PHILISTINES AND PALESTINIANS

“There was a famine in the land, besides the first famine that was during the days of Avraham. Yitzchak went to Abimelech king of the Philistines, to Gerar.” (Bereishit 26:1)

Gerar was the capital city of the Philistines. In parshat Noach, in the section discussing the descendants of Noah and where they settled, the Torah (Bereishit 10:19) states, “The border of the Canaanite [nation] was from Sidon [in the north], as you come [on the way leading] toward Gerar [in the south] until Gaza; as you come toward Sodom and Gomorrah and Adma and Tzevoyim, until Lasah.” Rabbi Steinsaltz (Weisfeld Humash) notes, “Gerar was the name of a city and region in the eastern Negev. The city of Gerar was located on the northern bank of Wadi Gerar, and has been identified with Tel Gamma near Kibbutz Re’im, or with Tel Harur, south of Melilot in the northern Negev.” Earlier in the same section (verse 14), the Torah speaks of the descendants of Mitzrayim, the second son of Ham, “Patrusim and Kasluhim, from which the Philistines emerged, and Kaftorim.” The Philistines eventually settled in the land of Canaan, along the coast, as is clear from the Exodus narrative (Shmot 13:17), “It was, in Pharaoh’s sending forth the people, that God did not guide them via the land of the Philistines, although it was near, for God said: Lest the people reconsider when they see war and return to Egypt.” Even though the shortest route from Egypt to the land of Canaan is along the Mediterranean coast, God took them on a circuitous route so as to avoid the territory of the Philistines. It thus transpired that Yitzchak left the Hebron region where he and his father had lived and moved to Gerar, which is roughly the area where the current war in the south of Israel is taking place.

The Biblical Philistines were a constant thorn in the side of the Israelites. Joshua was not able to conquer the territory of the Philistines, which included Ashkelon and Ashdod (Joshua 13). Samson was eventually captured by the Philistines, who gouged out his eyes (Judges 16:21). In the early days of Samuel, the Philistines attacked the Tabernacle at Shiloh and stole the Ark of the Covenant (I Samuel chapter 4). King David had many battles with the Philistines, starting with his remarkable victory over Goliath (ibid chapter 17) and continuing until his old age when he fought against the Philistine giants in Gob and Gath (II Samuel chapter 21). Jeremiah (chapter 47) prophesied about the Philistines “before Pharaoh attacked Gaza” and Zephaniah (chapter 2) predicted their ultimate downfall, “For Gaza will be deserted; and Ashkelon become a wasteland; they will drive out Ashdod’s residents at noon; and Ekron will be uprooted. Woe to the inhabitants of the seacoast, the nation of the Cherethites! The word of Hashem is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines, and I will destroy, without an inhabitant. The seacoast will be an abode for shepherds and sheepfolds. It will be a portion for the remnant of the House of Judah; upon which they will graze. In the houses of Ashkelon they will lie down in the evening, for Hashem, their God, will remember them and will return their captivity.”

It would seem that the ancient Philistines were vanquished and disappeared. The people who today call themselves Palestinians are not actually related to the ancient Philistines. Rather, they are Arabs who lived in the area called Palestine. The encyclopaedia Britannica (https://www.britannica.com/place/Palestine) provides the background to the modern use of this term: “The word Palestine derives from Philistia, the name given by Greek writers to the land of the Philistines, who in the 12th century BCE occupied a small pocket of land on the southern coast, between modern Tel Aviv–Yafo and Gaza. The name was revived by the Romans in the 2nd century CE in “Syria Palaestina,” designating the southern portion of the province of Syria, and made its way thence into Arabic where it has been used to describe the region at least since the early Islamic era. After Roman times, the name had no official status until after World War I and the end of rule by the Ottoman Empire, when it was adopted for one of the regions mandated to Great Britain; in addition to an area roughly comprising present-day Israel and the West Bank, the mandate included the territory east of the Jordan River now constituting the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which Britain placed under an administration separate from that of Palestine immediately after receiving the mandate for the territory.”

After Yitzchak had lived for some time in Gerar, Abimelech issued a warning to his subjects (26:11), “Anyone who touches this man or his wife, shall be put to death.” The Netziv (in Ha’emek Davar) has a novel interpretation of Abimelech’s royal decree. He explains that the king meant “whoever engages in trade and commerce” with this man will be put to death. His motivation was to prevent Yitzchak from becoming wealthy and successful. We see later (26:26-31) that the king was fully aware of how prosperous Avraham had been and he did not want Yitzchak to follow suit. In spite of Abimelech’ attempts to impoverish Yitzchak, the opposite occurred (verses 12-14), “Yitzchak sowed in that land and found in that year one hundredfold and the Lord blessed him. The man grew wealthy, and continued to grow until he became very wealthy. He had livestock of flocks, and livestock of cattle and a great household, the Philistines envied him.” The Netziv notes that because it was a year of famine, the Philistines had no choice but to trade with Yitzchak, effectively scuppering the king’s plan. Yitzchak’s wealth was unusual and rivalled that of kings.  This, notes the Netziv, was to be an indication of what would occur throughout history. Even when they were persecuted and oppressed by the local leaders, Jews would nevertheless achieve great success in the material world.  But this would inevitably lead to jealousy, as the verse states, “the Philistines envied him.” We hear in the words of the Netziv some of the bitterness that has come from centuries of anti-Semitism, “Even though there were other wealthy people in the capital city, none had achieved a level of wealth equal to Yitzchak’s. And a rich person envies someone richer than him, especially if that person is a Jew.” 

In this instance, the envy came to the fore (verses 15-16): “All the cisterns that his father’s servants dug in the days of Avraham, his father, the Philistines sealed them and filled them with earth. Abimelech said to Yitzchak, ‘Leave us, for you have grown much mightier than we.” The king could not bear to see the ‘pain’ of his noble citizens who could not tolerate such a successful foreigner. The king’s words contain a classic anti-Semitic canard that would be repeated time and again by the enemies of Israel. Abimelech said, “you have grown much mightier than we” (mimenu). But this can also be read as “you have grown much mightier from us.” In other words, Jews are parasites who become wealthy by stealing the assets of the citizens in whose lands they live. The poverty of the masses is a direct result of the wealth of the Jew. Again, notes the Netziv, this is an indication of what was to come in the future. Jews would be sent into exile and expelled from many lands as a result of the ‘belief’ that they were plundering the resources.

The narrative continues (verses 17-18), “Yitzchak left there and he encamped in the Valley of Gerar and settled there.  Yitzchak again dug the cisterns of water that they had dug in the days of Avraham, his father, and that the Philistines had sealed after the death of Avraham. He called them like the names that his father called them.” Yitzchak’s relocation put an end to the envy of the nobles because he was out of their sight. The move was ultimately positive for Yitzchak. Now that he was living in the valley, he could closely supervise the supply of water. In fact, his shepherds discovered three wells that were undoubtedly beneficial for agriculture and livestock. Soon afterwards, Abimelech came to see him with a delegation and requested that they enter into a pact. Although Yitzchak was at first reticent and said to the king (verse 27), “Why did you come to me? You hated me and you sent me from among you”, he eventually acceded to Abimelech’s request. From this passage, concludes the Netziv, “we learn the way of the Jewish exile, that is, the Holy One blessed is He, turns the plans of [our enemies] upside down. And what at first appears to be a terrible calamity – that we are expelled from a certain place – eventually turns in our favour after time, as will happen again in the future.” The ways of God are inscrutable. We cannot explain why we have had to suffer the trauma of exile and expulsion. But very often when one door closed, another opened, and Jews were able to start afresh in their new homes, achieving even greater success than before.

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha: https://youtu.be/o90JRfJvPMQ?si=k51PQP-ZgnF3ZL0h

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