A Serving of Philistine Culture: Boar, Dog and Fine Wine

Few peoples are described in the Bible with as much hostility as the Philistines, who lived in the coastal plain during the period it documents. In Judges and in 1 Samuel, the Philistines are described as being "uncircumcised" and presented as one of the most despised enemies of the Jewish people and its leaders, from Samson to King David. Recent archaeological discoveries in Israel, however, cast a different light on the relations between the two peoples. Research into the dispersal of Philistine cooking methods among various populations in Israel shows that the Philistines spread their culture beyond the areas under their control. While the two cultures never mixed, the early Hebrews apparently copied many important components of the Philistine lifestyle.

Excavations in Philistine cities carried out over the past several years offer a picture of a people with a rich and interesting culture that often conflicts with their biblical image. "They were very sophisticated for their time," Prof. Aren Maeir, chairman of the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University and director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.

"There's no doubt that the social organization of the Philistines was much more developed than that of the Israelites, and apparently of the Canaanites as well." An article by Maeir and his colleagues on the cooking methods and the diet of the Philistines and neighboring populations, due to appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Archaeology, examines the cultural inter-relations among the various groups.

Crock-pot cookery

Unlike most of the peoples living in the region in the biblical era, the Philistines were not Semites, but rather one of the Sea Peoples who immigrated from the Aegean Sea region of today's Greece and western Turkey. They brought with them technologies new to the area, including a wide range of pottery vessels and a sophisticated political organization.

They prepared meals in a characteristic sealed pottery vessel suited to long cooking times at low heat, while most inhabitants of Canaan at the time used open pots and faster cooking methods. The bones found at the Philistine cities showed that their diet was also different from those of their neighbors. While the Canaanites and Israelites ate mainly beef and lamb, the Philistines ate mainly pork, with an occasional meal of dog meat. The Philistines' wine culture was also very well-developed.

Until recently, researchers believed the Philistines assimilated into the local population, and their culture died out after about 200 years. Not so, Maeir says. "Findings from the digs at Gath (Tell es-Safi) and other Philistine sites show that their unique cooking implements continued to appear centuries after their arrival," proving that the Philistines preserved many aspects of their culture for centuries.

In addition, the Philistine pots spread to other areas of Canaan. And, Maeir recalls, even the biblical stories of constant conflict between the Israelites and the Philistines has another side. "It's true that Samson comes into conflict with the Philistines repeatedly," Maeir said, "but on the other hand he also chooses Philistine wives - not once, but twice.