Ancient Jewish history can put the present into perspective and enable us to take the long view, but not everything has a precedent.
Edmund Burke wrote that “people will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors”. And although the 2014 war in Gaza is – or was, depending on whether the ceasefire holds – a modern war, that is the case only with respect to technology and perhaps the large number of people in the immediate area of hostilities.
Certain aspects of current hostilities in the Middle East and particularly in Israel, seem to be repeats of ancient Jewish history. Not of a past doomed to be repeated because its lessons have not been learned, to paraphrase Santayana, but of processes and events that seem part and parcel of the saga of the Jewish people and, because of that, may help to put them into perspective.
Anti-Semitism, like the legendary phoenix, is lifting its head from the ashes – and in this first post-Holocaust century, those ashes are real even if the phoenix is not. Jew-hatred is not the subject of this article, however, as anti-Semitism is not a repeat of ancient Jewish history, but an ongoing part of Jewish existence, beginning with Pharaoh’s fear that the Jews would take over Egypt (perhaps the “Protocols” first edition was written on papyrus…) and his attempt to cow them into submission and murder their male issue. The alleged causes, methods and relative successes of anti-Semitism vary, but anti-Semitism itself seems to be a given.
On the other hand, what seems to be an echo of the past is that Islamists, under the guise of a holy war, are repeating the practices of the decadent Canaanite nations of biblical times, with children wearing suicide belts and dying during tunnel digging in an Allah-directed form of child sacrifice to the idol of Moloch; women captured and sold on the market and the wholesale slaughter and beheading of prisoners.
Anyone reading the Books of Judges and Samuel will observe that this is quite similar to the world in which the ancient Israelites lived and with which they were forced to contend several thousand years ago, centuries before the advent of Islam.
This is also the first era during which the Jews lived in and governed their own land – as they do today.
In the post-conquest period following the Israelite’s entry to the Promised Land, Gaza and its north and northeast environs (the ancient sites of Gath, Ashdod, Ashkelon and Ekron, reaching just about to Tel Aviv’s Yarkon River) was the home of the Philistine people. The Philistines migrated to the area from the Greek Isles, but considered it their own after a successful incursion that took place around the time the Israelites arrived on the scene (since this is not a history paper, we will skip an earlier group of Philistines who feature in the story of the Patriarchs).
The Mediterranean Sea was Philistia’s western border, but the warmongering and aggressive tribe had no defined eastern border and continuously tried to overthrow Jewish rule in order to conquer larger portions of the Land of Israel and decimate its people.
The Israelites faced repeated attacks, forays, skirmishes, battles and full-scale wars, mostly initiated by the ever-encroaching Philistines, and the fledgling Jewish nation attempted desperately to rid themselves of the constant danger posed to civilians and soldiers. At first, exclusive access to iron-mongering technology gave the Philistines an advantage in weaponry, but the Israelites soon managed to overcome that obstacle.
Some of the Jews’ ideas were ingenious, such as Samson’s one-man commando unit that infiltrated the other side in such outlandish and courageous fashion that he was tolerated by the enemy – even marrying Philistine women – until, overpowered and humiliated, he was abducted. Dying while imprisoned, he managed to take many Philistines with him (Judges 14-16).
King Saul’s son Jonathan, an intrepid officer willing to endanger his life for his troops, independently hatched a daring plan while the Israelite camp awaited the start of a pitched battle, and succeeded in routing the Philistines – for a time at Michmas (Samuel 1; 14)
David’s unconventional method of killing Goliath, which sowed paralyzing fear in the attacking army, is an enduring example of a raw recruit thinking out-of-the-box and being allowed to act on his idea (Samuel 1, 17).
These examples bring today’s IDF commando units and IDF originality, improvisation and self-sacrifice to mind.
Verses interspersed throughout the Early Prophets describe small scale hostilities, terror and the fact that sometimes a few years of tranquility were achieved after successful battles, specifically during the last years of the Prophet Samuel’s life.
Seven military operations of varying magnitude against the Philistines are described more fully in the Bible: in two of them, at Aphek and Eben Haezer (Samuel 1; 4 and 7) the Jews suffered defeat and the loss of the Holy Ark, while at Gilboa, King Saul fell on his sword to avoid capture by the cruel and barbaric Philistine enemy (Samuel 1; 31).
King Ahaz of Judah fought them unsuccessfully to retain the coastal lowland and the Negev (Chronicles 2;28) On the other hand, at Michmas (Samuel 1; 14) and in the battle involving David and Goliath (Samuel 1, 17), the Jews were the victors.
One of the last kings of Judah, Hezekiah, finally delivered a crushing defeat to the Philistines that included the taking of Gaza (Kings 2; 18) just as the Assyrians came on the scene. Not long after, the Assyrians exiled and dispersed the warmongering nation.
An examination of dates shows that it took well over 300 years for the Israelites to finally vanquish the Philistines, with David’s famous killing of Goliath serving only as a temporary setback.
And that is where perspective comes in.
Prophets, including Jeremiah and Amos, addressed the problem of the Philistines. Zephaniah prophesied that “Gaza will be abandoned”. Zakhariah predicted that God “will cut off the pride of the Philistines” and “Gaza will writhe in agony”.
That was for the future.
Theological biblical meta-narrative and prophecy aside, on a practical level, the Jews seem to have managed to live with the fact that they had to keep on fighting and that after every defeat, the determined Philistine enemy would regroup and try again.
They, too, had families and loved ones. We don’t know much about how they reacted to this ongoing war; we know they praised David’s successes. We see from the description of what they did to Saul that Philistine treatment of dead bodies is that of Hamas and Hezbollah (Samuel 1, 31), and we know that the imprisoned Samson was blinded by them.
It was probably hard to get Israelites to live near Philistia.
The ancient Israelites fought bravely and hard, fought to win, although they,too, must have also known that if the Philistines were destroyed, someone else would soon take their place. “In every generation, they try to destroy us” is the sentence in the Passover Hagaddah that is acknowledged by every Jew, Orthodox to atheist, from time immemorial.
Eventually, the Philistines were defeated decisively and disappeared from the pages of history, leaving no written records but giving rise to the more modern term “philistine” for someone who is savage, anti-culture and wholly materialistic.
The Jews, too, were defeated by an external enemy and exiled, but did not disappear. In fact, those exiled, returned, at first in small numbers, to build a Second Temple. A new phenomenon, the existence of a large and flourishing Jewish Diaspora parallel to life in the Land of Israel continued throughout the Second Temple Period. Eventually, the Talmud was written down both in Israel and Babylon.
Jewish history from Joshua’s time onward can be divided roughly, vis a vis the Land of Israel, into:
a. The centuries when almost all Jews lived in the Land of Israel – contending with nations such as the Philistines, but building the first Holy Temple and a vibrant society;
b. The 2nd Temple period when those living in the land were in contact with a flourishing Diaspora (Babylon, Egypt and Rome and others);
c. A period of almost total exile from the land, lasting for two thousand persecution-filled years;
d. The present era, characterized by a reestablished and flourishing state in which the Jewish population is now almost equal to that of the Diaspora.
Many people have pointed to parallels between the present and the 2nd Temple era, a few even suggesting the rebuilding of the Temple, and others simply hoping that, despite repeated wars and genocidal rhetoric, the Arab world would either learn to live with Israel or be forced to do so.
This model, however, has recently changed abruptly to one that may have no parallel in Jewish history, in which both the independent State of Israel and the flourishing worldwide Diaspora are concurrently threatened by violent and expanding anti-Semitism fueled by a growing world jihad.
Israel’s citizens will learn to live with the fact that the battle against Hamas and its fellow terrorist organizations may not be won in a one-time operation. That seems to be the appropriate perspective to take from a study of the Israelite’s struggle with the Philistines, but there seems to be no Jewish paradigm for the broader and current threat.
In today’s configuration, the world as a whole, and not just the Jewish people and other endangered minorities, will have to decide whether to take the side of international Philistinism or that of Judaeo-Christian values, Western culture and hard-won freedoms.
(Note: The Tanach describes the Almighty’s reward or punishment that was behind each battle fought by the Israelites, but obviously, that cannot be compared to our period when there is no prophecy, so it is not included.)