Image: A Philistine Warrior
A few years after the people of Israel left Egypt and arrived in Canaan, the land God had promised to Abraham to give to his descendants, the world in which Israel and the Canaanites lived was invaded by a new group of people who settled along the coastal plain between Jaffa and the desert area some fifty miles south of Gaza.
The area of land between the alluvial coastal plain and the limestone plateau known as the Shephelah, became their eastern border. This new group of people became known as the Philistines. They became the ruling class of five cities, known as the Philistine pentapolis. These five cities were Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gath.
In this and the next post, I will provide a brief history of the Philistines, including some information about their culture and their interaction with Israel.
It is generally believed that the Philistines came from the eastern Mediterranean area, but their original homeland and migration route are uncertain. What is known is that the Philistines were part of a group of people known as the Sea Peoples. According to Amos 9:7, the Philistines came from Caphtor, that is, from Crete. It is also possible that some of the Philistines came from Asia Minor. If this is true, then their civilization had a large Carian (from southwest Anatolia) element in their composition. Scholars believe that the mention of the Cherethites in 2 Samuel 8:18 is a reference to the Philistines.
The patriarchal narratives in Genesis chapters 20 and 26 describe how both Abraham and Isaac encountered a certain Abimelech, who is identified as a Philistine and the king of Gerar.
Scholars have been inclined to regard these stories as anachronisms because they mention the Philistines at a time when the migration of the Sea Peoples had not yet occurred. However, the mention of the Philistines may not be anachronistic. If the mention of the Philistines in Genesis is anachronistic, then one would expect that one of the five cities of the later Philistines would have been mentioned, instead of Gerar.
Scholars have also mentioned that the Philistines of the patriarchal narratives were peaceful herdsmen, very unlike the warlike Philistines of the time of Saul and David. It is possible that the Philistines who lived in Gerar and Beersheba were part of an earlier migration of the people who eventually became known as the Philistines.
According to Egyptian records, the Philistines was one group of people who came to Palestine among the Sea Peoples. The Philistines invaded Egypt in the eighth year of the reign of Rameses III (ca. 1183-1152 B.C.). Rameses and the Philistines met in a naval battle that took place at the mouth of the Nile River. Among the Sea Peoples who invaded Egypt, Rameses III mentions the Pelasata (that is, the Philistines), the Danuna, the Shakarusha, and others.
In describing his struggle against the Sea Peoples, Rameses said that the Sea Peoples came from isles in the midst of the sea, and that they advanced against Egypt, relying upon their weapons of iron. On the walls of Rameses’ temple at Medinet Habu, the Philistines are depicted as armed with swords, round shields, and laminated corselets. The corselets were worn by only a few of the soldiers. Philistine soldiers’ headgear was topped with feathers.
According to Egyptian records, Rameses defeated the Philistines and took many prisoners. Although Rameses claimed victory against the Sea Peoples, Egypt was weakened by the attack. Unable to defeat the invaders completely, Rameses was forced to deal with the presence of the Philistines and the other foreign invaders.
Rameses allowed the Philistines to settle in the eastern Mediterranean coast. He made them his vassals and employed many of the conquered soldiers as mercenaries and placed them in the garrisons located on the borders of the empire—including the area that was to become known as Palestine. The Israelites occupied the highlands of Palestine, while the Philistines occupied much of its coastland.
The Philistine territory went from the northwestern Negev north to the city of Ekron and from the Mediterranean Sea to the western slopes of Judah. At the beginning of the Philistines’ settlement in Canaan, they were still under the watchful eye of Egypt, since Rameses made them his vassals and employed some of them as mercenaries.
After the death of Rameses, Egyptian’s power in Canaan waned and Rameses’ successors were unable to regain control of Canaan. Exploiting the political weakness of Egypt, the Philistines eventually gained their independence from Egypt.
From the end of the twelfth through the eleventh centuries, the Philistines expanded their presence in Canaan and consolidated their power by assimilating the culture and the language of the indigenous people of Canaan.
The book of 1 Samuel indicates that the Philistines increased the number of settlements under their control. They controlled and influenced the northern Negev and were present in much of the territory that belonged to the tribes of Simeon, Judah, and Dan.
In fact, after the death of Samson, the Danites under pressure from the Philistines, were forced to migrate from the territory allotted to them by Joshua. One of the cities allotted to the tribe of Dan was Ekron (Josh 19:43), a city that eventually became one of the five cities in the Philistine pentapolis (Josh 13:3). The Danites moved from the Shephelah to the northernmost part of Canaan where they conquered Laish, a Canaanite city and renamed it Dan (Judg 18:27-29).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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