Some of the best-known stories in the Bible are those of Samson in the book of Judges. Young and old alike delight in the accounts of his superhuman feats and his run-in with the wily Delilah.
It was through Delilah’s deception that the mighty Samson was finally captured by the Philistines as described in Judges 16. They put out his eyes and made him a prisoner in Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. After a time, the Philistine lords gathered at Gaza to offer sacrifice to their chief god Dagon. When “their hearts were merry” they called for Samson, “that he may make us sport.” Thus the stage was set for Samson’s last, and perhaps his greatest, deed.
Samson was brought out of prison and taken to the temple where, between two pillars that supported the roof, “he made them sport.” With the help of the boy who was leading him, he was able to locate the two pillars. After calling on the Lord, “Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, ‘Let me die with the Philistines.’ And he bowed himself with all his might, and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein.” (Judges 16:29, 30)
Many would hold that this is a fanciful folk tale, but a recent archaeological discovery shows that the narrative is set against an authentic historic background.
Since there is a modern city on the site of Gaza, Gaza itself has never been excavated. But further north along the Mediterranean coast, excavations at a site just north of Jaffa in the 1950’s and again in the early 1970’s revealed a small Philistine settlement. The settlement, called Tell Qasile, is situated on the northern bank of the Yarkon river and, in ancient times, served as the port for Jaffa. It was to this port that the king of Tyre sent cedar for Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 2:16).
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Plan of the Philistine temple at Tell Qasile.
During the 1972 season at Tell Qasile, a temple came to light—the first Philistine temple ever to be found. The temple is built of sun-dried mudbricks laid on stone foundations and plastered over with a light brown plaster. Its walls, whose average width is about four feet, have been preserved to a height of approximately two and one-half feet. Consisting of two main parts, an antechamber and a main hall, the building measures 26 feet wide by 47 feet long. The antechamber is entered through a wide opening taking up the entire width of its north wall. Stepped plastered benches line the walls and the floor is of beaten earth.
An opening in the wall subdividing the building leads into the main hall, so that the visitor who entered the temple had to make a 90 degree turn in order to enter the main hall. This hall, with inside measurements of 18½ feet by 23½ feet, is a room whose roof was originally supported by two wooden pillars set on round, well-made stone bases, placed along the center axis. Here too, stepped plastered benches were built against the walls.
A narrow compartment, formed by a thin partition wall, is at the end of the main hall. A raised platform (bama, or altar) built against the partition projects into the hall. Built of mud-brick and plastered over, it is raised about three feet above the floor. On the north, the altar meets the plastered benches; while on the south, two plastered steps lead up to it. The lower step was built around the western
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General view of the Tell Qasile temple, looking west.
pillar and covered its stone base. The imprint of the pillar is still so clearly visible in the step that its diameter can be measured.
The altar served as the focal point in the temple ritual. Its location, exactly opposite the center of the entrance-way, appears to have been carefully chosen. Both the altar and the entrance-way lie on a line north of the central axis, while the roof-pillars are located on the central axis, so that the visitor had an unobstructed view of the altar from the entrance to the main hall. At the same time, since the entrance to the building was placed at a right angle, people outside could not look into the main hall.
It is not certain what deity was worshipped in the temple. An ostracon (inscribed fragment of pottery) found on the site bears the inscription “gold of Ophir to Beth Horon. .. thirty shekels.” It is possible that the “beth,” which means “house,” refers to the temple. This would indicate that the temple was for the worship of Horon, a Canaanite god that the Philistines may have adopted.
The destruction of the temple was dated by pottery found on the floor near the altar. This pottery was identical to that found in previous seasons on the floors of houses in the same level. The destruction of this level was attributed by the excavators to a conquest by David
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in the early tenth century B.C. (see 1 Chronicles 18:1). Many vessels and cultic objects were preserved in this destruction level.
We can imagine the Philistine lords sitting around the benches of the main hall of the temple of Dagon in Gaza, which must have been very similar to the one at Tell Qasile. The image of Dagon undoubtedly sat on an altar very much like that at Tell Qasile—”And when the people saw him, they praised their god” (Judges 16:24). And, just as the Bible describes, the Philistine temple at Tell Qasile had two pillars which supported the roof. Thus it can
Steps leading to the platform in the main hall, with the hole marking the location of the western pillar clearly visible.
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be seen that a man endued with strength from God could easily pull down these pillars and cause the entire building to collapse.
This discovery shows that the Bible writer knew his facts. He knew that Philistine temples were supported by two pillars and that this was how Samson pulled the temple down. The report is that of an eye-witness, again demonstrating that indeed the Bible is the world’s most accurate history textbook.
(Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 36, No. 2, 1973; Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1973)
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