Understanding the Philistines: An Overview and Definition

These Ancient Peoples Played Key Role in David and Goliath Battle

United Monarchy in Israel
United Monarchy showing Philistia, the area of the Philistines. www.bible.ca

Drawing from Egyptian and Assyrian stories as well as the Hebrew Bible, we know that the Philistines are the inhabitants of the region of Philistia. The Philistines are most familiar with the Biblical story of David and Goliath, where the Philistines, neighbors of Israel, are fighting the men of King Saul, including the future King David. They also appear in the story of Samson and Delila where the relevant Biblical books about the Philistines are Judges, Kings and Samuel. Discover where the Philistines lived, their connection to the Sea Peoples and what we really know about their history.

Where They Lived

The Philistines lived in a coastal strip between the Mediterranean and the land of Israel and Judah known as Philistia, a reference to the land of the Five Lords of the Philistines in the south-western Levant. Today, these areas occupy Israel, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. According to the Hebrew Bible, the Philistines were in a continuous struggle with the Israelites, Canaanites and Egyptians surrounding them. Three major cities of the Philistines were Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Gaza, where the temple of Dagon was located. The ancient deity, Dagon, is known as the national god of the Philistines and has been known to be worshiped as a fertility god.

The Philistines and Sea Peoples

Egyptian records from the 12th-13th centuries B.C. mention the Philistines in connection with the Sea Peoples. Due to their similar maritime history, their association with each other is strong. The Sea Peoples were a confederacy of naval raiders who were assumed to have moved in the eastern Mediterranean areas during the Bronze Age. It has been theorized that the Sea Peoples were originally Etruscan, Italian, Mycenaen or Minoan. As a group, they primarily focused their efforts on attacking Egypt during 1200-900 BCE.

What We Really Know

Archeologists are challenged when it comes to understanding the history of the Philistines due to the lack of texts and artifacts left by them. A lot of what is known today is due to who they have encountered. For example, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramses III mentioned the Philistines during his reign in 1184-1153 B.C saying that "the Philistines were made ashes" by Egyptian forces, but modern-day scholars tend to disagree with this notion.

Here are some facts about the Philistines:

  • Breweries and wineries were found in Ancient Philistine ruins. The Philistines produced and consumed alcoholic beverages like beer and wine.
  • Known for their innovative use of iron, the Philistines used this superior material to bronze, which was used by the Israelites for weaponry and more. This allowed the Philistines to be invincible on the battlefield.
  • In the 8th-7th century B.C., starting with Tilgath-Pileser III, the Assyrians rule in Philistia. In 604 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Philistine cities of Ashdod, Akron and Ashkelon.
  • A tiny pottery shard with an engraving containing two names that linguistically resembles "Goliath" was found in the ruins of Gath in late 2005, establishing the history of the biblical Goliath story.

Source: Philistine Iconography: A Wealth of Style and Symbolism, by David Ben-Shlomo

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Gill, N.S. "Understanding the Philistines: An Overview and Definition." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, learnreligions.com/the-philistines-117390. Gill, N.S. (2021, December 6). Understanding the Philistines: An Overview and Definition. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/the-philistines-117390 Gill, N.S. "Understanding the Philistines: An Overview and Definition." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/the-philistines-117390 (accessed April 2, 2023).