Who Exactly Were the Philistines?

Contributing Writer
Who Exactly Were the Philistines?

The ancient Philistines were in the land of Canaan before Moses and the Israelites claimed it as their Promised Land from God. The conflict over Canaan territory and religious and cultural differences between Israelites and Philistines led to many battles between the two nations. In the Old Testament, Philistines are viewed as “bad guys,” long-term enemies of Israel, from the time they first encountered each other. Moses sent twelve Hebrew scouts or “spies” to survey Canaan before the Israelis entered it and they were terrified when they met the Philistines. Moses led the Israelites around Philistine settlements in Canaan to avoid conflict with them.

The best-known Hebrew-Philistine encounter is found in I Samuel 17, when young David, the future king, victoriously battled the Philistine giant Goliath. David landed a shot from a rock in his slingshot to take down this imposing enemy. This narrative illustrates God’s power to give an underdog a win, no matter what the odds.

In the fields of philosophy and aesthetics, the term philistine is now used to describe a person who does not value art, spirituality, or the intellect. A National Public Radio article labeled the Philistines "uncouth louts." In academic circles, a philistine is a person with limited knowledge of a topic. In addition, a philistine is deemed to be a person who is very materialistic and concerned with earning money. Altogether, a Philistine does not sound like someone you’d like to sit next to on public transportation!

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/kieferpix 

Who Were the Philistines?

David slaying Goliath

The Philistines were a group of people who migrated from southern Europe or Greece to the east coast of the Aegean Sea—an area now held by Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria—in the 12th century B.C.E. This region was called Canaan in early middle eastern history. The Philistines who settled there were a seafaring, warlike people. Later in their 600-year history, Philistines focused on commercial rather than military operations. The ancient superpowers of Assyria and Babylon gradually defeated the Philistines. After these losses, the Philistine people assimilated into the Persian Empire—which lasted from approximately 559 B.C.E. to 331 B.C.E.—and lost their identity as a separate culture. Philistine people's DNA gathered by archeologists from burial sites, however, is very similar to the DNA of people living in Lebanon today.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain Image

The Philistines in the Bible

man walking with bible shadows of David with sling and Goliath with shield and sword

In the Exodus from Egypt, God promised the Israelites they would take Canaan as their home: “I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will…drive the…Canaanites… out of your way…I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River” (Exodus 23:27-28, 31). Taking Canaan required outing Canaan’s native tribes, including the Philistines, who were descendants of Noah’s youngest son Ham and had spread across this region next to the Aegean Sea (Genesis 9:18-19; Genesis 10:6, 15-19).

Moses sent 12 “spies” or scouts to survey the Canaan territory ahead of the Hebrews’ settling the land. The 12 Spies returned after 40 days with a report that terrified the Israelites: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are very powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. . . We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are” (Numbers, 13:27-28, 31). Anak was one man in of line of giants mentioned in Joshua 15:13. The Israelites balked at entering Canaan after hearing the spies’ report, and God decreed that they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years as a result of their unwillingness to act further on His promise to them (Numbers 14:26-35).

When the Israelites did finally settle in the Promised Land, they warred with the Philistines during the Biblical times of the Old Testament books of Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Kings, and 2 Chronicles. From Abraham to King Hezekiah, conflicts arose as Israel attempted to displace Philistines in the Promised Land. Israelis acted on God’s promise to His people that He would protect them from destruction and let them be victorious in battle, taking over vast areas of territory in the Promised Land (Joshua 13-21). So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there (Joshua 21:43).

All of Israel’s battles with the Philistines were not successful, however. The outcomes of seven major battles between Israel and the Philistines reveal this.

The Battle of Aphek in which approximately 34,000 Israeli soldiers were killed. Hebrew elders questioned why God let them suffer so many casualties. The Philistine army soldiers feared the Israeli’s Ark of the Covenant but captured it during this battle (1 Samuel 4).

The Battle of Eben-Ezer in which Israel is victorious (1 Samuel 7:1, 13-14).

The Battle of Michmash in which Saul nearly loses his son Jonathan, who is successful against the Philistine army (1 Samuel 14:31-46).

David defeats Goliath in the larger context of the Israeli-Philistine conflict (1 Samuel 17).

The Battle of Mount Gilboa, in which King Saul falls on his sword and dies after the Philistine army kills his three sons (1 Samuel 31:1-6).

Hezekiah’s father, King Ahaz, worships false gods (2 Kings 16:1-4), is struck with bad fortune (2 Kings 17:20), and fails in the Battle of Shephelah (1 Samuel 6:19). Philistines return the Ark of the Covenant to Ahaz because it has brought disaster to them (1 Samuel 5:11).

King Hezekiah of Judah is obedient to God and defeats the Philistines (2 Kings 18:5-8).

Having an enemy in the Philistines did unite Israel under its first kings. As is written about King Saul in 1 Samuel 14:52, All the days of Saul there was bitter war with the Philistines, and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service.

Samson and David had individual encounters with Philistine enemies, and their stories are dramatically recorded in the Bible.

How Did Samson Attack the Philistines?

Samson, a powerfully built judge of Israel before the time of the kings, lost his strength when the Philistine woman Delilah—who Samson fell in love with—led her people in blinding and enslaving Samson. Delilah discovered the source of Samson’s strength was his hair, and she cut it off to weaken him. The Philistines then captured Samson and rewarded Delilah with 1100 shekels, which was approximately three years’ wages (Judges 16:4-5, 15-21).

God restored Samson's strength at the end of his life. Samson cried out to God for renewed strength from his lowly position as a slave grinding grain for the Philistines. When the Philistines had Samson entertain them at their temple, Samson, with God’s gift of new strength, knocked down supporting pillars of the building. It collapsed, killing Samson and thousands of Philistines. Samson had prayed, “Let me die with the Philistines!” (Joshua 16:25-30).

How Did David Attack a Philistine Giant?

The Old Testament story of David slaying Goliath (I Samuel 17) has become a legend as a case of the “little guy” defeating an imposing enemy. Before the pair’s short duel began, the Israelites and Philistine armies are assembled on opposite hills overlooking a valley. Goliath sets the battle in motion: A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. He was over nine feet tall. He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze…and a bronze javelin was slung on his back (1 Samuel 17:4-7). Goliath challenges any man in the Israeli army to fight him. If the Israelite defeats Goliath, he says, the Philistines will become Israeli subjects. No man in the Israeli army responds to the challenge: On hearing the Philistine’s words, Saul and all the Israelites were dismayed and terrified (1 Samuel 17:11).

David, meanwhile, leaves his flock of sheep to visit his three older brothers in their army encampment. David hears Goliath’s challenge, given for the fortieth day in a row, and learns that Saul’s reward for defeating Goliath is the hand of his daughter in marriage and tax breaks for the family of the slayer. David is confident in the God of Abraham when he responds to Goliath’s challenge: “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (1 Samuel 17:26).

Despite King Saul’s reluctance that David, a boy, should fight such a formidable foe, David remains confident he will slay Goliath. David has killed lions and bears that threatened his sheep. The Philistine is like a vicious, wild animal to David—one he can overcome with God’s help. David tells Saul, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:37). 

David says to Goliath, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied” (1 Samuel 17:45). David knocks out Goliath with his first shot from his slingshot arsenal of five smooth stones. The giant lays lifeless on the ground. The Philistine army flees and is pursued by Israelites, who kill many of them.

After defeating Goliath, David cuts off Goliath’s head with Goliath’s sword and brings the head to Jerusalem, which Israel had not yet conquered and established as Israel’s capital city. King Saul asks David who he is exactly and finds out David is a son of Jesse, whom Samuel prophesied would rule as king of Israel after Saul (I Samuel 17:51-58).

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/kevron2001

Who Did the Philistines Worship?

The ongoing conflict between Israel and the Philistines was due in part to their religious differences. Israelites worshiped one God. The Philistines worshipped Baal, considered a universal god of fertility. Baal was important to the agrarian culture of the Philistines and was also known as Lord of the Earth and Lord of Rain and Dew. The Philistines also worshiped Astarte, the Queen of Heaven and goddess of war and sexual love, to whom the Canaanites burned offerings and poured libations (Jeremiah 44:15-17). Another important deity to the Philistines was Dagon, a god of crop fertility, whose name means “grain.” Dagon was the legendary inventor of the plow.

When the Israelites were influenced by the beliefs of their neighboring Canaanite tribesmen and worshiped false gods, God became very angry with His Hebrew people. As the prophet Jeremiah told the Israelites, “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: You saw the great disaster I brought on Jerusalem and on all the towns of Judah. Today they lie deserted and in ruins because of the evil they have done. They provoked me to anger by burning incense and by worshipping other gods that neither they nor you nor your fathers ever knew” (Jeremiah 44:2-3). Worshipping Philistine or Assyrian gods was God’s number one complaint regarding His people in the Old Testament.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/zenstock

What Happened to the Canaanites?

Palestinian and Israeli flags

After the Israelites occupied Canaan in the late 2nd millennium, their conquest of Canaan was drawn out and complicated, as described in the history books of the Old Testament. As the Israelites’ civilization spread across Canaan, Old Testament scholars believe Hebrews and the earliest, Philistine Canaanites combined their cultures and DNA with other people in the region.

The Canaanites did not leave documented records their lives; they used papyrus that dissolved over time instead of the more durable clay for writing used by other cultures. Much of the Canaanites’ history, therefore, is reconstructed through the interpretations of Old Testament researchers and archeological discoveries by scientists.

In a startling discovery, a group of scientists who published their findings in The American Journal of Human Genetics(AJHG), found that the DNA of five individuals buried in the Canaanite city of Sidon in Lebanon around 1700 B.C.E. is very similar to the DNA of 99 individuals living in Lebanon in 2017. The scientists concluded, “We show that present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, which therefore implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age.” Ancient Canaanite blood, according to this recent archeological evidence, still flows in modern, middle eastern people. Perhaps some of that blood belonged to the ancient Philistines living in Canaan thousands of years ago.

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Liorpt

Betty DunnBetty Dunn hopes her writing leads you to holding hands with God. A former high school English teacher, editor, and nonprofit agency writer, she now works on writing projects from her home in West Michigan, where she enjoys woods, water, pets and family. Check out her blog at Betty by Elizabeth Dunning and her website, www.elizabethdunning-wix.com.