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Philistine Skeleton fond in Israel on the Leon Levi Expedition


Many of our readers will have heard of Samson and Delilah, and David and Goliath. But who were these Philistines who caused so much trouble for Samson, and through whom the boy David came to fame, by slaying their champion Goliath?

One of the most famous Bible stories:
David slays the Philistine giant Goliath.
Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel

The Philistines are mentioned about 250 times in the Old Testament, and the Biblical record is full of information about Israel's dealings with their antagonistic neighbours. It is the prime recorded historical source, because the Philistines wrote nothing about themselves. They left no literature, not even an inscription. They were good at fighting but not writing it seems! It has even passed into our language that to call someone a Philistine is to accuse them of being uncultured.

It is in the Hebrew Bible that we learn a great deal about the Philistines, and the existence of these ancient peoples is backed up by Egyptian inscriptions and numerous archaeological discoveries. We can read about events involving these people reaching back more than 4,000 years! The Bible is unique in this respect.

Philistine origins

Generally, scholars are of the view that Philistine culture is related to the Aegean islands and Crete, in the Eastern Mediterranean. One theory is that when the Greeks became dominant, they migrated by ship to settle in the coastal plain (see map opposite). The Bible, however, tells us that the Philistines were descended from Casluhim, a son of Misraim, son of Ham, who was a son of Noah (Genesis 10.14). Misraim is called Egypt in modern translations, and Egyptians today call their land Misraim. So it is possible that Casluhim and his brother (or descendant) Caphtorim, also associated with the Philistines, migrated north from Egypt being originators of these coastal peoples, called ‘sea peoples’ by the Egyptians. They settled on the South West Mediterranean coastal strip around Gaza and displaced the original inhabitants (see Deuteronomy 2.23 and Amos 9.7). They may have mixed with migrant peoples and adopted an Eastern Mediterranean culture, for Philistine pottery bears close resemblance to that of the Eastern Mediterranean (see picture below).

Typical bird decoration on a shard of Philistine pottery


The Leon Ley expedition excavated Ashkelon from 1985 to 2016. The discovery of a cemetery at Ashkelon in 2016 ended 30 years of excavations, the object of which was to throw light on the origins of these people. However, analysis of the skeletons showed that there was no pronounced evidence of European heritage. Rather, the DNA profiles in the bones were indistinguishable from the surrounding peoples. This could be taken as evidence to back up the Bible's statement that they were descended from Ham's son, Misraim, and his sons. They were related to the neighbouring

Canaanites, as Canaan was also a son of Ham. Whilst we cannot be certain of this, their precise origin does not really matter for our study. What we do know for certain is that the Philistines were a separate, warlike people, who were for centuries in bitter conflict with Israel.

Philistine and Palestine

The Romans named the whole land of Israel and Judah up to the border of Syria as Palestine, a name which we clearly recognise to this day. The origins of the word are related to the name Philistine. So the conflict between the Palestinian peoples and the Jews today, are a mirror of an ancient animosity reaching back into the mists of time, regarding the occupation of territory!

Where was the Philistine territory?

The Bible records five principal cities which had Philistine rulers. The book of Joshua records the first reference to the five Lords of the Philistines (Joshua 13.3). They ruled over five cities: Gaza, Gath, Ashkelon, Ashdod and Ekron (see map above). This gives us a clear idea of their territory, and reminds us of the modern Gaza Strip, a similar, though smaller area, which is occupied by the Palestinians today.

The Philistines were able to carry out raids on Israel and Judah from their territory on the Mediterranean coast
Map from ""

Gaza Today - same place but different people
Map from "infinite photographs"

Abraham and Isaac

Both Patriarchs had a lot of dealings with the Philistines and spent many years in the coastal plain. Abraham and Isaac at least had a working relationship with a Philistine king, Abimelech, and even made a covenant with him after a dispute over a well of water (Genesis 21.22-34). Later, Isaac retreated there in a time of famine (Genesis 26.1). Water was clearly an issue, as the Philistines had blocked up Abrahams's wells after his death, and Isaac had to re-dig them. But it is not until much later, in the times of the Judges of Israel, that the Philistines came to prominence.

Samson the Judge

The Philistines were one of several surrounding nations to expand their borders into Israel’s tribal lands during the turmoil of the Judges period. Those five Lords were a continual thorn in their side, and the Book of Judges tells us why:

"Then the children of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the people of Ammon, and the gods of the Philistines; and they forsook the LORD and did not serve him. So the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel; and he sold them into the hands of the Philistines and into the hands of the people of Ammon".

  • Judges 10.6,7

This is the reason God raised up Judges to deliver Israel and used the strengths and weaknesses of the mighty Samson, aided by the Spirit of the Lord, to fulfil the divine purpose. It was like a personal crusade that Samson carried out over a 20-year period, during which much Philistine blood was spilled. Only certain aspects of his life are recorded for us, specifically his victories over the Philistines. Read for yourselves Samson’s exploits in Judges chapters 14-16.

Although Samson’s mission was divinely arranged, it was his weakness for Philistine women that led to his final imprisonment at Gaza by those very people he had fought all his life on Israel’s behalf. However, the final act of the now blind Samson was to destroy the temple of the false Philistine god, Dagon. He prayed for strength to do this, and sacrificed himself in the process, to deliver his own people from their oppression (Judges 16.23-30).

We cannot help but think of the way in which the Lord Jesus gave his life to deliver his people from sin. There is of course one big difference - Jesus was raised from the dead, but Samson still awaits the day of resurrection. He is listed among those men and women whose names are recorded in the letter to the Hebrews "having obtained a good testimony through faith". (Hebrews 11.32,39).

Saul and David

The Philistine lords play a big part in subsequent events. Saul, the Benjamite, was anointed king over Israel, primarily to deliver his people from the Philistines. We find that the Philistines penetrated deep into Israel’s territory, by reference to the location of various battles fought. Saul himself, and his son Jonathan, David’s friend, lost their lives to the old arch enemy in a battle on Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31.1-6 see landscape photo below).This place is in the very heart of Israel, near the valley of Jezreel, not far from the Jordan river and far away from the coast. It demonstrates the ease with which the military strength of these people wreaked havoc with God’s people.

It is ironic that while Saul was trying to kill David, insanely jealous of his own son-in-law, David had retreated to Philistine territory pretending to be friends with them, whilst secretly carrying out acts against them! But most of the Philistine lords were still suspicious of David's motives, and rightly so! (1 Samuel 29.1-6). David had previously risen to fame as a young and despised youth. He showed remarkable courage when Saul and his army allowed Goliath of Gath to come out day after day and defy the armies of Israel. No-one was taking up the challenge.

Valley of Jezreel and Mount Gilboa

Saul, no doubt, thought that David, equipped merely with a sling and five stones, was about to face certain death. But such was David’s spiritual mind and faith in God, that he uttered this incredibly brave declaration in the face of the terrifying giant:

" . . . you come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you and take your head from you. And this day I will give the carcasses of the camp of the Philistines to the birds of the air and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel.  Then all this assembly shall know that the LORD does not save with sword and spear; for the battle is the LORD's, and he will give you into our hands".

  • 1 Samuel 17. 45-47

So, ultimately, it was left to David, called a man after his (God's) own heart (1 Samuel 13.14), to finally subdue the old enemy. After he succeeded Saul as king, David's military campaigns, in which he expanded and secured all of Israel’s borders, included the suppression of the Philistine lords. The Second Book of Samuel records campaign after campaign that David fought with the Philistines, pushing them back, until they were effectively a vassal state.

The demise of the Philistines

Along with Edom, Moab and Ammon, Philistia succumbed to the onslaught of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylonian armies around 600 BC, when Judah, Israel's southern kingdom itself became a subject people. It disappeared, never again to rise as an independent, recognisable nation. Ezekiel recorded God’s judgement: Thus says the LORD God: "Because the Philistines dealt vengefully and took vengeance with a spiteful heart, to destroy because of the old hatred," therefore thus says the Lord GOD: "I will stretch out my hand against the Philistines, and I will cut off the Cherethites (a Philistine clan) and destroy the remnant of the sea-coast. I will execute great vengeance on them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I lay my vengeance upon them".

  • Ezekiel 25.15-17

Why has Israel survived?

We may well ask, why has Israel survived when many of these minor nations (and the major ones) were lost to history 2,500 years ago? Humanly speaking it should not have happened. Where are the Philistines?

Why did they not make an impact on human history like the Jews? The same can be said of Edom, Moab and Ammon. Where are the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans? This is one of the compelling arguments for accepting the inspiration of the Scriptures, and indeed evidence for the existence of God Himself, and His purpose with the Jews. The Bible is a Jewish book; it records their history, why they came into existence and their destiny. The Prophet Jeremiah wrote under divine inspiration: "For I am with you," says the LORD, "to save you; though I make a full end of all nations where I have scattered you, yet I will not make a complete end of you".

  • Jeremiah 30.11

This is undeniably true - Israel still exists!

The promises God made to Abraham and David apply to Israel, the promised land. They will be fulfilled in their entirety in the kingdom age after the return of the Lord Jesus Christ. In that day, all nations of the earth will be blessed, as Abraham was promised (Genesis 12.3).

Philistine captives after an unsuccessful invasion of Egypt. Relief from Rameses III’s mortuary temple at Medinet Habu, Thebes.
From Werner Forman Archive/Heritage-images
Justin Giles
London, UK

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