PHILISTIA, PHILISTINES

The territory of Philistia consisted largely of the plainlands that stretched along the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. The region was known in ancient times as ‘the land of the Philistines’, from which we get the modern name ‘Palestine’. The coast road from Egypt to Palestine was known as ‘the way of the land of the Philistines’, and the Mediterranean Sea was sometimes called ‘the Sea of the Philistines’ (Exod 13:17; 23:31).

Establishment in Palestine

It is believed that the Philistines came originally from Crete, known in ancient times as Caphtor. They were well established in Palestine by the time they begin to feature in the Bible story (Gen 10:14; Deut 2:23; Jer 47:4; Amos 9:7). They followed the Canaanite religions, and the Bible treats them as native Canaanites. They worshipped the common gods and goddesses of Canaan (the Baals and the Ashtaroth), as well as their own local Baal gods such as Dagon and Baal-zebub (Judg 16:23; 1 Sam 5:1-5; 31:8-13; 2 Kings 1:2; 1 Chron 10:8-12; see BAAL; BEELZEBUL; DAGON). There were five main population centres in the Philistine territory, and these became known as ‘the five cities of the Philistines’ – Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron. The leaders of these cities were known as ‘the five lords of the Philistines’ (Josh 13:2-3; Judg 3:3; 16:5,8,27,30; 1 Sam 5:11; 6:4,12,16-18; 7:7; 29:6-7).

Involvement with Israel

Abraham, and later Isaac, settled for a time in Philistine territory in the south of Canaan. Although they had reasonably good relations with the Philistine leader, their herdsmen and the Philistine herdsmen were frequently in conflict (Gen 20:1-18; 21:25-34; 26:1-33; see ABIMELECH). When the Israelites under Joshua conquered Canaan, they took control of most of the hill country but could not gain similar control over the plain country occupied by the Philistines. As a result the Philistines reasserted their independence and became a source of trouble during Israel’s early days in Canaan (Josh 10:41; 11:21-22; 13:3; Judg 3:1-3,31; 10:6-7; 13:1; 14:1-15:20). The Philistines suffered a major setback when Samson brought about the death of all their leading civilian and military rulers (Judg 16:1-31). After they had recovered, the Philistines attacked Israel and captured the ark of the covenant (1 Sam 4:1-11). But the ark brought so much trouble to the Philistines that they soon returned it (1 Sam 5:1-7:2). Samuel then led Israel to national repentance, after which Israel defeated the Philistines and seized some of their cities (1 Sam 7:5-14). The Philistines soon regained their territory and even advanced into Israel’s hill country. Some years later, after Saul became king, the Israelites drove them out (1 Sam 13:19-14:47).

This did not mean that Saul was free from the Philistine threat. Conflicts continued to arise (1 Sam 14:52; 17:1-54; 23:27-28). These conflicts brought military fame to David, though at the same time they brought him jealousy and hatred from Saul (1 Sam 18:6-9,14,30). In fleeing from Saul, David on two occasions found refuge in the Philistine city of Gath, and even used Gath as a base from which to operate his private army (1 Sam 21:10-15; 27:1-12). David pleased the Philistine ruler with his raids on various tribal peoples (1 Sam 27:8-12), but he was prevented from fighting for the Philistines against Israel (1 Sam 29:1-4,11). When Saul died in battle against the Philistines, David became Israel’s new king (1 Sam 31:1-7; 2 Sam 2:4; 5:1). David wasted no time in driving the Philistines from the Israelite hill country that they had seized. He smashed their power decisively, so that they were never again a serious threat to Israel (2 Sam 3:18; 5:17- 25; 8:1). After the death of David, Israel’s control over the Philistines relaxed and the two peoples lived independently side by side with only occasional conflicts. Any conflicts usually were concerned with border towns that changed hands from time to time (1 Kings 15:27; 2 Kings 8:22; 2 Chron 17:11; 26:6). Among other nations that invaded Philistia at different times were Syria (2 Kings 12:17), Assyria (Isa 20:1), Egypt (Jer 47:1) and Greece. As foretold by the prophets, the nation was eventually destroyed (Jer 47:4-7; Ezek 25:15-17; Amos 1:6-8; Zeph 2:4-7; Zech 9:5-8).

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