in the month of Kislev. He captured its king and plundered it and carried off . . ." (Miller and Hayes 1986, 381).

The defeat of Pharaoh Neco by Nebuchadnezzar at Carchemish in Syria in 605 B.C. is also reported in Jeremiah 46:2-12. Jeremiah predicted that Judah would be captured by Nebuchadnezzar in the same year Nebuchadnezzar assumed the throne (605 B.C.; see Jer. 25:1-14, esp. v. 1 and compare with 46:2) and that Judah would go into captivity for seventy years (Jer. 25:11-12). Jehoiakim (609-598), the king over Judah during these events, refused to heed Jeremiah's advice and burned the scroll on which God's prophecy was written (Jer. 36).

Nebuchadnezzar returned to Philistia and Judah in his second full year, 603, captured Jerusalem, and perhaps took Daniel, Ezekiel, and others at this time (Malamat 1979, 208-9; Gitin 1990, 42; 2 Kings 24:1ff.; 2 Chron. 36:5-8). The words of Jeremiah began to be fulfilled:

So I took the cup from the Lord's hand, and made all the nations to whom the Lord sent me drink it: Jerusalem and the towns of Judah, its kings and officials, to make them a desolation and a waste, an object of hissing and of cursing, as they are today; Pharaoh king of Egypt, his servants, his officials, and all his people; all the mixed people; all the kings of the land of Uz; all the kings of the land of the Philistines -- Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and the remnant of Ashdod. . . . [Jer. 25:17-20]

The extant Babylonian Chronicles dealing with this period are partially broken (Malamat 1979, 208, 350 n. 14), but it is believed that Nebuchadnezzar did intend to conquer all of Philistia in preparation for an assault on Egypt. Ashkelon, according to the Chronicles, was conquered the first full year of his reign (December 604 b.c.), and the conquest of the other Philistine cities may have been mentioned on the missing segment. In any event, the destruction of the three remaining major Philistine cities must have occurred either in Nebuchadnezzar's 603 campaign or the campaign in 601 when Jehoiakim again rebelled against the Babylonian masters (2 Kings 24:1) and Nebuchadnezzar attacked Egypt. The Babylonian Chronicles relate Nebuchadnezzar's heavy losses and subsequent return to Babylon (Malamat 1979, 209).

The excavators of Ekron, Timnah, and Ashdod believe that these Philistine sites were destroyed around this time in order to enable Nebuchadnezzar to assault Egypt (T. Dothan and Gitin 1990, 25; Gitin 1990, 42; Kelm and A. Mazar 1989, 49; M. Dothan 1969, 245). Gath had already disappeared from the scene during the reign of Uzziah (mid-eighth century). Gaza still cannot be excavated in order to verify the date of its destruction, and not enough work has been completed at Ashkelon to clarify this period there.

The Adon letter, a significant find from this time period, shows that Judah was not alone in looking to Egypt for help against the Babylonians (Jer. 37:4ff.). This letter, sent by a King Adon to the pharaoh of Egypt, is a late-seventh-century B.C. document written in Aramaic on papyrus. It was found in Saqqarah, Egypt, near the stepped pyramid. In the nine lines of the letter King Adon, a vassal of Egypt, appealed for help, since the king of Babylon was already at Aphek in Palestine. It had been generally assumed that King Adon was from either a Philistine or a Phoenician city (Porten 1981, 38-41). Now, however, the latest study and translation presents a case that Adon was the king of Ekron (Porten 1981, 36-52):

1. To Lord of Kings Pharaoh, your servant Adon King of [Ekron. The welfare of my lord, Lord of Kings Pharaoh may the gods of]

2. Heaven and Earth and Beelshmayin, [the great] god [seek exceedingly at all times, and may they lengthen the days of]

3. Pharaoh like the days of (the) high heavens. That [I have written to Lord of Kings is to inform him that the forces]

4. of the King of Babylon have come (and) reach[ed] Aphek . . [. . . .

5. . . . they have seized . . .

6. for Lord of Kings Pharaoh knows that [your] servant [. . .

7. to send a force to rescue [me]. Do not abandon [me, for your servant did not violate the treaty of the Lord of Kings]

8. and your servant preserved his good relations. And as for this commander [ . . .

9. a governor in the land. And as for the letter of Sindur . . . [Porten 1981, 36]

So when was this appeal written and sent? Porten lists all the Babylonian campaigns according to the Babylonian Chronicle and describes what is said to have happened during each campaign. He then concludes that there are two good dates for Adon's appeal to Egypt -- either 604 or 603 B.C. (see also Miller and Hayes 1986, 384, 386).

Nebuchadnezzar did send an expedition against Egypt, and this is where 2 Kings 24:7 may best fit in. "The king of Egypt did not come again out of his land, for the king of Babylon had taken over all that belonged to the king of Egypt from the Wadi of Egypt to the River Euphrates." This verse indicates that Babylon, not Egypt, controlled all of Philistia (and Judah?) by the time of Jehoiachin's reign (598-97) at the beginning of the sixth century. Jehoiachin reigned only three months before he was taken captive to Babylon (2 Kings 24:8-17). Within the corpus of administrative documents found in the excavations of Babylon are some dating to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. One broken document mentions providing rations to Jehoiachin, specifically named as the king of Judah, and to his sons. This same Babylonian document also mentions provisions for the Philistine king of Ashkelon, as well as for other kings (ANET, 308). A second document, also broken, mentions the kings of Gaza and Ashdod performing duties for Nebuchadnezzar (ANET, 308).

The predictions of Jeremiah, Zephaniah, and Zechariah about the destruction of Philistine cities came true according to the excavations at Ashdod, Ekron, and Timnah. Future excavating should reveal more about Philistine Ashkelon, but unfortunately Gaza will not be excavated in the foreseeable future.

However, does archaeology also reveal a problem with the Zechariah 9:5-7 passage? Zechariah was a contemporary of the prophet Haggai, both beginning ministry around 520 B.C. In Zechariah 9, quoted at the beginning of this chapter, the verb tense is future. Yet there is no way that the destruction of Timnah, Ekron, and Ashdod could have occurred after 520 B.C. The destruction of the sites happened during the days of King Nebuchadnezzar. So how can this problem be resolved?

Biblical scholars have always seen a break between Zechariah 8 and 9 (ISBE 4:1184; Elwell 1988, 2:2184-87; Meyers and Meyers 1987, xliv-xlviii; Achtemeier 1985, 1159-60; Bright 1981, 413 n. 20). Many of these scholars would date Zechariah 9 and following to a period still later than 520 B.C., but one source mentions Jeremiah's time as the appropriate date for portions of Zechariah 9-14 (ISBE 4:1185). There seems to be no definitive agreement on the time frame of these final chapters, but perhaps the excavations at Tel Miqne-Ekron are providing the solution -- at least for parts of Zechariah 9.

I do not believe there can be any question about the final destruction of Ekron; it occurred at the end of the seventh century b.c. All of the destruction material from Nebuchadnezzar's day is either at or just below the surface. There is some evidence of occupation on the site after Nebuchadnezzar, but not as a city or even as a village. It appears that part of the mound may have been the location for a villa in the Roman period, and this may corroborate literary evidence from 1 Maccabees 10:89 and Josephus's Antiquities (Naveh 1958, 169). There is also some sherd evidence from the late Roman or Byzantine period that fits, in part, with a fourth-century a.d. reference by Eusebius to a village near Ekron and the village of Ekron itself. However, there is no evidence of an actual village on the mound or just off it at that late date. The few Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic period sherds found in field XI where I excavated in the 1990 season were found near the wadi to which people for centuries have gone for water (T. Dothan and Gitin 1990, 25). This evidence of no significant settlement at Ekron after the seventh century B.C. demonstrates that the Zechariah 9 passage, at least verses 5-8, must belong to an earlier period and may perhaps be from the same time as Zephaniah and Jeremiah.

Philistia disappeared as a nation after the destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, its people taken into captivity. It never recovered its glory of the previous six hundred years. Timnah, like Ekron, ceased to exist. The remains at Ashdod from the Persian period following the Babylonian destruction are sparse, but that city did recover during the Hellenistic period in the fourth century B.C. and later. To what extent Ashdod was "Philistine" during the Persian and Hellenistic periods cannot be determined precisely, but Nehemiah (mid-fifth century b.c.) did refer to the foreign women of Ashdod and to "the language of Ashdod" (Neh. 13:23-24), which scholars believe was a Canaanite language (Oded 1979, 237-38, using the work of M. Dothan at Ashdod). Strata from the Hellenistic and Roman periods are clearly identifiable, although Ashdod was now known by a new name, Azotus. In the first century B.C., Ashdod/Azotus belonged to Herod, and it probably was destroyed during the first Jewish revolt against Rome, around A.D. 67. The remains following this period are sparser still. Ashdod is gone and is covered with weeds today.

Ashkelon fared better, since it was located on the coast and continued to be important as a port. Following the city's destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 604 or 603, Ashkelon's last Philistine king, Aga, was taken to Babylon along with his nobles and sailors. Babylon, in turn, was conquered by the Persians, and Cyrus the Great of Persia allowed those captured by the Babylonians to be resettled "in their sacred cities" (ANET, 316). Whereas some of the Jews returned to Jerusalem, there is no record of Philistines returning home. No doubt, as in Judah, some Philistines had been able to avoid being taken to Babylon, but nonetheless Ashkelon clearly became Persian in 538 B.C. and remained so until 332 B.C. The Philistines "simply disappear from history" (Stager 1991b, 28). Persia gave Ashkelon to the Phoenicians of Tyre. According to Stager, Ashkelon of the fifth through fourth centuries B.C. had a very mixed population: "Persians, Phoenicians, Philistines . . . Egyptians, Greeks, and perhaps Jews" (Stager 1986, 4). The city continued to flourish during the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods to the present (Stager 1991b and c).Today it is a Mediterranean resort city.

We have seen that the material culture of the Philistines can be traced for a six-hundred-year period from the days of Joshua through those of Nebuchadnezzar. As a people, they disappeared from the historical scene after Nebuchadnezzar's campaigns into Philistia. However, their name lives on in the word Palestine, which in the centuries before Christ referred to the coastal homeland of the Philistines, but now includes the Judean, Samarian, and Galilean hills as well. Their name also lives on in cartoons and jokes as a pejorative for uncultured people. However, as we have seen, this concept of the Philistines has always been false.

Starting with Joshua, the Philistines were viewed by the Israelites as the enemy, but they played an important role in the redemptive history of God's people by testing Israel. All too often the Israelites lost their confidence due to the giants or the fortified cities in the land. The Philistines were a foil used by God. Sometimes they even rescued God's people, as they did when protecting David or as they did when the Philistine bodyguard put Solomon and Joash on the throne. Both Jews and Philistines adapted to the local Canaanite culture, but when both peoples went into captivity, the Philistines left the stage of Near Eastern history and disappeared, as the northern ten tribes of Israel had disappeared earlier. Zechariah 9:6-7 says that the once-proud Philistines shall go the way of the Jebusites. Where are they today?

Mycenae, Troy, Kition, Achilles and Hector, Ziklag, Ashdod, Ekron, Achish, Goliath, David, and Jonathan -- all are of ages long gone. Up until fairly recently these names of cities and people were thought of as parts of two separate worlds. We live in a world today that seems to grow smaller due to instant communication and swift transportation. Now our investigations into the past have revealed that the ancient Near East was also a smaller world than it was once believed to have been. Playing a unifying role in the history of that time and place were the Sea Peoples, of which the Philistines were a part. Some of the cities and persons mentioned were formerly thought of as part of legend, the other cities and persons as part of inspired history. Now, however, archaeology is linking them together. The descendants of the legends from the Aegean were used by the Lord God to test his people Israel and at times to save them.