Tel Batash in the Shephelah is a bewildering and fascinating archaeological site. Excavations there have revealed an Iron Age city that scholars have identified as biblical Timnah. Yet this identification doesn’t tell us who the people were in Timnah or how to delineate them from others. Neither textual nor archaeological sources seem to provide clear answers.
The site is close to the so-called Philistine cities of Gath (Tell eṣ-Ṣafi) and Ekron (Tel Miqne) in the Shephelah, the low hills between the highlands to the east and the coastal plain to the west. According to archaeologists, for much of the Iron Age (1200–586 B.C.E.), the Shephelah was a region where different people interacted and coexisted. These people are labeled in the Bible as Philistines, Canaanites, Israelites, and Judahites, but it seems that their identities were more fluid than the names we have for them. There is no clear consensus on how to reconstruct or label peoples in this border region. So the only categories we have come from ancient texts.1
Although some places in the Shephelah, such as Tel Beth Shemesh and Tel Lachish, appear to have developed more consistently as part of Judah’s western border from the tenth to eighth centuries, sites located slightly farther west, such as Tel Zayit, Tell eṣ-Ṣafi, and our Tel Batash, seem to reflect a “mixed” identity. Or perhaps identities at certain sites shifted over time. Tel Batash is but one of these sites. After a short period of prosperity in the Iron Age I, it appears to have been abandoned sometime in the tenth century and reestablished in the early eighth century, more than a hundred years later.
I’m not an archaeologist and will leave the archaeological debates to the experts. But as a textual scholar and a social historian, sites like Timnah fascinate me because of how text and archaeology communicate.
Timnah receives less attention in ancient texts and in textual scholarship than sites like Beth Shemesh and Gath. Yet the site is intriguing precisely because such sparse evidence portrays Timnah’s social landscape as remarkably strange, slippery, and elusive. This elusiveness is the case in the Bible as well as in Neo-Assyrian witnesses from Sennacherib’s campaign (c. 701 B.C.E.), during which the Shephelah was destroyed and realigned definitively toward the coast (i.e., what we call Philistine territory).
From the textual evidence, how do we characterize Timnah throughout the Iron Age? Who were the people living there?
Aside from Genesis 38 and Judges 14–15, Timnah 080appears briefly in 2 Chronicles and twice in Joshua’s tribal allotments. In the latter, Timnah is allocated both for Judah (Joshua 15:10, Joshua 15:57) and Dan (Joshua 19:43). These attestations reflect literary idealizations, not historical realities, of Israel’s territorial “borders” or “boundaries” (Hebrew: gebul).
Joshua 15:10 and Joshua 15:57 speak directly to questions of the Shephelah’s landscape in the Iron Age. First, Joshua 15:10 lists Timnah, Beth Shemesh, and Ekron all within the boundaries of Judah. Then, Joshua 15:57 places Timnah within a list of Judah’s territory that includes the entire Shephelah as well as the coastland, including every major Philistine site. This expansive list of Judah’s allotments is likely an idealized literary construction of Judah’s political landscape after Sennacherib’s crushing defeat and reorganization of the Shephelah away from Judah in 701 B.C.E.2 The Philistine coastland listed in Joshua 15:45–47 was never part of Judah!
Aside from the land allotments, Timnah is at the heart of two biblical stories: Tamar (Genesis 38) and Samson (Judges 14–15). In contrast to Joshua’s carefully constructed boundary lists, these stories describe Timnah as a place of liminality and cultural ambiguity. Questionable sexual or cross-cultural activity takes place there, activity outside the appropriate contours and structures of society.
In the Tamar-Judah story in Genesis 38, Canaanites and Judahites intermarry without judgment or strong distinction. Timnah, and more specifically the road to Timnah, becomes the space for, well, let’s call it unusual sexual activity between Judah and his daughter-in-law.
The Samson cycle in Judges 14–15 presents an even more socially complicated story about Timnah. The cycle as a whole (Judges 13–16) is the only set of biblical stories that takes place almost entirely in the Shephelah and on the coast. Judah takes a backseat role and appears as a supporting actor only briefly in chapter 15. Most notable for us is how often scholars have referred to the cycle as a story specifically about “borders” and “border-crossing” between Judah and Philistia.3 Yet for all this hype, the term gebul, “border,” is unattested in the cycle, and the setting is certainly not clearly delineated territory, especially when we compare the cycle to the land lists in the Book of Joshua.
Rather, the “borders” or identity markers in the Samson cycle narrative are quite limited and exist at the beginning and end of the cycle, in Judges 13 and Judges 16. Such markers bind Samson into the Book of Judges as a whole and define Samson as a savior of Israel, of the tribe of Dan, one who grows up 081between Zorah and Eshtaol. Yet aside from these markers, and in the “meat” of the stories (Judges 14–16), Samson is anything but identifiable. His Hebrew name, Shimshon, links him with the sun (Hebrew: shemesh) and therefore Beth Shemesh, a curious connection given that these stories never explicitly mention the site. Throughout, Samson is described as a lone, liminal thug who single-handedly wreaks havoc in the Shephelah and coastlands. He is entirely isolated from any family or identifiable group. Stories about his exploits disorganize identities and blur boundaries, using only natural topography rather than clear borders to describe movement “up” and “down” between the coast and the hill country.
In these stories, neither Samson nor his lady friends fit neatly into Israelite, Danite, Philistine, or Canaanite society. They defy social constructs and norms. We never know how to define the infamous Delilah in Judges 16 (whose name puns with Samson’s—she is night; he is sun).
Important for us is the nameless woman from Timnah in Judges 14–15. Early on, the text categorizes this woman as Philistine or one of the “uncircumcised” (Judges 14:2–4). But her identity blurs in Judges 15. After the celebrations of her marriage—or perhaps betrothal—to Samson (Judges 14), Samson disappears, and her father gives her to someone else. Later, Samson reacts to the news that she no longer belongs to him by destroying Philistine crops in Timnah (Judges 15:4–5). So is she Philistine? Well, then the Philistines “go up” to Timnah and kill the woman and her father by burning them alive (Judges 15:6).
Notice how strange and violent the story is. The woman and her father are totally isolated from any other family or broader cultural group. The Philistines punish the family for Samson’s actions, as if Samson were one of them or vice versa.
Samson then disappears to a cave in an unknown location (Judges 15:8) and is eventually captured by the men of Judah and returned to the Philistines (Judges 15:11–13). These Judahites have nothing against Samson. Yet from the geographical movement and the dialogues between various constituents, it is clear that he is an outsider, not quite one of them.
So just who is Samson? And who is, or was, this woman? Canaanite? Philistine? Judahite? The ambiguous evidence doesn’t quite fit into our available categories.
Some scholars have argued that these stories about Samson’s exploits were written prior to 701 B.C.E. For them, such stories mirror the cultural ambiguity of the archaeological evidence prior to Sennacherib’s destruction based on Samson’s easy movement between Philistine and Judahite (or Israelite) territory in the Shephelah. Others argue that the cycle is a fabricated literary construction that reflects a world close to or even after Sennacherib’s campaigns, when the Philistines definitely took over the region. The Samson stories would therefore serve as a literary creation of boundaries between Philistines and Judahites and a warning of the dangers of crossing borders.
However, despite the obvious tension between the border construction in parts of the Samson cycle and the border negation in the core stories of Judges 14–16, these Shephelah stories all reflect little interest in border maintenance. Again, if we were to look for that literary idealization of borders based on Sennacherib’s crushing defeat and reorganization of the Shephelah, we might return to Joshua 15 and the incorporation of the coastland into Judah along with an explicit textual focus on “borders.” In contrast, while Samson’s Shephelah wanderings obviously understand geography in descriptions of “up” and “down” movement in the region, the texts reflect disinterest in clear identity or border classifications.
Turning to the Neo-Assyrian sources for Sennacherib’s third campaign (c. 701 B.C.E.), we find that Timnah and another Shephelah town, Eltekeh, become the sites of an important battle between Jerusalem and the Neo-Assyrians. Strikingly, these varied Neo-Assyrian witnesses to the campaign portray Timnah similarly to the Bible’s depictions, which we would not expect given such disparity in the texts’ nature and aims. In the campaign, after collecting tribute from various places and subduing 082Ashkelon on the coast, Sennacherib’s third campaign describes the battle against Ekron and Jerusalem (a strange and foreign alliance in the biblical perspective) in Eltekeh and Timnah.4
All other cities listed in this campaign are carefully connected to a particular leader or larger polity. Such descriptions include “Menahem of the city Samaria,” “Mitinti of the city Ashdod,” “Sidqa king of the city Ashkelon,” and “Bit-Daganna, Joppa, Banayabarqa, and Azuru, cities of Sidqa.”5 Of all the places listed in the campaign, only Eltekeh and Timnah lack a clear link or explicit affiliation with a leader or polity. Some would say both are connected to Ekron from the textual description, while others would say Jerusalem.
According to the annals, the Neo-Assyrians defeated Ekron, plundered Eltekeh, Timnah, and Ekron, and then conquered numerous cities, fortresses, and other settlements of the land of Judah. Then, at the very end of the campaign, Sennacherib “detached” the cities he had plundered from Hezekiah and gave them to the kings of Ashdod, Ekron, and Gaza. Did these cities include Timnah and Eltekeh? Although the text doesn’t say, it has traditionally been assumed that the Shephelah, including Timnah, became conclusively Philistine at that time.
It does seem that the depiction of Timnah in the Samson cycle reflects, in part, an imagined world from a post-701 perspective. Yet in my view, the cycle does not depict a uniform presentation of the borders between Judah and Philistia. Nor does it present a clear distinction between these groups, for which many scholars traditionally argue. In the stories, particularly chapters 14-15, people are simply fluid; they are not easily identifiable according to our established social categories: Judahite, Philistine, Israelite, or Canaanite. Rather, Timnah and the people of Timnah are liminal (at least to us, the outside observers).
The Samson cycle as a whole demonstrates a dynamic, internal complexity of perspectives about the social landscape. The fluidity in chapters 14–15, for example, is disrupted by the social categories for Samson at the beginning and end of the narrative. Suddenly, Samson becomes a savior of Israel, of the tribe of Dan, one who grows up between Zorah and Eshtaol. These categories seem to reflect a different, perhaps later, editorial perspective. Imagined as all of these stories may be, and taking into account the archaeological debates, the landscape reflects both earlier material confusion and the later geography of Sennacherib’s campaign. It is as if the cycle remembers and mixes different periods.
The tension between these shifting texts—and the eventual desire to organize and construct social borders around the edges of the Samson cycle in Judges 13 and 16—reveal how these stories are sutured into the Book of Judges and into a broader framework that eventually links to King David. The Samson texts are fascinating in how they envision and construct society—boundaries, borders, and identities—in distinct ways as part of a complex literary history.
Perhaps the stories reflect early memories of Timnah from its short, formidable past in the early Iron I period. Or perhaps the story was constructed fully in the eighth century, then edited, and added onto over time. Some might say it belongs squarely in a post-701 B.C.E. framework. How we view Samson depends on how we look through a kaleidoscope of options that the patchwork text gives us within its own changing constructions of social geography.
This kaleidoscope serves as a caution against using ancient texts and their categories simplistically, as if the social categories in ancient texts are self-evident or singular across the span of ancient writing, editing, and transmission. It may also be important to remember that our concern to understand, categorize, and impose boundaries on ancient peoples is entirely ours to claim. It’s not that ancient writers or people didn’t have a similar desire to organize their own social landscape, and ancient texts do give us some small window into varied perceptions of self and others. Yet our descriptions of ancient peoples, and the social categories that we place on ancient evidence, perhaps have more to do with contemporary than with ancient politics and agendas.
Let’s allow Samson and the poor, unnamed woman from Timnah to remain free from our desires to wrangle them—and the Shephelah—into overly simplistic social categories.
Tel Batash in the Shephelah is a bewildering and fascinating archaeological site. Excavations there have revealed an Iron Age city that scholars have identified as biblical Timnah. Yet this identification doesn’t tell us who the people were in Timnah or how to delineate them from others. Neither textual nor archaeological sources seem to provide clear answers. The site is close to the so-called Philistine cities of Gath (Tell eṣ-Ṣafi) and Ekron (Tel Miqne) in the Shephelah, the low hills between the highlands to the east and the coastal plain to the west. According to archaeologists, for much of the […]