Philistines

The Philistines (Hebrew pelishtim) were a non-Semitic people who settled in the southern coastal area of Canaan, which became known as Philistia (Hebrew pelesheth). They are well known from the Old Testament for often warring with the Israelites.

The etymology of the word “Philistines” is unknown, though it is doubtless of Indo-European origin. Already in the 12th century BCE the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses III knows them as the plst, and later the Assyrians called Philistia Palashtu or Pilistu. In the Septuagint Old Testament the word “Philistines” is often rendered “foreigners” (Greek allophuloi), though in the Pentateuch and Joshua it is transliterated as Phulistim or suchlike.

There is a general consensus that the Philistines originally came from the Aegean area. Various aspects of their material culture support this. For example, the earliest Philistine pottery is continuous with Mycenaean (Late Helladic) IIIC pottery. The Old Testament is more specific, claiming several times that the Philistines came from Caphtor (Jeremiah 47:4; Amos 9:7; compare Genesis 10:14 [according to some translations]; Deuteronomy 2:23), which is widely believed to denote Crete, the inhabitants of which were called Keftiu by the ancient Egyptians. Note, for example, that the kilted Keftiu depicted bearing tribute in the Egyptian tomb of the vizier Rekhmire in Thebes (ca. 1450 BCE) strongly resemble the Cretans represented in the palace of Knossos in Crete. Again, in the anti-Philistine oracles in Ezekiel 25:16 and Zephaniah 2:5, they are called Cherethites (Cretans).

Outside the Bible the Philistines (plst) are first mentioned in Rameses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu (in Thebes) as one of the sea peoples (alongside the Tjeker, Shekelesh, Denyen, and Weshesh) whom the Egyptians defeated in a sea and land battle in the king’s eighth year, ca. 1175 BCE. This migration of sea peoples was part of the turmoil occurring in the Near East at the end of the Late Bronze Age. In Rameses III’s temple the Philistines are depicted wearing a distinctive plumed helmet or feathered headdress. (Interestingly, a similar plumed head-dressed person is attested as one of the signs on the Phaistos disk from Crete dating from ca. 1600 BCE.) Shortly after their defeat by the Egyptians, the Philistines settled down on the southern coast of Canaan, where they are well attested archaeologically from the 12th century BCE onwards. Certain Cypriot aspects of their material culture suggest that some Philistines may have reached Canaan via Cyprus; compare Numbers 24:24, “ships shall come forth from Kittim [Cyprus] and afflict…Eber [the Hebrews].”

Philistia was in a fertile plain, though there were some sand dunes in the south. It extended from Joppa in the north to Wadi Ghazzeh (south of Gaza) in the south, and the Philistines often attempted to extend beyond this region. However, the Old Testament singles out five cities within Philistia as being especially associated with the Philistines. These are Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and Gath. The names of the first three are still preserved in the modern towns, while the fourth, Ekron, is confidently equated with Tel Miqne. Gath is now generally equated with Tell es-Safi. The first three cities are near the coast and the other two are further inland in the area known as the Shephelah. The fact that part of the Promised Land remained in the hands of the Philistines is “anticipated” in Noah’s blessing of Japheth (ancestor of the Mediterranean races) in Genesis 9:27, “May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem,” Shem as its ancestor symbolizing Israel.

History/Stories up to the time of David

In the Bible the Philistines are first explicitly mentioned in the patriarchal narratives in the time of Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 21:32, 34; 26:1-8, 14-18), but these allusions are widely regarded as anachronistic (as with many other elements in the patriarchal stories), since we have no evidence of Philistines in Canaan before the 12th century. Though legendary, the story of Samson (Judges 13-16) reflects both the increasing conflict between Israel and the Philistines as well as the contacts that existed between them. On the one hand, he battled the Philistines and allegedly brought the temple at Gaza crashing down on top of them at his death, but on the other hand he is said to have married a Philistine woman from Timnah and consorted with a Philistine harlot. Some even claim that Delilah, who delivered Samson up to the Philistines, was also a Philistine, but this is nowhere stated. Later still, the Philistines posed a threat to Israel in the time of Samuel, Saul, and David. 1 Samuel 4 describes the Philistines’ capture of the Ark of the Covenant at the battle of Aphek/Ebenezer, which was eventually returned to the Israelites (1 Samuel 4-6), and this battle is probably related to the 1050 BCE destruction level at Shiloh. The Philistine threat was an important contributory factor in the demand for an Israelite monarchy, which led to Saul becoming king. For a while the Philistines maintained a monopoly on metal production in an attempt to weaken the Israelites militarily (1 Samuel 13:19-22); the text does not explicitly mention iron, which some assume was in mind here. Saul and his son Jonathan finally lost their lives at a battle with the Philistines on Mt Gilboa (1 Samuel 31). David is famous, of course, for the story of his victory over the giant Goliath from Gath (1 Samuel 17; though 2 Samuel 21:19 attributes this deed to Elhanan), and it was David who finally overcame the Philistines (2 Samuel 5:17-25; 8:1). Scholars debate how much genuine Philistine history there is in the above stories, but Israel Finkelstein goes too far in seeing none.

History subsequent to David

Having been subdued by David, the Philistines continued more as individual city-states than as a united people. We do not read of Assyrian dealings with the Philistines until Adad-nirari III (810-782 BCE), who boasts of receiving tribute from them. However, it was not till Tiglath-pileser III (745-727 BCE) that the Assyrians conquered Philistia, forcing them to pay regular tribute, though the Philistine kings were left on their thrones. Sometime prior to this (ca. 750 BCE) Amos 1:6-8 had proclaimed God’s coming judgment on the Philistines, while Isaiah 14:29 probably rebukes the Philistines for rejoicing over the death of Tiglath-pileser III. When Sargon II (722-705 BCE) came to the throne, Hanunu of Gaza joined a rebellion against the Assyrians but was defeated in 720. Subsequently, Sargon suppressed a revolt centred on Ashdod (713-711 BCE; also Isaiah 20:1). Later on, King Hezekiah of Judah took Padi, king of Ekron, hostage, but Sennacherib (705-681 BCE) eventually forced Hezekiah to release him in 701 BCE. Padi, alongside other members of his family, is also mentioned in a Philistine inscription from Ekron. Assyrian rule over Philistia persisted till the death of Ashurbanipal (ca. 627 BCE) but weakened thereafter.

The Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar conquered Philistia in 604-601 BCE and this led to the Philistines’ terminal decline. Prophetic oracles exult in the fall of the Philistines (Jeremiah 47:4-7; Ezekiel 25:15-17; Zephaniah 2:4-7; Zechariah 9:5-7). After the exile the Philistines gradually lost their separate identity as a people, something that was complete by the end of the 5th century BCE.

The Philistines took over the worship of certain Canaanite deities, just as the Israelites often did. In particular, Dagon, a god of fertility (compare Hebrew dagan, “corn”), is singled out for special mention, with temples at Gaza and Ashdod (Judges 16:23; 1 Samuel 5:2-5). A Dagon temple at Ashdod (Azotus) existed right up till the 2nd century BCE (1 Maccabees 10:83-84; 11:4). We also hear of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron (2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, 16), from whom Ahaziah king of Israel sought an oracle. This name, “Baal of the fly” is a distortion of Baal-zebul, “Baal the Prince” (compare zbl b‘l, “Prince Baal” at Ugarit). 1 Samuel 31:10 attests a temple of Ashtaroth (Astarte), consort of Baal, presumably at Beth-Shan, and the mention by Herodotus (Histories 1.105) of a temple of Aphrodite at Ashkelon surely also refers to Astarte. An obscure Philistine goddess ptg[?]yh, presumably Indo-European in origin, is mentioned in a 7th-century inscription from Ekron, while another Ekron inscription refers to the goddess Asherah. A curious figurine of a goddess, part goddess and part throne, was discovered at Ashdod (and thus nicknamed Ashdoda), for which Mycenaean parallels have been adduced. Philistine temples have been unearthed at Ashdod, Ekron, and Tell Qasile (the last within modern Tel Aviv), and various Philistine cult objects are also attested. The Philistines also acquired a reputation for soothsaying (Isaiah 2:6).

Material culture

The Philistines are well known for their decorated pottery depicting geometrical designs and birds. The earliest Philistine pottery is monochrome ware (dark brown on white slip), which shows clear continuity with Mycenaean (Late Helladic) IIIC pottery. From this developed Philistine bichrome ware (black and red on white slip). Another characteristic feature are Philistine anthropoid coffins found at Deir el-Balah, Beth-Shan, and elsewhere. Excavations at Ekron revealed over one hundred large oil presses, making it the largest known centre of olive oil production in the ancient Near East. Cemeteries, including one for dogs, are attested at Ashkelon.

The Philistines must have arrived in Canaan speaking an Indo-European language. Early Philistine layers at Ashdod and Ashkelon have revealed respectively two seals and several inscriptions bearing signs of Cypro-Minoan character, and these could well represent the Philistine language. But this script remains undeciphered. It has often been suggested that the word seren, used in the Hebrew Bible exclusively of the Philistine rulers (e.g., Joshua 13:3; 1 Samuel 6:16, 18), is a Philistine word cognate with Greek turannos and Luwian tarwanis “king, ruler.” Other possible Philistine words in the Hebrew Bible have also been suggested. Fairly early on the Philistines appear to have appropriated the local Canaanite language. Evidence of this has been found in the 10th/9th century at Philistine Tell es-Safi (Gath) and various Philistine inscriptions in Canaanite script have been found at 7th-century Ekron. A considerable number of Philistine personal names known to us are Semitic, though others reflect an Indo-European background. In the 5th century BCE Nehemiah 13:24 refers to “the language of Ashdod,” presumably Ashdod’s Canaanite dialect.

Finally, two subsequent developments are worth noting here. First, it is ironic that the Israelites’ great enemy, the Philistines, ended up giving their name to the land of Israel. Although their name was originally confined to the coastal strip of Philistia (a meaning still attested in Assyrian records from the period of their domination), from the time of Herodotus in the mid-5th century BCE onwards we find the name in the form Palestine being used by the Greeks to refer to the entire land of Israel. The name was also employed by many subsequent Roman authors, and from 135 CE the Jews were incorporated into the Roman province of Palestine, a name which has been widely used for the area ever since.

Secondly, in much more recent times, the term “philistine” became a term for an uncultivated person. This arose from the negative portrayal of the Philistines in the Bible. But in fact, as their pottery shows, the Philistines were on a higher cultural level than the Israelites.

Further reading

Bierling, Neal. Giving Goliath his Due: New Archaeological Light on the Philistines. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.
Cline, Eric H. 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014.
Dothan, Trude. The Philistines and their Material Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
Dothan, Trude, and Moshe Dothan. People of the Sea: The Search for the Philistines. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
Ehrlich, Carl S. The Philistines in Transition: A History from ca. 1000-730 BCE. Leiden: Brill, 1996.
Killebrew, Anne E., and Gunnar Lehmann, eds. The Philistines and Other “Sea Peoples” in Text and Archaeology. ABS 15. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.
Landau, Assaf Yassur. The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Brone Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.