Ashkelon of Philistia—Judges 14:19

The Bible first names Ashkelon during the conquest of Canaan as one of the cities belonging to the Philistine Pentapolis (Josh. 13:3). Then it appears in the period of the judges when Samson attacked the cities to seize garments to pay off a wager (Judg. 14:19). Later the prophets frequently predict its demise (Jer. 25:20; 47:5; Zeph. 2:4; Zech. 9:5). The Egyptians often refer to the city, beginning with the Execration Texts of the Middle Kingdom and culminating with the Merenptah Stela in 1209 BC. Archaeologists have recovered a small ivory plaque mentioning Ashkelon at Megiddo.

John Garstang excavated the site of Ashkelon (1921–1922) and then Harvard University (1985–2016) extensively excavated it. The Harvard expedition uncovered a major settlement extending from the Middle Bronze Age to the Crusader and Islamic periods.

The massive Canaanite city of the Middle Bronze Age had major fortifications including four ramparts that supported enormous mudbrick walls more than 230 feet (70 m) thick. The remains of a northern gate still had the lower part of an arch. The arch had collapsed in antiquity, but the supporting walls were well preserved. It represents the oldest arched gateway ever found. Sealings and other artifacts located in the ruins indicate an extensive trade relationship with Egypt and Phoenicia. In 1991 excavators unearthed a silver/copper calf figure outside the gate complex and next to a terra-cotta shrine. A few tombs have turned up near the gate. The prophets opposed such Canaanite worship (Hosea 13:1, 2) and its practices may be behind other discussions concerning burial, worship, and feasting (Jer. 16:5-9).

The Late Bronze Age city, corresponding to the period of the conquest and the judges, has not been as extensively excavated. Part of a large Egyptian-style fortress appears at the end of the thirteenth century BC. Some scholars have suggested that it may have been a garrison built by Merenptah (1213–1203 BC) after his campaign against the city recorded on his stela and at Karnak temple. Archaeologists have also excavated tombs from this period in the middle of the city.

During the Iron Age, Ashkelon’s plan and material culture altered dramatically. Although excavators have not located evidence of large-scale destruction, they have found abundant Philistine bichrome pottery decorated with geometric forms, including spirals, squares, and fish and bird designs. Although the vessels share characteristics of the Mycenaean pottery of mainland Greece, testing by neutron activation analysis indicates that the potters made them from local Palestinian clays. As elsewhere in Philistine sites, the diet of Ashkelon’s inhabitants greatly differs from those who had lived earlier at the site. Dog and pig joined the regular diet. The amount of pork increases from 5 to 20 percent at this time. Cooking pots take new forms. Houses now have raised hearths built of mudbrick in the interiors of rooms. While excavators have not located temples for this period at Ashkelon, a plastered four-horned altar in one room may suggest domestic cultic practices. Many scholars have suggested that these combined features represent the immigration of the Sea Peoples that Ramesses III reports as settling along the southern coastal plain of Canaan. The Bible terms such Aegean people as “Philistines.”

Nebuchadnezzar overthrew Ashkelon in 603 BC, leaving it uninhabited for a time. The eighth and seventh-century prophets predicted the eventual destruction of Ashkelon and other Philistine cities (Amos 1:8; Jer. 47:4-7).