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Who Were the Philistines?

This week's question delves into the world of ancient peoples. "Who were the Philistines and from where did they come?"

Information we have about the Philistines comes from two sources: archaeology and scripture. The name Philistine comes from the Hebrew word pelishtim. In Greek it is rendered Palaistinoi and from this word we get our modern day name for much of the Middle East­Palestine.

The origins of the Philistines is the story of a nation without a land. According to the table of nations in Genesis, Philistia is in the lineage of Ham through Caphtorim (10.14). Caphtor, the Genesis region identified with Crete, places the original Philistines in Asia Minor somewhere along the Aegean Sea. During the Greek settlement of Asia Minor in the thirteenth century BCE, these peoples were disenfranchised and became refugees. By foot and by sea, they reached Egypt and Palestine sometime around 1190 BCE, but were repelled from Egypt by Rameses III in a mighty land and sea battle. With this defeat, the refugees settled on the southern coast of Canaan. Eventually they controlled a small strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea from modern Gaza north to Tel Aviv ­ an area 25-30 miles in length, and 12-15 miles in width.

The Bible speaks of the Philistines as a people before the arrival of Abraham into Canaan. However, Abraham and his compatriots settled in Canaan nearly 500 years before we find substantial archaeological or historical records of the Philistine nation in the Middle East. Some scholars believe the earlier references to the Philistines is anachronistic and were placed in the biblical record without regard to historical accuracy. However, others argue there is evidence of Aegean artifacts, especially pottery, dating as early as 1900-1700 BCE. If this is so, in spite of the massive wave of refugees who settled in Palestine in the twelfth century BCE, there remains the possibility that some Philistines may have relocated to that region much earlier.

So much for where the Philistines came from. Who were the Philistines?

Most of the time when we read of the Philistines in scripture, it is to read of a war-like people who harassed the Israelites as they re-settled Canaan. During the time of the exodus, the Philistines were strong enough to force the Israelites to travel east to avoid battle (Exodus 13.17). Later, during the conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua and his forces, the Philistines were left virtually untouched. But as Israeli expansion pressed westward, the Philistines pressed eastward causing no little friction between the nations. By the reign of Saul and David, the Philistine's might had grown and they became antagonists of the Israelites. For one, the Philistines controlled the production of iron so Israel was left with bronze weaponry, clearly inferior armament against the iron wheeled chariots and other weapons used by the Philistines (1 Samuel 13.19-22). Indeed, in one battle the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and razed the Israelite sanctuary at Shiloh killing 30,000 Israelite foot soldiers (1 Samuel 4).

When David was exiled from Israel by King Saul, he became a vassal subject of the Philistines and even led raids against the Israelites (1 Samuel 27). However, after Saul's death David assumed the monarchy of Israel and for a time remained on good terms with the Philistines. A conflict between Israel and Philistia finally arose, and David and his armies drove them from eastern Israel.

The Philistines continued as a nation until the Babylonian exile. During Nebuchadnezzar's reign they aligned themselves with Egypt and Judah in an anti-Babylonian alliance. The Babylonian army invaded and swept through the region, both Philistia and Judah, and deported the rulers, the wealthy, and the educated of both nations. The Philistines didn't maintain their identity nor their culture while they were in exile and so they never returned to reclaim their homeland. Thus, the Babylonian exile brought an end to Philistia leaving us only stories and artifacts of this once thriving nation of refugees.

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