Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Where Did The Philistines Come From?

Posted by foryourfaith on January 6, 2010

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The seafaring Philistines are known to history almost entirely through the eyes of their enemies, the Hebrews and the Egyptians.  No decipherable Philistine literature has survived.  Our only direct link to the Philistines is their pottery and their clay coffins, unearthed in a variety of sites from Egypt to the coastal region of present-day Israel, the Canaan of biblical times.  But their impact on the Mediterranean was such that their name remains there as “Palestine,” which is derived from a Hebrew word meaning the “land of the Philistines.”

The Old Testament provides the chief source of information about the Philistines.  In the historical writings and the prophets, they play a key role in the history of the Hebrews.  The Philistines were part of a group of Sea Peoples, who invaded Egypt in 1188 BC.  They were defeated by the forces of Ramses III, an event commemorated in vivid reliefs and in inscriptions on Ramses’ temple walls in Medinet Habu, Egypt.  But where had these Sea Peoples come from?

In the eighth century BC the prophet Amos cited a word of the Lord, “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt and the Philistines from Caphtor?”  Caphtor is the Hebrew name for Crete, and in biblical tradition the Philistines are closely associated with the “Cherethites,” or Cretans.  The prophet Zephaniah cries, “Woe to you inhabitants of the seacoast, you nation of the Cherethites!  The word of the Lord is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines.”  Based on this tradition, archaeologists have attempted to find a direct link between the Philistines and Cretan civilization, but no archaeological evidence for such a link has been discovered.  The writing on Philistine tablets and the remains of Philistine pottery both show a possible, but not definitive, influence of the two great civilizations that reigned on Crete and the Greek mainland.

By the time of the invasion of the Sea Peoples into Egypt and the surrounding regions, the great Minoan civilization of Crete had passed, and the invasions seem to be associated with a period of unrest and upheaval that beset Asia Minor and Syria in the late 13th century BC.  Peoples who had been influenced by the powerful Minoan and Mycenaean Greek civilizations began to force their way southward until they ran into the strong armies of the Egyptians.  One of these groups was the people who became the Philistines.

We are given a vivid view of these tall, slender, clean-shaven warriors in the victory reliefs of Ramses III at Medinet Habu.  They came in ships powered only by sails, without the oars and lion-headed ramming prows of the Egyptian ships.  They carried straight swords and round shields; they wore kilts fastened by a broad belt and on their torsos what is apparently a breastplate or armored shirt.  Others of the Sea Peoples were similarly outfitted except that some of them wore horned helmets instead of the feather headdresses of the Philistines.

The Philistines were very adaptable; within a short time after settling in Canaan, they adopted the religion and language of their Canaanite neighbors and worshipped Dagon, Ashtoreth, and Baal.  They organized themselves as a confederation of five cities – Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath, Gaza, and Ekron – each headed by a seren, or lord.  The five lords functioned as a council for common affairs and together were able to maintain a united and powerful army.

Both Ashkelon and Ashdod were major cities of the day.  Eventually, the town of Ashkelon covered abut 160 acres.  It prospered as a seaport on the Philistine section of the “Way of the Sea” – the main coastal trading artery connecting Egypt and the land of Canaan.  Just inland, Ashdod spread out over some 70 acres, and had an acropolis of about 20 acres.

The Philistines entered the Iron Age while the Israelites were still in the Bronze Age.  In that technological advantage, carefully guarded by the Philistines, lay much of their military superiority and fearsomeness.  The sharp irony of such power standing against the holy war of the Israelites is revealed when the Book of Judges says, “The Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron” (Judges 1:19).  In periods of Philistine dominance, they prevented the Israelites from obtaining and using iron and charged them for sharpening whatever implements they had.

The Philistine invasion of Canaan came perhaps 50 years after the main thrust of Israelite conquest, and from that point on the two expansionist forces, one moving west from the desert, the other east from the sea, pressed against each other in persistent conflict.  Shamgar, the third of the judges in the Book of Judges, is credited with killing 600 Philistines with an oxgoad (Judges 3:31).  Samson killed thousands but ultimately could do little more than harass the Philistines with his prowess.  In the time of Eli and the young Samuel, the Philistines were able even to capture the most important religious object of Israel, the Ark.

It ma well have been the pressure of a united Philistine army that caused the Israelites, divided in their various tribes, to wish to be united under a king.  Saul, the first of their kings, however, did not fare well against the Philistines; they defeated him in battle and displayed his severed head in the Temple of Dagon in Beth-shan as a warning to the Israelites.

The tide of the Philistine expansion was turned back only by David, the successor of Saul.  He was able to break the unity of the Philistines and reduce their individual cities to vassalage.  Still, the Philistine cities were never assimilated into Israel.  More than two centuries after David, King Uzziah was warring against the same cities of the Philistines (2 Chronicles 26:6).  The last vestiges of Philistine independence were quelled in 604 BC by the forces of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II.  In the face of the Babylonian invasion, the Philistines allied with the Egyptians, but Nebuchadnezzar subdued the revolt and exiled both the rulers and citizens form the cities of Gaza, Ashdod, and Ashkelon.  Later the Philistine cities were characterized by highly mixed populations, and only the name Palestine connects them with the Philistine past.

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3 Responses to “Where Did The Philistines Come From?”

  1. […] Ethnic Philistine residents of Gerar are filing for tribal rights to the land.  The ruling governmental oligarchy is reviewing the claims.  Non-Philistine land owners are disputing Philistine assertions; and the oligarchy’s declaration that it has jurisdiction to give away private property. Experts say that private property has no political appeal.  Meanwhile, the price of meat continues to go up. […]

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