Warring Philistines

“The Philistines (Hebrew pelishtim) were a non-Semitic people who settled in the southern coastal area of Canaan, which became known as Philistia (Hebrew pelesheth). They are well known from the Old Testament for often warring with the Israelites. Why were the Philistines and the Israelites always at war? (Num 24:24, “ships shall come forth from Kittim [Cyprus] and afflict…Eber [the Hebrews].” (Source)

The Philistines were an ancient people who lived on the south coast of Canaan from the 12th century BC until 604 BC, when their polity, after having already been subjugated for centuries by the Neo-Assyrian Empire, was finally destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar II of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.1.

The Old Testament singles out five cities within Philistia as being especially associated with the Philistines. These are Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and Gath. The fact that part of the Promised Land remained in the hands of the Philistines is “anticipated” in Noah’s blessing of Japheth (ancestor of the Mediterranean races) in Gen 9:27, “May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem,” Shem as its ancestor symbolizing Israel.

In the Bible the Philistines are first explicitly mentioned in the patriarchal narratives in the time of Abraham and Isaac (Gen 21:32, 34; 26:1-8, 14-18), but these allusions are widely regarded as anachronistic, since we have no evidence of Philistines in Canaan before the 12th century.

There is a general consensus that the Philistines originally came from the Aegean area. Various aspects of their material culture support this. For example, the earliest Philistine pottery is continuous with Mycenaean (Late Helladic) IIIC pottery. The Old Testament is more specific, claiming several times that the Philistines came from Caphtor (Jer 47:4; Amos 9:7; compare Gen 10:14 [according to some translations]; Deut 2:23), which is widely believed to denote Crete, the inhabitants of which were called Keftiu by the ancient Egyptians.

The story of Samson (Judg 13-16) reflects both the increasing conflict between Israel and the Philistines as well as the contacts that existed between them. On the one hand, he battled the Philistines and brought the temple at Gaza crashing down on top of them at his death, but on the other hand he is said to have married a Philistine woman from Timnah and consorted with a Philistine harlot. Some even claim that Delilah, who delivered Samson up to the Philistines, was also a Philistine, but this is nowhere stated.

Later still, the Philistines posed a threat to Israel in the time of SamuelSaul, and David1 Sam 4 describes the Philistines’ capture of the Ark of the Covenant at the battle of Aphek/Ebenezer, which was eventually returned to the Israelites (1 Sam 4-6), and this battle is probably related to the 1050 BC destruction level at Shiloh.

The People Demanded a King

The Philistine threat was an important contributory factor in the demand for an Israelite monarchy. This desire led to Saul becoming their first king, tall and strong, a head taller than all other Israelite men, surely he would save them. Rather than following the Lord alone, Yahweh, the omniscient God, the Israelites decided they wanted a king like the countries around them, a poor choice on their part.

Rather than following the Lord alone, Yahweh, the omniscient God, the Israelites decided they wanted a king like the countries around them, a poor choice on their part. Click To Tweet

For a while the Philistines maintained a monopoly on metal production in an attempt to weaken the Israelites’ militarily (1 Sam 13:19-22); the text does not explicitly mention iron, which some assume was in mind here.

“Now the Philistines gathered their forces for war and assembled at Sokoh in Judah. They pitched camp at Ephes Dammim, between Sokoh and Azekah. Saul and the Israelites [including David’s three oldest brothers] assembled and camped in the Valley of Elah and drew up their battle line to meet the Philistines. The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites another, with the valley between” (1 Samuel 17:1-3 NIV).

17 Now Jesse said to his son David, “Take this ephah[36 lbs] of roasted grain and these ten loaves of bread for your brothers and hurry to their camp. 18 Take along these ten cheeses to the commander of their unit. See how your brothers are and bring back some assurance[token or pledge of spoils] from them. 19 They are with Saul and all the men of Israel in the Valley of Elah, fighting against the Philistines.”

20 Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, as Jesse had directed. He reached the camp as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. 21 Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines facing each other. 22 David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the battle lines and asked his brothers how they were. 23 As he was talking with them, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it. 24 Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear” (1 Samuel 17:17-24 NIV).

The War Zone

Of course, when David arrived, his own brothers taunted him, wondering why he had left those few sheep alone in the wilderness to come to watch them at war. And yet, David noticed that all the men were afraid. Why? David wondered, when they fought for their own people with God Almighty on their side.

25 Now the Israelites had been saying, “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? He comes out to defy Israel. The king will give great wealth to the man who kills him. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel” (1 Samuel 17:25 NIV).

Saul, the king, was tall and strong, the one best suited to fight against Goliath, but, of course, Saul stayed hidden in his tent. When David told Saul that he would kill the giant, Saul said that David could use his own battle garments, which of course were too heavy for a boy.

A champion named Goliath, who was from Gath, came out of the Philistine camp. His height was six cubits and a span. [9’9″] He had a bronze helmet on his head and wore a coat of scale armor of bronze weighing five thousand shekels [125 lbs]; on his legs he wore bronze greaves, and a bronze javelin was slung on his back. His spear shaft was like a weaver’s rod, and its iron point weighed six hundred shekels [15 lbs]. His shield bearer went ahead of him” (1 Samuel 17:1-7 NIV).

David is famous, of course, for the story of his victory over the giant Goliath from Gath (1 Sam 17); We all know this story, for it was David who finally overcame the Philistines (2 Sam 5:17-25; 8:1). Only by trusting the Lord entirely and obeying Him did David accomplish this task and cut off the giant’s head.

26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

27 They repeated to him what they had been saying and told him, “This is what will be done for the man who kills him.”

28 When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked: “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”

29 “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?” 30 He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. 31 What David said was overheard and reported to Saul, and Saul sent for him. (1 Samuel 17:26-31 NIV).

Saul’s Downfall

Right before this, Saul’s kingdom had begun to decay due to his own behavior. Saul didn’t trust the Lord with all of his heart. Saul even set up a monument of himself. He disobeyed God regarding a significant offering that was to be made, in that he didn’t wait for Samuel to arrive before he went ahead and made the offering without the prophet. When Samuel finally arrived, Saul greeted him:

“Blessed be you to the LORD. I have performed the commandment of the LORD,” said Saul (1 Samuel 15:13 NIV).

Samuel’s response: “What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears and the lowing of the oxen that I hear?” (1 Samuel 15:14 ESV).

Saul, lying and deflecting responsibility, stated: “They have brought them from the Amalekites, for the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the LORD your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.” (1 Samuel 15:15-17 ESV).

Not only are the Amalekites their mortal enemy ever since this tribe did them harm in the wilderness. A lie is easily picked apart. How often to we blame others and create a lie rather than confessing?

Imagine the disapproval of the prophet: “And Samuel said, ‘Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. Because you have :rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king'” (1 Samuel 15:22-23 ESV).

Here I recommend the Keith Green song: “To Obey is Better Than Sacrifice”.

Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry. #Faith Click To Tweet

History subsequent to David

Having been subdued by David, the Philistines continued more as individual city-states than as a united people. We do not read of Assyrian dealings with the Philistines until Adad-nirari III (810-782 BCE), who boasts of receiving tribute from them. However, it was not till Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 BCE) that the Assyrians conquered Philistia, forcing them to pay regular tribute, though the Philistine kings were left on their thrones. Sometime prior to this (ca. 750 BCE) Amos 1:6-8 had proclaimed God’s coming judgment on the Philistines, while Isa 14:29 probably rebukes the Philistines for rejoicing over the death of Tiglath-pileser III. When Sargon II (722-705 BCE) came to the throne, Hanunu of Gaza joined a rebellion against the Assyrians but was defeated in 720. Subsequently, Sargon suppressed a revolt centred on Ashdod (713-711 BCE; also Isa 20:1).

Later on, King Hezekiah of Judah took Padi, king of Ekron, hostage, but Sennacherib (705-681 BCE) eventually forced Hezekiah to release him in 701 BCE. Padi, alongside other members of his family, is also mentioned in a Philistine inscription from Ekron. Assyrian rule over Philistia persisted till the death of Ashurbanipal (ca. 627 BCE) but weakened thereafter.

Saul and his son Jonathan, David’s closest friend, lost their lives at a battle with the Philistines on Mt Gilboa (1 Samuel 31).

The Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar conquered Philistia in 604-601 BCE and this led to the Philistines’ terminal decline. Prophetic oracles exult in the fall of the Philistines (Jer 47:4-7; Ezek 25:15-17; Zeph 2:4-7; Zech 9:5-7). After the exile the Philistines gradually lost their separate identity as a people, something that was complete by the end of the 5th century BCE.

Philistine Pagan Religion

The Philistines took over the worship of certain Canaanite deities, just as the Israelites often did. In particular, Dagon, a god of fertility (compare Hebrew dagan, “corn”), is singled out for special mention, with temples at Gaza and Ashdod (Judg 16:23; 1 Sam 5:2-5). A Dagon temple at Ashdod (Azotus) existed right up till the 2nd century BCE (1 Macc 10:83-84; 11:4). We also hear of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron (2 Kgs 1:2-3, 6, 16), from whom Ahaziah king of Israel sought an oracle. 1 Sam 31:10 attests a temple of Ashtaroth (Astarte), consort of Baal, presumably at Beth-Shan, and the mention by Herodotus (Histories 1.105) of a temple of Aphrodite at Ashkelon surely also refers to Astarte. More info here.

All of these idols and their worship are what led the Israelites into a rejection of God as they blended pagan rituals with the worship of Yahweh. For this the Lord had them taken captive in Babylon, which we examined in great detail in this past year’s blog posts.

David's faithful and courageous actions not only killed Goliath, but also won him Saul's daughter, and spread the praise of God.

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