Click here to get started today!
Holman Bible Dictionary
The origin and background of the Philistines had not been completely clarified. Ancient Egyptian records include the “prst” as part of a larger movement of people known as the Sea Peoples, who invaded Egypt about 1188 B.C. by land and by sea, battling the forces of Ramses III, who, according to Egyptian records, defeated them. The Sea Peoples, a massive group that originated in the Aegean area, included the Tjeker, the Skekelesh, the Denyen, the Sherden, and the Weshwesh as well as the “prst” or Pelesti, the biblical Philistines. As they moved eastward from the Aegean region, the Sea Peoples made war with people in their path including the Hittites in Anatolia and the inhabitants at sites in North Syria such as those at the site of Ugarit. According to biblical references, the homeland of the Philistines was Caphtor (Amos 9:7; Jeremiah 47:4 ). See Caphtor .
Philistines are first mentioned in the patriarchal stories (Genesis 21:32 ,Genesis 21:32,21:34 ), a reference which some suggest is anachronistic and others suggest refers to the migrations of an Aegean colony in the patriarchal period. The most dramatic phase of Philistine history begins in the period of the Judges when the Philistines were the principal enemy of and the major political threat to Israel. This threat is first seen in the stories of Samson (Judges 13-16 ). The threat intensified as the Philistines encroached on the territory of the tribe of Dan ultimately forcing Dan to move north (Judges 18:11 ,Judges 18:11,18:29 ). The threat reached crisis proportions in the battle of Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4:1-18 ), when the Israelites were soundly defeated and the ark of the covenant, brought over from Shiloh (1 Samuel 4:3-4 ), was captured. During the time of Samuel, the Israelites defeated the Philistines at times (1 Samuel 7:5-11; 1 Samuel 14:16-23 ), but, generally speaking, their advance against the Israelites continued. Saul not only failed to check their intrusion into Israelite territory but in the end lost his life fighting the Philistines at Mount Giboa (1 Samuel 31:1-13 ). David finally checked the Philistine advance at Baal-perazim (2 Samuel 5:17-25 ).
Several features of Philistine life and culture are reflected in the Old Testament. Politically, the Philistines had a highly organized city-state system comprised of five towns in southwest Palestine: Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron (1 Samuel 6:17 ). Each of the city-states was ruled by a “lord” (1 Samuel 6:18 ), a kinglike figure. Gath was perhaps the major city of this Philistine pentahypolis, and as such, served as the hub of the city-state system.
The Philistines were experts in metallurgy, the skill of processing metals (1 Samuel 13:19-23 ). Philistine expertise in this area put the Israelites at a decided disadvantage in their struggles with the Philistines (1 Samuel 13:22 ). See Minerals and Metals .
The Philistines had a highly trained military organization. Sea and land battles between the Egyptians and Sea Peoples are depicted on large panels at the temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu in Thebes. The Philistines were in ships designed with a curved keel and the head of a bird on the bow. Philistine warriors wore a plumed or feathered headdress, a feature which added height to their physical appearance. On land, the Philistines were equipped with horses and chariots, numerous foot soldiers, and archers (1 Samuel 13:5; 1 Samuel 31:3 ). The armor of Philistine soldiers included bronze helmets, coats of mail, leg protectors, spears, and shields (1 Samuel 17:5-7 ). The story of Goliath indicates that at times the Philistines used individual combat (1 Samuel 17:1 ). Most likely, the Philistine warrior went through a cursing ritual just prior to the confrontation (1 Samuel 17:43 ). David, who recognized the military expertise of the Philistines, selected Cherethites (Cretans) and Pelethites (Philistines) (1 Samuel 20:23 ) for his palace guard or mercenary army. This segment of the army provided protection for David and his family during times of revolt. See Arms and Armor .
While our information on Philistine religion is limited, three Philistine gods are mentioned in the Old Testament—Dagon, Ashtoreth, and Baalzebub. Dagon appears to be the chief god of the Philistines. Temples of Dagon were located at Gaza (Judges 16:21-30 ) and Ashdod (1 Samuel 5:1-7 ). Ashtoreth, the fertility goddess of the Canaanites, was most likely adopted by the Philistines. Apparently, the Philistines had Ashtoreth temples at Beth-shan (1 Samuel 31:10 NIV) and, according to Herodotus, at Ashkelon (Herodotus 1:105). Baalzebub, the Philistine god whose name means “lord of the flies,” was the god of Ekron ( 2 Kings 1:1-16 ). Most likely the Philistines worshiped Baalzebub as a god who averted pestilence or plagues.
Archaeological excavations have brought to light many features of the material culture of the Philistines. The distinctive Philistine pottery which reflects styles and designs adopted and adapted from other cultures has been found at many sites. The major types of Philistine pottery are the so-called beer jug with a spouted strainer on the side, the crater bowl, the stirrup jar, and the horn-shaped vessel. The pottery was often decorated with red and black painted designs including geometric designs often consisting of circles and cross halving and stylized birds. Clay coffins were used by the Philistines for burials. These distinctive coffins, called “anthropoid coffins” because they were made in the shape of a human body, had lids decorated with the physical features of the upper part of a human being, features such as a head, arms, and hands.
Recent excavations especially at the sites of Ashdod, tel-Qasile, tel Jemmeh, and tel Mor have added significantly to our understanding of the Philistine culture. The excavations at tel Qasile revealed a Philistine iron smeltery, a Philistine temple, offering stands, and other vessels used in religious rituals as well as many other artifacts and installations. A new series of excavations is under way at Ashkelon. The current excavations will add yet a new dimension to our understanding of the Philistines. The political influence of the Philistines was most prominent between 1200,1000 B.C., but their influence continues through the use of the name Palestine, a name derived from “Philistine.” See Palestine . See Gaza , Gath , Ekron , Ashdod , Ashkelon .
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Philistines, the'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/p/philistines-the.html. 1991.