Who Were the Philistines?

Peleset / Philistine prisoners of war - Medinet Habu tomb - Egypt |  Archaeology, Lion sculpture, Archaeological discoveries

“Peleset” POWs depicted at Ramses III’s temple: very likely, Philistines

Samson, Saul, David–the Philistines loom large in the lives of these Biblical heroes. They were Israel’s hereditary enemies. And we know from Babylonian inscriptions that Nebuchadnezzar brought the Philistines’ country and history to an end in 604 B.C.

Were they the “Peleset”–one of the “Sea Peoples” who helped destroy Eastern Mediterranean civilization in the 12th century B.C.? Ramses III defeated them in battle and had his temple decorated with their pictures (above). Note the headdresses.

But who were the Philistines? Where did they come from, and what language did they speak? Studies of human remains in an ancient Philistine cemetery at Ashkelon suggests that originally the first Philistines might have come either from continental Europe or from islands in the Aegean Sea.

We have distinctive Philistine pottery, but no Philistine literature. They weren’t big on leaving informative inscriptions for posterity. Most of what we know about them comes from the Bible. The only times the Assyrians and Babylonians mentioned Philistines was when they conquered them.

By David’s time, Hebrews and Philistines had been neighbors long enough to understand each other’s language and occasionally cooperate: King David had loyal Philistines in his army, and once himself served as a mercenary to a lord of the Philistines.

And that’s pretty much that–except for warnings by some of the prophets, notably Isaiah, that judgment day for the Philistines was coming sooner than you’d think.

So much gets lost as three or four thousand years roll by! If it were not for the Bible, the Philistines would probably not be remembered at all, by anyone.

They were mighty once, and they trusted in their strength. But now they’re gone.

10 comments on “Who Were the Philistines?

  1. The Philistines were certainly a prominent influence in the ancient Levant. I’ve heard that they were a branch of the Phoenicians, but it’s hard to say waist how some of these ancient people groups came to have distinct lineages. So we have little to go on, except the Bible and archaeological discoveries. It fascinates me that their boundaries match quite closely with the modern-day Gaza Strip.

    1. Some scholars believe the Philistines were a small colony of Europeans or Minoans who intermarried with native semitic peoples in the area–but their pottery remained distinctive.

    2. The history of people groups and their origins is hard to pin down. DNA has revealed some interesting things, but who knows. I am coming to believe that in ancient times there was more travel and communications than is popularly thought. Artifacts seem to crop up which suggest, at the very least, that there were cultural commonalities between people in far flung places. Are these echoes of the Babel dispersion, or was there communication between the eastern and western hemispheres, long before Columbus, and possibly long before the Vikings? We know that the Minoans were some of the earliest “Europeans”, but that doesn’t mean that they stayed put in Greece. The entire Mediterranean was a beehive of cultural and economic activity.

      I watched a fairly lengthy series of videos produced by Answers in Genesis, which dealt with DNA research. Basically, if you look at DNA with a 6,000 year timeline of human history, the conclusions drawn will be quite different, than if you look at this data with a long-term, evolutionary time scale. According to these videos, it’s quite possible that some remote parts of the earth were not settled until relatively recently, perhaps the last 1,000 years or so.

      There were apparently great civilizations in Central and South America that left behind stone structures, but little in the way of history. Like so many places, we simply do not know what really happened there. One thing that seems common is the fact that many of these civilizations practiced forms of worship that involved human sacrifice. It may be that God pulled the plug on some of these people.

  2. Yes, and some scholars believe they were progenitors of the present day “palestinians”, who took the name because Rome named Israel Palestine. Interesting- hard to prove.

    1. The connection between the words “Philistine” and “Palestine” goes back farther than that. Isaiah uses the term “Palestina.”
      So much knowledge gets lost as time goes by!

  3. Now the Philistines live on in the currency of the English language. A philistine is someone lacking in appreciation for art or culture. Too bad Goliath’s generation didn’t build things that archeologists could find a thousand years later.

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