The Philistines

For about four hundred years, from the Israelite invasion of Canaan in c.1406BC until the expansion of Israel’s boundaries under King David around 1000BC, the southern coastal plain cities of Gaza, Gath, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron became the stronghold of Philistine kings. The Philistines – like the Phoenicians who inhabited the coastal plain further north around Tyre and Sidon – were ‘sea peoples’ who had sailed across the Mediterranean from Cyprus and Crete (‘Caphtor’ – see Amos 9:7), the Peloponnese, and the islands of the Aegean. As allies of the local ‘superpower’, Egypt, the Philistines used the latest weapon – iron chariots – to defend the Via Maris, the highly lucrative trading route along the coastal plain from Egypt to Mesopotamia.

While the Israelites conquered most of the city-states in the central hill country of Canaan (where the terrain favoured surprise attacks and hand-to-hand fighting), they were less successful in defeating the kingdoms of the Mediterranean coastal plain. Here, the technologically more advanced Philistines deployed their fast-moving chariots to protect the prosperous cities (see Joshua 13:1-3).

During the time of the ‘Judges’, the Israelites and Philistines frequently clashed, with the Philistines often becoming dominant and demanding subservience from the Israelites. In c.1081BC, Samson became an inspirational leader of Israel for twenty years at the beginning of a seventy-year period of Philistine rule. He is reputed to have killed a thousand Philistines with the jawbone of a donkey (see Judges 15:11-17).

Some fifty years later, in c.1024BC, the Philistines launched a major attack on the Israelites at Ebenezer. The Israelites suffered a heavy defeat and the Ark of the Covenant was captured. After bringing death and disease to Ashdod, Gath and Ekron, the Ark was eventually returned to the Israelites (see 1 Samuel 4:1-11 & 5:1-12).

Only under the United Monarchy, did the Israelites begin to gain the upper hand when Saul’s son Jonathan defeated a Philistine army at Michmash Pass (see 1 Samuel 13:2-7 & 14:1-23). Shortly afterwards, David killed the Philistine champion, Goliath of Gath, with a slingshot, and the Israelite army pursued the fleeing Philistines all the way to Gath and the gates of Ekron (see 1 Samuel 17:1-52).

When the Philistines killed Saul and his son Jonathan at Mt Gilboa in c.1011BC, David was anointed King of Judah (see 1 Samuel 31:1-10 & 2 Samuel 2:1-4). David was able to establish a strong kingdom as Egypt was militarily weak, probably under the heretic Amarnan pharaoh Akenaten, and was unable to offer protection to its ally, the Philistines. Over the next few years, David was able to defeat the Philistines completely and extend his kingdom (and his authority over neighbouring kings) as far as the River Euphrates.

David’s son, Solomon, completed the downfall of the Philistines by marrying the Egyptian pharaoh Haremheb’s daughter in c.970BC (see 1 Kings 3:1). By making a successful alliance with Egypt, Israel took on the role of Egypt’s ally. The overthrow of the Philistines was celebrated by the building of an Israelite chariot city at Gezer by Solomon in c.947BC (see 1 Kings 10.26-27). As Gezer looked out across the coastal plain, it was the ideal location from which to deploy chariots to defend the lucrative north-south trading route between Egypt and Mesopotamia that had previously been patrolled by Egypt’s former ally – the Philistines.

Today, the legacy of the ‘sea people’ lives on in the name Palestine – derived from the word ‘Philistine’.

Source: The Bible Journey

Philistine gateway and defensive walls at Ashkelon

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