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The Philistines by V. Phillips Long

Categories Old Testament

Bible-BackgroundsOne of the most obvious uses of background studies is to help readers learn more about the peoples of the ancient world that are mentioned in the Bible. And what group could be more intriguing than the dreaded Philistines. Phil Long provides information in his Samuel commentary in ZIBBCOT.

"Don’t be such a Philistine!" For centuries in the English language, and still today, the word "Philistine" has been used as a term of opprobrium. To be called a Philistine is to be branded as uncultured or concerned only for the material and the commonplace. Given the biblical depiction of the Philistines as Israel’s archenemies during the periods of the judges and the early monarchy, it is not surprising that they have been viewed negatively.

Archaeological excavations, however, and indeed the Bible itself, hardly justify calling the Philistines uncultured. A careful reading of the biblical texts suggests not so much that the Philistines lack culture—in many respects their material culture surpasses Israel’s—as that they are staunch enemies of Israel and, by extension, of Israel’s God.1 They are, to use the biblical censure, the "uncircumcised" (e.g., 1 Sam. 14:6; 17:26, 36; 31:4; 2 Sam. 1:20). They are the quintessential foreign adversary, a fact that may be reflected in LXX’s rendering of the word "Philistine" most often simply as allophylos ("foreigner, Gentile, heathen, pagan").2

The Philistines are reasonably well attested in extrabiblical ancient Near Eastern literature, the earliest known references coming from the time of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III (c. 1184–1153 B.C.). Inscribed on the walls of his temple at Medinet Habu in Thebes is an account of a war he fought against various Sea Peoples, among whom the Philistines are included: "Their confederation was the Philistines, Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denye(n), and Weshesh, lands united."3 According to Ramesses III’s inscription, "The foreign countries made a conspiracy in their islands," and they proved almost an irresistible force as they migrated into the eastern Mediterranean: "No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Kode, Carchemish," and so on.4

It was a different story, however, when they approached Egypt: "Those who reached my frontier, their seed is not, their heart and their soul are finished forever and ever."5 The walls of the temple at Medinet Habu celebrate Ramesses III’s victory over the Sea Peoples not only verbally but visually, as in the wall relief shown in the accompanying picture (the Philistine warriors can be identified by their characteristic headdress).

The Philistines are also frequently mentioned in eighth- and seventh-century Assyrian records, the earliest reference coming from an account of a north-to-south expedition down along the eastern Mediterranean by Adad-Nirari III (810–783 B.C.): "I subdued from the bank of the Euphrates, the land of Hatti, the land of Amurru in its entirety, the land of Tyre, the land of Sidon, the land of Israel (Humri), the land of Edom, the land of Philistia, as far as the great sea in the west."6 Under Tiglath-Pileser III (744–727 B.C.), Assyria reduced Philistia to tributary status, along with Judah and other neighboring states.7

While the Philistines loom large in both the biblical record—particularly the Samson narratives (Judg. 13–16) and 1–2 Samuel—and ancient Near Eastern texts, the question of their origin remains something of a mystery.8 The general view is that the Philistines, along with other Sea Peoples, migrated in large numbers from "the islands and coastlands of the Aegean Sea, including the island of Crete,"9 as part of a general social upheaval that characterized the latter part of the second millennium B.C.

The Bible confirms the Philistines’ association with the Aegean and with Crete (biblical Caphtor; Jer. 47:4; Amos 9:7), but this may not be the end—or, more precisely, the beginning—of their story. The Table of Nations in Genesis 10 ties the Philistines to the little known Casluhites (10:14), who "may have been the Philistines’ progenitors before the Philistines went to Caphtor."10 Furthermore, the Table of Nations traces the Philistines back to Noah’s son Ham (forbear of, among others, the Canaanites) and not to his son Japheth (forbear of the Indo-Europeans associated with the Aegean). Perhaps, then, "the Philistines actually were an amalgamation of several different peoples and … the Philistines descended from the Casluhites were different from those who came from Caphtor."11

Pertinent to this issue may be the controversial theory of C. H. Gordon, based on his putative decipherment of Linear A as a (west) Semitic language, that Minoan civilization of the island of Crete must have had Semitic as well as Greek (Linear B) roots.12 Though Gordon’s theory has not gained general acceptance, if it should prove true it would help to explain, for example, how Samson, an Israelite, could have communicated with Delilah, a Philistine, as both would have been of Semitic stock.13

What we do know is that at least by the beginning of the Iron Age (c. 1200 B.C.) the Philistines were settling along the southwest coast of Canaan from somewhere south of modern Jaffa to the border of Egypt. Their five most important cities, the so-called Philistine pentapolis, were Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron (Josh. 13:3; 1 Sam. 6:17). Beyond their so-called pentapolis, the Philistines exhibited expansionist tendencies—already in the time of Samson and increasingly in the period of Samuel and the early monarchy—which brought them into direct conflict with their Israelite neighbors to the north and east.14

The more we understand of the Philistines the better we can analyze their role in the biblical accounts.

Zibbcotsetbox Bible Backgrounds is a series of weekly blog posts leading up to the fall 2009 release of the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament. Each post is written by John H. Walton, the general editor for the five volumes. ZIBBCOT is the product of thirty international specialists; their work and expertise will also be represented throughout this series.


1 On Iron-Age Philistine religious practice, as evidenced in the archaeological record at Tel Miqne–Ekron, see S. Gitin, "Israelite and Philistine cult and the Archaeological Record in Iron Age II: The ‘Smoking Gun’ Phenomenon," in Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past: Canaan, Ancient Israel, and Their Neighbors from the Late Bronze Age through Roman Palaestina, ed. W. G. Dever and S. Gitin (Centennial Symposium, W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research and American Schools of Oriental Research, Jerusalem, May 29–31, 2000; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2003), 279–95.

2Louw-Nida, 11.43. Prior to the book of Judges (i.e., in Genesis, Exodus, and Joshua), the lxx simply transliterates the Heb. term pelištîm ("Philistines") as phylistiim. Another term used by some Greek sources is pelasgoi ("sea peoples"; see J. Olivier, "yTiv]liP]," NIDOTTE, 3:631).


, 262c; see also ibid., 263a.


, 262c.


, 262c.

6 "Calah Orthostat Slab," trans.

K. Lawson Younger Jr. (COS, 2.114G:276; cf. ANET, 281; see also ANET, 282).

7 See ANET, 282–84. On the further reduction of Philistine sovereignty under subsequent Assyrian and Egyptian monarchs, see H. J. Katzenstein, "Philistines (History)," ABD, 5:326–38. For convenient summaries of ancient Near Eastern texts mentioning the Philistines, see T. Dothan, "Philistines (Archaeology)," ABD, 5:328–29; Olivier, "yTiv]liP]," 3:633.

9 See, e.g., T. Dothan, The Philistines and Their Material Culture (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1982), 21–23. For a popular 8ummary, see idem, "What We Know about the Philistines," BAR 8/4 (1982): 20–44.

9 D. M. Howard Jr., "Philistines," in Peoples of the Old Testament World, ed. A. L. Hoerth, G. L. Mattingly, and E. M. Yamauchi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 232.

10 Ibid., 232; see his discussion of the identification of biblical Caphtor with Crete and of the biblical Cherethites (Cretans) with the Philistines.

11 Ibid., 232. Such complex origins might shed light on the appearance of "Philistines" in Canaan during the ancestral period (e.g., Gen. 21:32, 34; 26:1; Ex. 13:17), unless references to Philistines are simply instances of updating names.

12 See C. H. Gordon, Evidence for the Minoan Language (Ventnor, N.J.: Ventnor, 1966); for brief treatments, see C. H. Gordon and G. A. Rendsburg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (New York: Norton, 1997), 22–23; G. A. Rendsburg, " ‘Someone Will Succeed in Deciphering Minoan’: Cyrus H. Gordon and Minoan Linear A," BA 59 (1996): 36–43; idem, "Is Linear A Semitic?," BAR 26/6 (2000): 60–61; H. Shanks, "Against the Tide: An Interview with Maverick Scholar Cyrus Gordon," BAR 26/6 (2000): 52–63, 71.

13 Gordon’s thesis would also help explain the apparent cross-influence of the Semitic and Greek worlds from early on.

14 For recent book-length treatments, see N. Bierling, Giving Goliath His Due: New Archaeological Light on the Philistines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992); C. S. Ehrlich, The Philistines In Transition: A History from ca. 1000–730 b.c.e (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

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