Philistines part 1
by John Thomas Lowe
Who Were the Philistines?
The ancient Philistines were in the land of Canaan before Moses, and the Israelites claimed it as their Promised Land from God. The conflict over Canaan territory and religious and cultural differences between Israelites and Philistines led to many battles between the two nations. In the Old Testament, the Philistines are viewed as "bad guys," long-term enemies of Israel, from the time they first encountered each other. Moses sent twelve Hebrew scouts or "spies" to survey Canaan before the Israelis entered it, and they were terrified when they met the Philistines. Moses led the Israelites around Philistine settlements in Canaan to avoid conflict with them.
The best-known Hebrew-Philistine encounter is found in I Samuel 17, when young David, the future king, victoriously battled the Philistine giant Goliath. David landed a shot from a rock in his slingshot to take down this imposing enemy. This narrative illustrates God's power to give an underdog a win, no matter what the odds.
In philosophy and aesthetics, the term philistine is now used to describe a person who does not value art, spirituality, or intellect. In academic circles, a philistine is a person with limited knowledge of a topic. In addition, a philistine is deemed to be a person who is very materialistic and concerned with earning money. A Philistine does not sound like someone you would like to sit next to on public transportation! A National Public Radio article labeled the Philistines "uncouth louts."
Who Were the Philistines?
The Philistines were a group of people who migrated from southern Europe or Greece to the east coast of the Aegean Sea—an area now held by Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria—in the 12th century B.C.E. This region was called Canaan in early middle eastern history. The Philistines who settled there were seafaring, warlike people. Later in their 600-year history, the Philistines focused on commercial rather than military operations. The ancient superpowers of Assyria and Babylon gradually defeated the Philistines. After these losses, the Philistine people assimilated into the Persian Empire—from approximately 559 B.C.E. to 331 B.C.E.—and lost their identity as a distinct culture. However, archeologists have concluded that the D.N.A. of the Philistines is very similar to today's D.N.A. of people living in Lebanon.
The Philistines in the Bible
In the Exodus from Egypt, God promised the Israelites they would take Canaan as their home: "I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run. I will drive the Canaanites out of your way. I will establish your borders from the Red Sea to the Sea of the Philistines, and from the desert to the River" (Exodus 23:27-28, 31). Taking Canaan required outing Canaan's native tribes, including the Philistines, who were descendants of Noah's youngest son Ham and had spread across this region next to the Aegean Sea (Genesis 9:18-19; Genesis 10:6, 15-19).
Moses sent 12 "spies" or scouts to survey the Canaan territory ahead of the Hebrews' settling of the land. The 12 Spies returned after 40 days with a report that terrified the Israelites: "We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. However, the people who live there are mighty, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. We cannot attack those people; they are stronger than we are" (Numbers, 13:27-28, 31). Anak was one man in the line of giants mentioned in Joshua 15:13. The Israelites balked at entering Canaan after hearing the spies' report, and God decreed that they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years as a result of their unwillingness to act further on His promise to them (Numbers 14:26-35).
When the Israelites did finally settle in the Promised Land, they warred with the Philistines during the Biblical times of the Old Testament books of Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Kings, and 2 Chronicles. Conflicts arose from Abraham to King Hezekiah as Israel attempted to displace the Philistines in the Promised Land. Israelis acted on God's promise to His people that He would protect them from destruction and let them be victorious in battle, taking over vast areas of territory in the Promised Land (Joshua 13-21). So the Lord gave Israel all the land he had sworn to give their forefathers, and they took possession of it and settled there (Joshua 21:43).
All of Israel's battles with the Philistines were not successful, however. The outcomes of seven major battles between Israel and the Philistines reveal this.
The Battle of Aphek, in which approximately 34,000 Israeli soldiers were killed. Hebrew elders questioned why God let them suffer so many casualties. The Philistine army soldiers feared the Israeli's Ark of the Covenant but captured it during this battle (1 Samuel 4).
The Battle of Eben-Ezer in which Israel is victorious (1 Samuel 7:1, 13-14).
In the Battle of Michmash, Saul nearly loses his son Jonathan, who is victorious against the Philistine army (1 Samuel 14:31-46).
David defeats Goliath in the larger context of the Israeli-Philistine conflict (1 Samuel 17).
In the Battle of Mount Gilboa, King Saul falls on his sword and dies after the Philistine army kills his three sons (1 Samuel 31:1-6).
Hezekiah's father, King Ahaz, worships false gods (2 Kings 16:1-4), is struck with lousy fortune (2 Kings 17:20), and fails in the Battle of Shephelah (1 Samuel 6:19). Philistines return the Ark of the Covenant to Ahaz because it has brought disaster to them (1 Samuel 5:11).
King Hezekiah of Judah is obedient to God and defeats the Philistines (2 Kings 18:5-8).
Having an enemy in the Philistines did unite Israel under its first kings. As is written about King Saul in 1 Samuel 14:52, All the days of Saul, there was bitter war with the Philistines, and whenever Saul saw a mighty or brave man, he took him into his service.
Samson and David had individual encounters with Philistine enemies, and their stories are dramatically recorded in the Bible.
How Did Samson Attack the Philistines?
Samson, a powerfully built judge of Israel before the time of the kings, lost his strength when the Philistine woman Delilah—whom Samson fell in love with—led her people in blinding and enslaving Samson. Delilah discovered the source of Samson's strength was his hair, and she cut it off to weaken him. The Philistines then captured Samson and rewarded Delilah with 1100 shekels, which was approximately three years' wages (Judges 16:4-5, 15-21).
Samson cried out to God for renewed strength from his lowly position as an enslaved person grinding grain for the Philistines. When the Philistines had Samson entertain them at their temple, Samson, with God's gift of new strength, knocked down the supporting pillars of the building. It collapsed, killing Samson and thousands of Philistines. Samson had prayed, "Let me die with the Philistines!" (Joshua 16:25-30). God restored Samson's strength at the end of his life.