By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament


I'm interested in knowing more about the Philistines. Who are their descendants and where would they be located? Are the present-day Palestinians descendants from the ancient Philistines?


The Philistines were Israel's nemesis for, literally, hundreds of years. Their origin is still in doubt, but most scholars agree that they were not indigenous to the area. Most assume that they were part of the great migration of people that occurred around 1200 BCE. At that time, both Egypt and the Hittites were politically and militarily weak. It is not known whether the Philistines were instrumental in bringing this about, or whether they simply took advantage of the situation. Some scholars have suggested that they were a warring people from day one, but there may have been other reasons necessitating such a move – like climate changes, which could have resulted in drought and food shortages. Whatever the reason, there was a huge movement of people who decided they had to leave their homes and move someplace else, to look for a better life. The Philistines, along with a whole federation of other tribes, came by sea and attacked lands previously subject to Egyptian and Hittite rule.

The Egyptians documented these battles and claimed that in the eighth year, Ramesses III of the Twentieth Dynasty (ca. 1180-1150 B.C.E.) finally prevailed over them. He first brought the imprisoned "Sea Peoples" to Egypt, but ultimately they were allowed to settle on the southern coast of Palestine, in an area that would become known as Philistia. Again, it is not clear whether he "allowed" them to do this, or if he was unable to stop them from settling there. These Egyptian annals are credited with dubbing them as the "Sea Peoples." Later on, the Greeks would name this area Palestine from the word "Philistia."

Because of this moniker, scholars know they came by sea, but from where is open to debate. Amos writes that the Philistines were brought up from "Caphtor." (See Amos 9:7) Jeremiah adds that the "lord will spoil the Philistines, the remnant of the country of Caphtor." (See Jer 47:4) Most scholars have identified the land of Caphtor with Cyprus and Crete. But they could have come from farther north and simply passed through these areas on their way southward. The cultural evidence suggests they were from the Mycenean world around mainland Greece. Once they settled in the area, the Philistines formed a confederation of five cities (Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron), each governed by its "lord."

In the beginning, they brought many unique aspects of their culture (such as Aegean style pottery, cultic objects and architecture, superior iron weaponry, and political organization). Unfortunately, they left behind no written texts and only a handful of known Philistine words. But within 150 years of their arrival, they were so assimilated into the surrounding cultures that their uniqueness all but disappears.

Though defeated by the Egyptians, the Philistines were a powerful force against the emerging Israelite nation. The first recorded battle took place in the 11th century B.C.E. The ongoing tension is recorded in the books of Judges and Samuel. The biblical stories of Samson, Samuel, Saul, and David are replete with stories of Philistine-Israelite conflicts. In fact, some believe that the primary reason Israel insisted upon having a king was to respond to the Israelite tribes' inability to effectively deal with the Philistines. At the time of Saul's death, the Philistines were at the height of their power. During this time, they made frequent incursions against the Hebrew people, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. But their prowess was challenged and their might rapidly declined during the years of King David. They were assimilated by the Assyrians, compliments of Tiglath-pileser, in 734 B.C. Concurrently, they became an important part of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Through all this, they were still able to retain a distinct ethnic and cultural identity. But eventually they were conquered by the Babylonians (ca. 604 BCE), which brought an end to their culture. Later on, the area became part of the Persian Empire, and in Roman times, it was annexed to the province of Syria. Ironically, we know this whole area now by the familiar title of Palestine – named for the detested enemies of the Israelites. This title was used from the mid-Roman period onward as the overall name for the land of Israel.

The ancient Philistines have long been a focus of historical and archaeological study. During the past two decades, archaeologists have discovered and been able to excavate several of the major Philistine cities -- Ashdod, Ashkelon and Ekron. It is anticipated that continued discoveries will reveal even more data on a very fascinating culture.

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