Who Are the Philistines?

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Who was considered a Philistine? Where did they live as a group? Why was their land never fully conquered even though God allocated it to the children of Israel? What were some of the wars the Philistines fought against God's people? This is the first of our five-part series on this close neighbor to Israel. Other articles in this series are listed below.

The Philistines occupied the fertile coastal area in the southwestern part of the land of Canaan. They were a nation of warriors, trained in the art of war from their youth (1Samuel 17:33) like the city-state of Sparta. Their location, coupled with their war-like attitude and desire to expand their influence in the region, made them ancient Israel's longest, fiercest, and most implacable enemy.

According to the Bible, the Philistines are descendants of Noah's son Ham through Ham's son Mizraim and grandson Casluhim (Genesis 10:13 - 14, 1Chronicles 1:8, 11 - 12). Strictly speaking, since they did not descend from Canaan (see our chart of Noah's descendants), they are not Canaanites even though they are sometimes lumped together with them (Joshua 13:3).

The earliest Biblical reference to them, by name, occurs in the book of Genesis. Abimelech (which may have been a title), before the birth of Isaac in 1860 B.C., is called the king of Gerar (Genesis 20:2) and later the ruler of these people (26:1). Abraham sojourned on their land in and around the city of Gerar "for many days" (Genesis 10:19, 21:34). Later, his son Isaac would also do the same (26:6).

Division of enemy land

At the time of Joshua, the five major cities of the Philistines, each ruled by a lord (prince), are Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron (Joshua 13:3). Lesser cities within its territory include Ziklag, Gibbethon, Gezer and Gerar.

The Promised Land west of the Jordan, after seven long years of war, is finally distributed to Israel's tribes. God commands Joshua to divide the territory of the Philistines amongst the tribes even though they have yet to be conquered (Joshua 13:1 - 3). Five of their cities are given, by lot, to the tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:31, 45 - 47), two are allocated to Levi (Joshua 21:21 - 23) and one is given to Simeon (Joshua 19:5).

Map of Philistine territory at time of King David in 1010 B.C.

The Lord, after Joshua's death, seemingly changes his will (no doubt based on Israel's tendency to forsake him) and decides to delay completely removing certain people from the Promised Land. He allows the continuing existence of the Philistine people so that they might prove Israel's obedience to him and be available to chastise them when they go astray (Judges 3:1 - 4).

Correction during the Judges

The Eternal, during the time of the Judges, utilized the Philistines to humble and correct his people when they sinned. For example, when the Israelites pursued the grievous sin of idolatry through a host of false gods, he allowed them to oppress the people west of the Jordan River (Judges 10:6 - 7). It took the miraculous birth of the world's strongest man, Samson, to begin to free them from being dominated by this enemy (Judges 13 - 16).

Israel's great enemy was used, yet again, in the days of Samuel to correct them through trials and conflicts (1Samuel 4 - 7, 12:9).

New king, old adversary

Israel, after God had been their sole King for 355 years, completely rejects his leadership and demands a human ruler over them (1Samuel 8). The Lord's response to their hard hearts is to have Saul anointed king with the goal of saving his people from the Philistines (1Samuel 9:16 - 17). Saul will ultimately fight these warriors many times during his reign (1Samuel 14:52).

Forty years after Saul is made king, in a twist of irony, the Lord uses these implacable enemies to free Israel from his rebellious rule (see 1Samuel 15, 22, 28, 1Chronicles 10:13 - 14). The events, however, after Saul and his sons are killed on Mount Gilboa (1Samuel 31) highlights the brutality and beast-like attitude of the war machine of the Philistines (see 1Chronciles 10:8 - 10, 1Samuel 31:8 - 13).


Wars of David

Most people are aware that a young David fought Goliath the giant and miraculously won an unexpected victory (1Samuel 17). What is far less known, however, is how determined the Philistines were during David's reign to wipe God's people off the face of the earth. The king and his army engage in no less than eight major battles against this militant nation (2Samuel 5:17-21, 22 - 25, 21:15 - 17, 18, 19, 20, 23:9 - 10 and verses 11 - 12)!

David's victories, as he approaches the end of his life, have so dramatically weaken the enemy (1Chronicles 18:1) that they are forced to pay tribute money during the entirety of his son Solomon's reign (970 to 930 B.C., 1Kings 4:21)!

After the separation

The Philistines, being the recalcitrant and warrior people that they were, eventually rises again to challenge their neighbors. Always willing to take advantage of any perceived weakness on the part of their adversaries, they launch two major invasions after Israel splits in 930 B.C.

This first invasion occurs around 843 toward the end of King Jehoram's reign over Judah (2Chronicles 21:16 - 19). God stirs up the Philistine nation and the Arabs against the kingdom, who then proceed to enter Judean territory. Their victories enable them to enter Jerusalem where they loot all the possessions in the king's palace. They also capture all the king's wives and almost all his sons.

During the reign of King Ahaz (735 to 715), the Philistines mount a successful attack on Judah's southern border. They take several Judean cities and populate them with their own people (2Chronicles 28:18).

Prophecy

The long-running bad behavior of Israel's worst enemy earned them prophetic condemnations from several of God's prophets. Those who discuss them include Amos in 796 B.C. (1:6 - 8), followed by (in chronological order) Isaiah (11:14), Jeremiah (25:20, 47:1 - 7), Zephaniah (2:4 - 7), Ezekiel (25:15 - 16), Joel (3:4 - 8), Obadiah (1:19) and lastly, around 520, Zechariah (9:5 - 7). They all write of the trials and troubles the Philistines have, and will, suffer for their treatment of God's people.

Recommended Articles
Where Are the Kings of Judah Buried?
God's Humorous Correction of Philistines!
What Is the First War Recorded in Bible?
Why Did Ancient Israel Split?
Did David Fight Goliath's Brothers?
Why Did Israel Reject God as King?
The Life of Samson!
Who Were King David's Mighty Men?
The Philistines
Who Are the Philistines?
Why Are They Israel's Greatest Enemy?
Early Philistine Wars
King David Fights Philistines
Jewish - Philistine Wars

Series References
Bible Knowledge Commentary
Complete Book of When, Where in Bible
Harmony of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles by Crockett
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on Old Testament



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