A Brief History of the Name “Palestine”

You often hear people refer to the land of Israel as “Palestine.” Why is that? Where did that name come from, and is it a term you should use?

About four thousand years ago, the Hebrews settled in the land known as Israel. Their leader, Abraham, even legally purchased some of the land himself. However, due to famine, his descendants fled to Egypt, where they ended up being enslaved for over 400 years. Then, in 1446 BC, these Hebrews (who called themselves “Israelites”) escaped from slavery and returned to their rightful land.

These dates are important, because there were other people who were interested in that same land: the Philistines. If that name rings a bell, it’s because Goliath—the giant killed by David around 1012 BC—was a Philistine. Evidence for Philistine presence in the area first shows up around 1150 BC—just about 300 years after the Israelites had settled the land.

So, who were these Philistines, and where did they come from?

According to the Hebrew Bible as well as the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible—and confirmed by modern genetic testing—the Philistines were a sea-faring European people. That’s right—the Philistines were colonizing Europeans. And after their repeated attempts to invade northern Africa were repelled by the Egyptians, they set their sights on another land—Israel.

In the middle of 12th century BC, the Philistines arrived at the borders of Israel, built a handful of cities, and then spent several hundred years trying to conquer the Israelites. As you probably know based on the David and Goliath story, these plans never succeeded, and they eventually stopped their continued invasions and were satisfied to remain just outside the land of Israel. There they remained until 604 BC, when they were conquered and scattered by the Babylonians. With the destruction of their five towns and the scattering of their citizens, the Philistines genetically ceased to be a people.

Fast forward 700 years. The Jews (a subset of Israelites) have never left their land but have been subjugated by just about every superpower that has existed in the interim—the Assyrians, Babylonians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. The Jews have launched a number of rebellions hoping to win their freedom. Some are moderately successful (the Maccabean Revolt), but most are failures. One such failed revolt—the Bar Kokhba Revolt of 132 AD—particularly pisses off Roman Emperor Hadrian, and as punishment for the Jews’ insolence, he renames their homeland “Palestine”—after their ancient invaders, the Philistines.

In other words, the (at that time) current colonizing European invader renamed the land after another colonizing European invader that never succeeded in capturing the land, never dwelt in the land, and no longer even existed. They renamed it to pour salt in the wound of the most historically oppressed population in the entire world. A population that was almost systematically wiped off the planet less than 100 years ago. A population that is still the most hated group of people on the planet.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not comfortable with the make-believe title created by Romans to punish the Jews. I’m satisfied referring to it by its historical name: Israel.

How Hebrew Poetry Accents Scripture: A Reflection on Lamentations during Tisha B’av

Tomorrow night is the start of Tisha B’av—the observance of when the first and second temple were destroyed (586 BC by Babylon and 70 AD by Rome). Traditionally on Tisha B’av, the book of Lamentations is read, which consists of a five-chapter dirge over the destruction of Jerusalem. If you haven’t read it recently, I encourage you to check it out this weekend.

The first chapter of Lamentations consists of 22 triplets that follow a qinah meter. As the Hebrew alphabet has 22 verses, each triplet begins with the subsequent letter of the alphabet, making the first chapter an acrostic poem. The second chapter follows these patterns as well.

Well, almost.

If you look closely, there are a few cracks beneath the surface of these poetic flourishes. The acrostic is not quite right. The letter pe (17th letter) comes before the ayin (16th letter). Additionally, the qinah meter, while almost universal, is missing from a few verses. The poetry looks great to the untrained eye, but it’s slowly falling apart underneath.

The third chapter continues the (almost) pattern of acrostic and qinah meter, even leveling it up a bit. Not only does each triplet begin with the next Hebrew letter—each line of each triplet begins with the next Hebrew letter as well. It’s no surprise that, as the poetry seems to improve, the subject changes from merely lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem to calls for repentance and a renewed hope that God will deliver them from their troubles. But while they seem to be getting things in order, the flaws in the poetry remain.

The improved poetry is short-lived. In chapter 4, rather than acrostic triplets, there is a noticeable downgrade to couplets. The mismatched acrostic and missing qinah meters remain present. Just like Jerusalem, the poetry is falling apart fast.

We finally arrive at chapter 5. As you would expect, this chapter has 22 verses. But there isn’t even an attempt to form an acrostic. There are no couplets or triplets. There’s no qinah meter. All attempts at poetic flare are abandoned, just as Jerusalem had been abandoned. As Jeremiah laments, “The young men [have ceased] from their song” (Lamentations 5:14).

As we look back on the destruction of the City of God this weekend, let’s reflect on the state of our own “city upon a hill.” Are we living out God’s commission towards peace and justice? Or have we moved our souls far from peace and forgotten God’s goodness (Lamentations 3:17)?

It’s not too late to turn things around.

“Let us search out and examine our ways,

And turn back to the LORD.

Let us lift our hearts and hands

To God in heaven.” (Lamentations 3:40, 41)