The southwest coastal portion of the land of Canaan was supposed to become part of Danite and Judahite territory. It would instead become the land of a fearsome people from across the sea: Philistia.
In Deuteronomy 2:23, Jeremiah 47:4, and Amos 9:7, Biblical authors spoke of the Philistines as having come from the land of Caphtor, generally identified with Greece; in Genesis 10:14 they are identified with the Casluhim. Records from Egypt bear similar witness: among the “Sea Peoples” who attacked Egypt in the days of Merneptah and Ramses III, ca. 1215-1175 BCE, were a people the Egyptians called the “Peleset” or the “Pulasti.” The Egyptians repulsed both attacks; in inscriptions Ramses III prided himself on having settled them in the southwestern part of Canaan which would become Philistia.
The identity of the “Sea Peoples” is not fully known, but most consider them to be connected with the collapsing Mycenaean civilization of Greece. The Mycenaeans might well be considered the Vikings of their age: they lived in what was then the periphery of civilization, and grew strong by trading wherever they could, and sacking and plundering cities when they could not. Their distinctive pottery was found throughout the ancient Near Eastern world; the exploits of their heroes would be preserved in The Iliad and The Odyssey. As their city-states fought and destroyed one another, many likely sought refuge in their boats, wandering around the Mediterranean world and would become known as the “Sea Peoples”; if we are to believe Ramses III’s account, they are the ones responsible for the final collapse of the Hittite and many other Anatolian civilizations. The “Sea Peoples” were not merely a migration of a warrior class; in the reliefs Ramses III had carved of the Peleset, women and children are also present with them. To this end, after their defeat at the hands of the Egyptians, some of those among the Peleset settled in southwestern Canaan and became what we deem the Philistines. As far as we can tell, the Philistines never represented a centralized authority; they set up city-states, of which Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza proved primary. They were the “five lords of the Philistines” (Joshua 13:3), and they would become the terror of Canaan.
The Bible does speak of “the Philistines” before the time of 1175 BCE in Genesis 21:32-34, 26:1-18, and spoke of places in terms of the “land of the Philistines” in Exodus 13:17, 23:31. These references indicate either examples of anachronism, in which the people who dwelled in the land that would become Philistia are spoken of as “Philistines” even though the actual Philistines have not yet arrived, or may indicate an earlier settlement of Greek peoples in the land. Biblical historical narratives do not explicitly identify the time of the invasion of the “Sea Peoples,” but their effects become evident in the middle of the period of the Judges. Judah had been able to conquer Ashkelon, Ekron, and Gaza, which would become major Philistine cities in Judges 1:8. Yet Shamgar would have to kill many Philistines (Judges 3:31); Israel served the gods of the Philistines to their downfall (Judges 10:6); and the Philistines have established their rule over at least many in the southern portion of Israel in the time of Samson (Judges 10:7, 13:1-16:31). Whereas previous judges were able to deliver Israel from their foes so they would not be again oppressed by them, the Philistines remain just as much in charge after Samson’s death as they had before. While unstated in the text, the presence and power of the Philistines was very likely a major contributor to the decision of the Danites to give up on the portion of land allotted to them by Joshua along the Mediterranean Sea and to conquer what would become the city of Dan up in the north (cf. Joshua 19:40-47, Judges 18:1-31).
The Philistines laid Israel low in ways no other neighboring nation had been able to accomplish. From the days of Samson until the days of David, or roughly 1150-1000 BCE, the Philistines dominated the Israelites (cf. Judges 13:1-1 Samuel 31:13). This was the time of the greatest extent of Philistine rule in Canaan; even though they would lose some battles against the Israelites, they bested them far more often than not, seizing the Ark of the Covenant, and humiliating Israel to the point where no blacksmith could be found among the Israelites, for the Philistines did not want them to create weapons, and so demanded they visit Philistine blacksmiths, and maintained the power and control to enforce these demands. Such was a powerful motivator for Israel to ask for a king like the other nations (cf. 1 Samuel 8:1-22); what seemed to have been a loose tribal confederation beforehand developed into a centralized state, to some degree, in order to face the Philistine menace.
Yet God would lay Philistia low through the work of David son of Jesse. David defeated the Philistine champion Goliath (1 Samuel 17:1-58); in his flight from Saul David would become a vassal of Achish king of Gath, and ruled over Ziklag, and thus well understood the Philistines and their ways (cf. 1 Samuel 27:1-30:31). Once David became king of Judah and all Israel, he smashed a series of Philistine armies and reversed the roles in the relationship: the Philistines would become vassals of David (2 Samuel 5:17-25).
After the days of David the Philistines did not feature prominently in the Biblical narrative. They were vassals of David and Solomon but would restore their territorial integrity and hegemony by the middle of the eighth century BCE. The Philistines became like the other small nations of the Levant: they conspired with and against other small nations, resisted Assyrian and Egyptian domination, and would ultimately suffer a similar fate to Judah: Nebuchadnezzar destroyed their cities and exiled their population in 604 BCE. Unlike Judah, the Philistines would never return; they assimilated into the Babylonian milieu. The Phoenicians would take over the coastal areas; the returning Judahites would have populated the rest.
The Hebrew Bible certainly suggested that the Philistines were particularly foreign: people of the surrounding nations had been there for some time and shared ethnic and linguistic relationships with one another and the Israelites, yet the Philistines had come from Greece and maintained many different customs, particularly in remaining uncircumcised (e.g. 1 Samuel 17:26). By the seventh century BCE the Philistines had fully assimilated into local Canaanite culture; we have discovered a dedicatory inscription in Ekron which is written in a Canaanite dialect similar to Phoenician with some words which may have Greek origins, including the word Achish (cf. 1 Samuel 21:10, etc.).
Yet the Greek origin of the Philistines would leave two powerful legacies. One is the narrative of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:1-58, which is recorded in a detailed, almost epic format, featuring a proxy battle of champions, concepts featured prominently in Homer’s The Iliad. The other is in the Greek memory of the Philistines: Herodotus knew of the land of Canaan as Palaistine, based on “Philistine” (History 3.91.1), which leads to the modern term “Palestine.”
We do well to remember the Philistines as the scourge and terror of cities and nations during the collapse of the Late Bronze Age and into the Early Iron Age. Their presence and domination reconfigured the tribal assortment of Israel and led to its political centralization. Yet once Israel proved dominant, the Philistines would lose most of their distinctiveness, having taken on many features of Canaanite language and practice. The Philistines, as a people, are gone; yet their legacy remains since so many of the people of the land are called Palestinians to this day. Nevertheless, they had trusted in their ways and their gods and perished; Israel was to learn how they needed to trust in the ways of their God to remain and endure. May we endure in God in Christ and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry