The Philistine Phallic Obsession
In the last season of excavations at Tel es-Safi, a site 40 km south west of Jerusalem which is identified with Philistine Gath, archaeologist Aren Maier of Bar-IlanUniversity announced the discovery of seven small clay phallic-shaped objects. Two such ceramic phalluses had been recovered already in 2004, but now it seems that these items were part of a common Philistine cult, one which should be studied in greater detail. Phallic shaped objects are very rare in Semitic material cultures, but appear in Egyptian context, and are quite well known in Aegean and Greek context. So these finds add to the accumulating evidence recovered at various Philistine sites in Israel over the years, suggesting that the origin of the Philistine was from the Aegean region, between modern Turkey and Greece.
Philistine Phallus and the Bible
Furthermore, Maier suggests that these items can also explain a difficult term in the Old Testament – the ophalim (‘opalim’). Ophalim are mentioned in I Samuel 5:6&11 as some kind of a plague inflicted on the Philistines. Later, when returning the Ark of the Covenant, the Philistines also gave the Israelites “five gold ophalim” (I Samuel 6:4).
English editions of the Old Testament translated this word in terms such as “hemorrhoids”, “swellings”, or “tumors”. Yet Maier is of the opinion that this term is really referring to the male organs of the Philistines, the membra virile.
Although the term ophel is nowhere else used in any Semitic language to describe the male organ, in biblical Hebrew the cognate word ophel has a meaning of high, lofty, or raised. Maier believes ophel may refer also to the phallus.
This approach is supported by another Biblical narrative. In I Samuel 18 King Saul dares David to bring him “a hundred Philistine foreskins” in order to marry his daughter, Michal. David, without hesitation, carries out this challenge successfully: “David and his men went out and killed two hundred Philistines. He brought their foreskins and presented the full number to the king so that he might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage” (I Samuel 18:27). It seems that Saul and David were aware of the fact that foreskins were of special cultic significance to the Philistines, and besides the obvious painful and humiliating act, cutting off the foreskins of Philistines may have had also a religious significance, perhaps for both sides.
It may also highlight the contemptuous references in the Bible to “the uncircumcised Philistines” (1 Samuel 17:26, 36; 31:4). Maier consulted with several urologists, but they could not conclude whether the clay phallic shaped objects were circumcised or not. Yet seven phallic shaped bronze objects found in 1996 at Ascalon, another major Philistine site, do seem to resemble an uncircumcised male organ. What the exact use and meaning of such items was in Philistine culture and religion still remains an enigma. Holes on the sides of the artifacts suggest that perhaps they were worn during ceremonies, though there inner diameter seems too small to hold the phallus in (at least to me.. J).