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Philistine Male Organs found at Tel Es-Safi (2008)

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.

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).

Those interested to volunteer in the next season of excavations at Tel es-Safi/Gath can register at You can also follow the excavation at the web blog of Prof

A Maier at

Two of the phallic shaped objects recovered in the excavations in Tel es-Safi excavations, a site identified with the Philistine city of Gath

Two of the phallic shaped objects recovered in the excavations in Tel es-Safi excavations, a site identified with the Philistine city of Gath. According to the excavator of the site, Professor A Maier, these items were part of Philistine cult practices, and such items, Maier suggests, were the golden OPHALIM which the Philistines included as offerings when returning the Ark of the Covenant to the Israelites (I Samuel 6:4-5). Photo © Tel es-Safi/Gath archaeological project.

Biblical Name found on a Seal from the City of David

Ongoing excavations by Dr. Eilat Mazar in the City of David, the site of Canaanite and Biblical Jerusalem, have yielded many finds to date, but a recently discovered stone seal seems to be of special importance, and good reason for excitement. Stone seals and clay stamped seals (Bullae) are rarely found, as only high officials had personal stamps in Biblical times: Joseph was given the Pharaoh’s seal when reaching a high position in Egypt (Genesis 41:41-44), and Jezebel ordered king Ahab, her husband, to stamp with his royal seal an order she wished to send (I King 21:8).

At the City of David quite a few Bullae were recovered by the different archaeological expeditions, attesting that Biblical Jerusalem was an administrative center for thekingdom of Judah and Israel. Yet few seals have been found, even in capital cities like Jerusalem and Samaria. The recently revealed seal is of an elliptical shape (2.1 x1.8 cm) and is made of a black stone. It depicts two bearded priests standing on either side of an incense altar, with their hands raised forward in a position of worship. A crescent moon appears on the top of the altar. Below the scene, three Palaeo-Hebrew letters read “TMH” (“[belonging to] Tamach”. There were no vowels in early Hebrew). Such a name is known from the book of Nehemiah: “These are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity, of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away, and came again to Jerusalem and to Judah… the children of Tamach …” (Nehemiah 7:6, 55).

This find is perplexing. One of the main goals of the Jews who returned from the exile was to restore the temple in Jerusalem and its religious practices to Yahweh, the single god of the Jews. Yet the scene seems to describe Babylonian rituals! The crescent depicted above the altar is known to represent Sin, the chief god of the Babylonians. Mazar is of the opinion that although the cultic scene seems Babylonian, it did not seem to disturb the Jew who owned it. Perhaps Mazar is right, but whether the seal alludes to traces of idol worship among the Jews or not, this seal is one of the very few cases where an archaeological find bears a clear name that can be matched in the bible, and in matching layers.

I call such occasions “BINGO!”.

Excavators call it a reason for a press announcement.

* The dig is being sponsored by the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem research institute, and the City of David Foundation.

The "Tamach" Seal.

The "Tamach" Seal. Photo by Edwin Trebels, courtesy of Dr Eilat Mazar.

Last minute Addition

Following the publication of the “Tamach” seal by Eilat Mazar, several Scholars have criticized her reading. Usually seals have the text chiseled on them in a ‘negative’ way, and only when the stamp is used, the proper ‘positive’ reading is formed. And indeed if the name on this seal is read from left-to-right and the letter on the left is examined more carefully, it becomes clear the name mentioned on the seal is actually “ShLMT”, or

“Shlomit”, in retrograde. This name is found in the Bible, and from the same time frame as in the previous reading. The book of Chronicles, for instance, mentions Shlomit who was the daughter of Zerubabel, a descendent of the Judean king Jehoiachin (I Chronicles 3:19). The name Shlomit also appears in Ezra 8:10. Which Shlomit owned this seal remains unknown, but her name is now clear.

The seal in retrograde, reading "shlomit".

The seal in retrograde, reading "shlomit".