THROUGHOUT THEIR LONG history the Philistines have been closely associated with God's chosen people, Israel. Even to this day the people who live in the area around Gaza, one of the ancient cities of the Philistines, have an extremely stormy relationship with the State of Israel.
So far as the Biblical account is concerned, the Philistines are mentioned in the time of the Patriarchs - Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - although their origins can be traced back to the ‘sea peoples’ originating from the Aegean Sea area (now part of Greece). Even today the name ‘Philistine’ is used to describe a person who is ignorant of the arts and culture, though the reasons why this is the case are less easy to trace. We are concerned more with the Philistines in their place in the Bible, because, as we hope to show, they still have an important part to play in God's purpose with the nations.
Let's consider first of all where they came from. What do we know about their earliest history? The prophet Amos tells us:
‘…Have not I brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt? and the Philistines from Caphtor…’ (Amos 9.7).
Another clue as to their origins is in the book of Genesis. In the tenth chapter of this book, which literally means ‘beginnings’, we find the family tree of the sons of Noah - Shem, Ham and Japheth. From Shem descended the Semitic peoples and in due course the sons of Jacob, the Israelites. The descendants of Ham moved down into Egypt as part of God's plan to replenish and populate the earth after the Flood. It is from Ham that the Philistines’ lineage can be traced:
‘Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood. ...And the sons of Ham…And Mizraim begat Ludim, and Anamim, and Lehabim, and Naphtuhim, and Pathrusim, and Casluhim, (out of whom came Philistim,) and Caphtorim.’ (Genesis 10.1,6,13,14)
The Hebrew Lexicon in Strong's Concordance (reference 6429) states that Philistim is a root from which we have the names Philistia, Palestina and the Philistines which can also mean ‘the land of sojourners’. The reference in the Genesis account to ‘Caphtorim’ is thought to be the large island called Crete (now part of Greece), to which the so-called ‘sea peoples’ had migrated. The Philistines are therefore an ancient people whose roots go back to the time when, after the Flood, the earth was repopulated in accordance with the Divine will and purpose.
The IVF New Bible Dictionary suggests that the Philistines were indeed one of the sea peoples from the Aegean, who migrated by both land and sea to Canaan or Palestine, where they forced a foothold. It is suggested that they were at first mercenary soldiers of the Pharaohs and the Hittite kings, before they settled in Philistia and became essentially Canaanites. The principal cities of the Philistines were Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath and Ekron, situated in the Southwest of Palestine and there are many references to these cities in the Bible.
The five principal cities each had a ‘Seren’ or Lord ruling over the city and the city-state. No Philistine inscriptions have been found, so it is difficult to be sure what language they used, although they may have adopted the language of the peoples they dispossessed. So far as religion is concerned, they worshipped pagan deities and these are referred to in the Scriptures as Dagon, Ashtoreth and Baal-zebub. These deities were not unique to the Philistines, for they are clearly ‘near eastern’ and may well have been adopted by the Philistines, just as Israel did later, resulting in their downfall.
In fact, when Israel began to occupy the land under Joshua and the Judges, YAHWEH, the one true God allowed the Philistines to remain to test Israel. We read in the book of Judges: ‘Now these are the nations which the LORD left, to prove Israel by them… Namely, five lords of the Philistines, and all the Canaanites…’ (Judges 3.1,3). It would be convenient and helpful to consider the relationship of the Philistines to Israel under three different periods – firstly Patriarchal times, then during the Exodus and thirdly under the kings of Israel.
Abraham, to whom God made the essential promises concerning the land of promise and the blessing of all nations (the Gospel), had dealings with a Philistine. This king of Gerah is named Abimelech and in the book of Genesis we find him making a covenant with Abraham who had become a powerful man, blessed by God. In fact, this Philistine turned out to be a man of considerable integrity because unwittingly, he had taken Abraham's wife for himself.
Abraham had been less than forthright with Abimelech, passing off the beautiful Sarah as his sister, as he feared his own life would be at stake once this Philistine appreciated the beauty of Sarah. In fact Sarah was his half sister (see Genesis 20.12) and God spoke to Abimelech in a dream, warning him of the consequences should he take Sarah. Abimelech protested his innocence, which God accepted: ‘Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her’ (Genesis 20.6). Abimelech reproved Abraham and Sarah but then offered them the use of the land. This account is well worth reading in its entirety.
After the birth of Isaac, the son of promise, Abraham, now a very rich man, was approached by Abimelech. He said: ‘God is with thee in all that thou doest: now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son's son: but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned’ (Genesis 21. 22,23).
Abraham entered into a covenant with Abimelech at Beer-Sheba and the Scriptural record tells us that Abraham stayed in the land of the Philistines ‘many days’ (Genesis 21.34). It is worth noting what a reasonable man this Philistine was and to note also that his name (or title) was Semitic in origin, perhaps adopted by Abimelech? Later Philistine involvements were not so friendly.
Amazingly, Isaac, some years later, did almost the same as his father Abraham with Abimelech - probably a later king of Gerar, hence the possibility that Abimelech is a title similar to Pharaoh, rather than a proper name. The account will be found in Genesis chapter 26 and again, what a reasonable man he turned out to be. However, both Abraham and Isaac did have problems with Abimelech's herdsmen in a dispute over water supplies, so essential in this part of the Holy Land. When we come to the time of the Judges, things will not be the same.
IN THE TIME OF THE JUDGES
When the Israelites left Egypt in the Exodus, the Philistines were extensively settled along the coastal strip between Egypt and Gaza and Israel were commanded not to pass through their territory (Exodus 13.17). This was to avoid the possibility that Israel might become dispirited if they had to fight at this point in their journey to the promised land. In directing them on the route to be taken, mention is made of the nations to be avoided, amongst whom are ‘the Caphtorims, which came forth out of Caphtor’ (Deuteronomy 2.23) - almost certainly a reference to the sea peoples who in due time became known as the Philistines.
When Joshua was an old man and his work faithfully done, Israel began to encounter problems with the Philistines. Israel no doubt saw the Philistines simply as an aggressive people and failed to realise why God had sent them to test them. The record of the Judges shows us that Israel had departed from the ways of YAHWEH and had turned to the gods of the Canaanites and the gods of the Philistines: ‘And the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the LORD, and served Baalim…and the gods of the Philistines, and forsook the LORD, and served not him’ (Judges 10.6,7). The result was that God sold the Israelites into the hands of the Philistines. This whole period of the Judges is one of disobedience and punishment followed by repentance and blessing and the Philistines were used by God to punish and test His people.
The Death of Samson
Probably the most notable events are those which concerned Samson, the great Israelite hero of the period, by whom God punished the Philistines. The account of Samson and Delilah will be well known, but again it is worth pointing out that in some quarters there was an uneasy relationship between the Israelites and the inhabitants of Philistia. As the Philistines pushed inland from the coast, they reached no further than the slopes of the hill country and it was to here that Samson retreated from time to time.
Delilah was not a Philistine, although she had some sort of relationship with the lords of the Philistines. Whilst this account is a dramatic story (see Judges chapters 13 to 16), it is also a vindication of God's promises made to the nation of Israel at Sinai. Belief and obedience would result in a blessing and the fulfilment of the promises made to their forefathers. Disobedience and the worship of false gods would result in punishment and ultimately, banishment from the land. As the Apostle Paul observed: ‘God is not mocked’ (Galatians 6.7).
Towards the end of the period of the Judges, an even worse disaster befell Israel when the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines. It is difficult to understand just what they were doing, parading the very seat of the covenant in public. It is perhaps an indicator of the extent of the nation's apostasy. No wonder then that God said to the young man Samuel: ‘I will do a thing in Israel, at which both the ears of every one that heareth it shall tingle’ (1 Samuel 3.11).
The meaning of Scriptural names forms a fascinating study. It was at a place called EBEN-EZER that the ark of God was captured. The name means ‘stone of help’. Now that Israel had forfeited the right to such help, it was the wife of one of the errant priests who described the current situation: ‘The glory is departed from Israel: because the ark of God was taken…’ (1 Samuel 4.21).
The account in the first book of Samuel chapter 5 tells us that the Philistines took the ark of God and put it in their temple in the city of Ashdod. The god of this temple was Dagon. The next morning, when they went into their temple, Dagon had fallen over! This was simply attributed to an accident so Dagon was put back upright. The next morning the idol had not only fallen over again but had broken in pieces. The record tells us that ‘the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left’ (1 Samuel 5.4).
In the original language, there is some doubt as to what ‘stump’ might mean - in fact it is not in the original manuscript. Some translators and scholars suggest that the passage should read: ‘only the fishy part was left to Dagon’. This is interesting, in that the origin of the Philistines was among the ‘sea peoples’ and there is in the British Museum an Assyrian bas-relief showing a deity in a fish robe. It is quite possible that Dagon was the Assyrian god Dagan who was adopted by the Philistines. The experiences of the Philistines during this period in which they possessed the ark of God, was painful and humiliating as the Biblical account shows.
THE KINGS OF ISRAEL
Samuel marks the end of the period of the Judges, and the difficulties that Israel had with the Philistines that may have contributed to their request for a king to lead them into battle, quite overlooking the fact that they had the all-powerful Almighty God as their leader (1 Samuel 8.4-22). By this time the Philistines had occupied a much wider area of land, the Valley of Esdraelon (Jezreel), the coastal plain and much of the Negeb. It is clear also that this domination included control of iron working and the art of the blacksmith, for we read:
‘Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel: for the Philistines said, Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears: but all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock...So it came to pass in the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people that were with Saul and Jonathan: but with Saul and Jonathan his son was there found. And the garrison (standing camp) of the Philistines went out to the passage of Michmash’ (1 Samuel 13.19-23).
Michmash, being in the hill country to the north of Jerusalem emphasises the domination of the Philistines over Israel at this time. God brought deliverance by the hand of Saul, David and Solomon, successive kings of Israel who, by turning Israel to the faithful worship of YAHWEH, succeeded under God's good hand in making Israel the premier nation on earth.
David kills Goliath
The giant Goliath of Gath was some 3 metres (10 feet) tall and was the champion of the Philistines. He was probably descended from one of the nations that occupied the land of Canaan before Israel conquered it under Joshua. This giant was slain by David prior to the end of Saul's kingship. Later on David found Saul to be his enemy and in the books of Samuel we have the graphic account of David's life at this time. David, perhaps somewhat surprisingly found refuge in the city of Gath under the care of Achish its king. Achish made use of David's skills as a warrior but when the Lords of the Philistines found this out, they were less than impressed and forced David to depart from Gath (1 Samuel 29.1-11).
The Philistines eventually prevailed over Saul and Jonathan in the battle on Mount Gilboa and the way was made clear for David the man that God loved, to assume his God-given right to become king of Israel. David maintained a semblance of peace, at least with Gath and its king and later used Philistines as part of his personal bodyguard. They were called Cherethites and along with the Pelethites they remained loyal to David and he to them until the day of his death. The Cherethites were thought to come from Caphtor or Crete and the Pelethites took the name as it associated them with Philistia. It was under the command of Benaiah, a most competent captain in David's household, that these warriors of Philistia were organised: 'And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over both the Cherethites and the Pelethites’ (2 Samuel 8,18).
The Philistines continued to cause trouble throughout the Monarchy period and with the weakening of the kingdom after David's death, the Philistine cities, once totally controlled by David (2 Samuel 8.1), became independent and there was quite often fighting on the frontier (1 Kings 15.27). Later king Jehoshaphat received tribute from the Philistines but then under Jehoram, the border town of Libnah was lost to Israel. They were still aggressive towards Israel in the time of king Ahaz, circa 730 BC (2 Chronicles 18.18). The very last time they are mentioned in the Old Testament is in the prophecy of Zechariah chapter nine verse six.
Just prior to this however, in the Prophecy of Zephaniah, we have a clue as to what happened to the Philistines. Zephaniah was sent to prophesy and foretell of awful judgements upon Israel because of their wickedness. This was in the period 641-610 BC. We are not so concerned with this aspect of the prophecy, rather that which turned against Israel's enemies, who previously, in God's hands, had been the weapons for the punishment of Israel. In Zephaniah chapter 2, the following peoples are singled out for the anger of YAHWEH - the Philistines in their city-states, Moab, Ammon and the Ethiopians:
‘For Gaza shall be forsaken, and Ashkelon a desolation: they shall drive out Ashdod at the noonday, and Ekron shall be rooted up. Woe unto the inhabitants of the sea coast, the nation of the Cherethites! the word of the LORD is against you; O Canaan, the land of the Philistines, I will even destroy thee, that there shall be no inhabitant. And the sea coast shall be dwellings and cottages for shepherds, and folds for flocks’ (Zephaniah 2.4-6).
We have a very similar prophecy in Zechariah chapter 9, in which the principal city-states are singled out for destruction. The prophetic words came true but what of the land of the Philistines today? Has not the name Palestine a long connection with the Philistines and Philistia? Indeed, it has.
THE FUTURE FOR PHILISTIA
There are examples in Scripture where a land area is more important in the outworking of prophecy than the people who may inhabit it at any particular time. An example of this is Egypt, which had a huge part to play in God's purpose with the nations and with His people Israel.
Over the centuries there were many different dynasties ruling in Egypt. Under different rulers and dynasties, Abraham, Joseph, Jacob and Christ himself found refuge there and Egypt has a future role to play in God's purpose. However, the present rulers of Egypt are not native princes, true descendants of the Pharaonic dynasties. By Divine decree, they have changed as the prophet of Ezekiel foretold: ‘there shall be no more a prince of the land of Egypt’ (Ezekiel 30. 13).
A similar situation applies to the land of the Philistines. Today, the very land area occupied by the Palestinian peoples, is the same land which the Philistines occupied in Old Testament times. The Palestinians are a mixed, largely Arab people, few if any of whom are likely to be descended from the ‘sea peoples’ of the Old Testament. Because of their position living alongside the Jews, who have returned to their land in accordance with the Old Testament prophecies, they are Israel's enemies.
Psalm 83 is a prophetic Psalm which has yet to be fulfilled in its entirety. It sets out the policy of Israel's enemies and the way it is phrased reminds us of the present time in which we live:
‘Keep not thou silence, O God: hold not thy peace, and be not still, O God. For, lo, thine enemies make a tumult: and they that hate thee have lifted up the head. They have taken crafty counsel against thy people, and consulted against thy hidden ones. They have said, Come, and let us cut them off from being a nation; that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance’ (Psalm 83.1-4).
Who are these enemies of Israel? Their old enemies of course - Edom, Moab, Ishmael, Ammon, Amalek and Assur - for which, in terms of land areas they now possess, read: Jordan, Iraq, Iran and the Philistines, including the Gaza strip! What we can see developing before our very eyes, is the old hostility of the Arab peoples towards Israel, which has resulted in a number of wars and numerous terrorist acts since the State of Israel was established in 1948.
The current state of tension in that ancient land of Palestine will only be resolved by Divine intervention, in order to once and for all, re-establish the kingdom of the Lord over Israel, as required by the Old Testament prophecies.
The final end for all nations who oppose God's will and purpose is annihilation - just as happened to Israel's enemies in the past: ‘Let them be confounded and troubled for ever; yea, let them be put to shame, and perish: that men may know that thou, whose name alone is JEHOVAH, art the most high over all the earth’ (Psalm 83. 17,18). Those who remain will witness amazing changes as foretold so graphically by the prophet Micah:
‘But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it. And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’ (Micah 4.1-3).
May that time soon come, to bring justice and peace to this troubled world.