Philistines - fi-lisŽtinz, filŽis-tīnz, filŽis-tinz

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia


(פּלשׁתּים, pelishtīm; Φυλιστείν, Phulistieím, ἀλλόφυλοι, allóphuloi):
1. Race and Origin
2. Religion
3. Individual Philistines Mentioned
4. Title of Ruler and Circumcision
5. History in the Old Testament to Death of Saul
6. History Continued to Time of Ahaz
7. Later Notices
1. Palestinian Excavations
2. Egyptian Monuments
3. Assyrian Texts
1. Cherethim and Kretes
2. Caphtor and Keft
1. The “Cherethi” and the “Pelethi” Not Mercenaries
2. Meaning of These Terms
3. Native Hebrews
4. Review

I. Old Testament Notices.

1. Race and Origin:

The Philistines were an uncircumcised people inhabiting the shore plain between Gezer and Gaza in Southwestern Palestine (see PHILISTIA). The name Palestine itself (Hebrew pelesheth) refers to their country. The word means “migrants,” and they came from another country. They are noticed 286 times in the Old Testament, and their country 8 times. The question of their race and origin is of great importance as affecting the genuine character and reliability of the Bible notices. In Gen_10:14 (1Ch_1:12) they are reckoned with other tribes in Mizraim (Egypt) as descendants of Ham, and as cousins of the old inhabitants of Babylonia (Gen_10:6). They are said to be a branch of the Casluhim - an unknown people - or, according to Septuagint, of the Casmanim, which would mean “shavers of the head” - a custom of the Phoenicians (forbidden to Hebrews as a rule), as known from a picture of the time of Thothmes III in the 16th century BC. They are also connected with the Caphtorim or people of Caphtor, whence indeed they are said to have come (Jer_47:4; Amo_9:7). Caphtor was a “shoreland,” but its position is doubtful (see Deu_2:23); the Caphtorim found an earlier race of Avim living in “enclosures” near Gaza, and destroyed them. In the Septuagint of this passage (and in Amo_9:7) Cappadocia stands for Caphtor (Kaphtor), and other versions have the same reading. Cappadocia was known to the Assyrians as kat-pat-uka (probably an Akkadian term - “land of the Kati”), and the Kati were a people living in Cilicia and Cappadocia, which region had a Semitic population side by side with Mengels (see HITTITES) at least as early as the time of Moses. It is very likely therefore that this reading is correct.

2. Religion:

According to the Old Testament and monuments alike, the Philistines were a Semitic people, and they worshipped two Babylonian gods, Dagon (1Sa_5:2) and Ashtaroth (1Sa_31:10), both of whom were adored very early in Babylonia, both, however, having names of Akkadian and not of Semitic origin. In Semitic speech Dagon meant “grain,” and was so understood in the time of Philo of Gebal, a Greek-Phoenician writer who attributes the art of grain-growing to this deity. But the original name was Da-gān, and in Akkadian da is “the upper part of a man,” and gān (Turkish ḳaan) probably means “a large fish.” The new man deity was well known to the Assyrians, and is represented in connection with Sennacherib's worship of Ea, the sea-god, when he embarked on the Persian Gulf. Thus Dagon was probably a title of Ea (“the water spirit”), called by Berosus Oannes (u-ḥa-na, “lord of the fish”), and said to have issued from this same gulf. We consequently read that when the statue of Dagon at Ashdod fell (1Sa_5:4), its head and hands were broken off, and only “the great fish” was left. In 1874 the present writer found a seal near Ashdod representing a bearded god (as in Babylonia) with a fish tail (see DAGON). As to Ashtoreth, who was adored in Philistia itself, her name is derived from the Akkadian Ishtar (“light maker”), a name for the moon-goddess and - later - for the planet Venus. See ASHTORETH.

3. Individual Philistines Mentioned:

The Philistines had reached Gerar by the time of Abraham, and it was only in the age of the Hyksos rulers of the Delta that Canaanite tribes could be described as akin, not only to Babylonians, but also to certain tribes in Egypt, a circumstance which favors the antiquity of the ethnic chapter, Gen 10. We have 9 Philistine names in the Old Testament, all of which seem to be Semitic, including Abimelech - “Moloch is my father” - (Gen 20:2-18; Gen_21:22-32; Gen_26:8-11) at Gerar, Southeasat of Gaza, Ahuzzath (“possession,” Gen_26:26), and Phicol (of doubtful meaning), with Delilah (“delicate,” Jdg_16:4), Goliath (probably the Babylonian galu, “great”), and Saph (2Sa_21:18), perhaps meaning “increase.” These two brothers were sons of Raphah (“the tall”); but Ishbi-benob (2Sa_21:16), another of the family, perhaps only means “the dweller in Nob” (Beit Nûba, North of Gezer). The king of Gath in David's time was Achish (“the gift” in Bah), who (1Sa_27:2) was the son of Maoch, “the oppressor.” According to Septuagint, Jonathan killed a Philistine named Nasib (1Sa_13:3, 1Sa_13:4, where the King James Version reads “a garrison”). If this is correct the name (meaning “a pillar”) would also be Semitic.

4. Title of Ruler and Circumcision:

Besides these personal names, and those of the cities of Philistia which are all Semitic, we have the title given to Philistine lords, ṣeren, which Septuagint renders “satrap” and “ruler,” and which probably comes from a Semitic root meaning “to command.” It constantly applies to the rulers of Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron, the 5 chief cities of Philistia. The fact that the Philistines were uncircumcised does not prove that they were not a Semitic people. Herodotus (ii. 104) says that the Phoenicians acknowledged that they took this custom from the Egyptians, and the Arabs according to this passage were still uncircumcised, nor is it known that this was a custom of the Babylonians and Assyrians. The Septuagint translators of the Pentateuch always render the name Phulistieim, and this also is found in 8 passages of Joshua and Judges, but in the later books the name is translated as meaning “strangers” throughout, because they were not the first inhabitants of Philistia.

5. History in the Old Testament Until Death of Saul:

The Philistines conquered the “downs” (gelīlōth, Joe_3:4) near the seacoast, and were so powerful at the time of the Hebrew conquest that none of their great towns were taken (Jos_13:3; Jdg_3:3). By the time of Samson (about 1158 BC) they appear as oppressors of Israel for 40 years (Jdg_13:1; Jdg_15:20), having encroached from their plains into the Shephēlāh (or low hills) of Judah, at the foot of the mountains. Delilah was a Philistine woman, living in the valley of Sorek, close to Samson's home. In the last year of Eli (1Sa_4:1) we find the Philistines attacking the mountains near Mizpeh, where they captured the ark. Samuel drove them back and placed his monument of victory between Mizpeh and Jeshanah (Shen; see the Septuagint; 1Sa_7:12) on the mountain ridge of Benjamin. He even regained towns in the Shephēlāh as far as Ekron and Gath (1Sa_7:14); but at the opening of Saul's reign (1Sa_10:5) the Philistines had a “garrison” at Gibeah - or a chief named Hasib according to Septuagint. They raided from this center (1Sa_13:17-23) in all directions, and prevented the Hebrews from arming themselves, till Jonathan drove them from Michmash (1 Sam 14:1-47). David's victory (1Sa_17:2) was won in the Valley of Elah East of Gath, and the pursuit (1Sa_17:52) was as far as Ekron. We here read that the Philistine champion wore armor of bronze (1Sa_17:4-7), his spear head being of iron. They still invaded the Shephēlāh after this defeat, robbing the threshing-floors of Keilah (1Sa_23:1) near Adullam at the foot of the Hebron Mountains (see 1Sa_23:27; 1Sa_24:1). David's band of outlaws gradually increasing from 400 to 600 men (1Sa_22:2; 1Sa_27:2), being driven from the Hebrew lands, accompanied him to Gath, which is usually placed at Tell es-Ṣâfi, at the point where the Valley of Elah enters the Philistine plain. It appears that Achish, king of Gath, then ruled as far South as Ziklag (Jos_15:31; 1Sa_27:6) in the Beersheba plains; but he was not aware of the direction of David's raids at this distance. Achish supposed David to be committed to his cause (1Sa_27:12), but the Philistine lords suspected him and his Hebrew followers (1Sa_29:3) when going up to Jezreel.

6. History Continued to Time of Ahaz:

After they had killed Saul, we hear no more of them till the 8th year of David, when, after taking Jerusalem, he apparently went down to Adullam (2Sa_5:17) and fell upon them in their rear as they advanced on his capital. He then destroyed their supremacy (2Sa_8:1) as far as Gezer (1Ch_20:4), and the whole of Philistia was subject to Solomon (1Ki_4:21), though not long after his death they seem to have held the town of Gibbethon (1Ki_15:27; 1Ki_16:15) in the hills of Dan. Hezekiah smote the Philistines as far as Gaza (2Ki_18:8) before 702 BC, in which year (according to the Taylor cylinder) Sennacherib made Hezekiah deliver up Padii, king of Ekron, who had been carried prisoner to Jerusalem. The accounts in Chronicles refer to David's taking Gath (1Ch_18:1), which was recovered later, and again taken by Uzziah (2Ch_26:6). The Philistines sent gifts to Jehoshaphat (2Ch_17:11), but invaded the Shephēlāh (2Ch_28:18) in the time of Ahaz.

7. Later Notices:

In this age the “lords” of the 5 cities of Philistia are called “kings,” both in the Bible and on Assyrian monuments. Isaiah (Isa_2:6) speaks of Philistine superstitions, Ezekiel (Eze_25:15, Eze_25:16) connects them with the Cherethim on the seacoast. They still held Gath in the time of Amos (Amo_6:2), and Gaza, Ashdod and Ekron in that of Zephaniah (Zep_2:5), who again mentions the Cherethim with Philistines, as inhabitants of Canaan or the “lowlands.” The last notice (Zec_9:6) still speaks of kings in Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron and Ashdod at a time when the Ionians had become known in Judah (Zec_9:13); but the Philistines are unnoticed by Ezra or Nehemiah, unless we suppose that the “speech of Ashdod” (Neh_13:24) was their old dialect, which appears - like the language of the Canaanites in general in earlier times - to have resembled that of the Babylonians and Assyrians, and to have thus differed - though Semitic - from the Hebrews.

Their further history is embraced in that of the various cities to which reference can be made under the articles pertaining to them.

II. Monumental Notices.

1. Palestinian Excavations:

These are of great importance, because they confirm the Old Testament statements from a time at least as early as that of Moses, and down to 670 BC. Recent excavations at Gezer show the early presence of two races at this Philistine city, one being Semitic, the other probably Egyptian Scarabs as old as the XIIth Dynasty were found, and in the 15th century BC Gezer was held by Amenophis III. At Lachish also seals of this king and his queen have been found, with a cuneiform letter to Zimridi, who was ruler of the city under the same Pharaoh. At Gaza a temple was built by Amenophis II. The names of places in Philistia noticed yet earlier by Thothmes III are all Semitic, including Joppa, Saphir, Gerar, Gezer, etc. In the Tell el-Amarna Letters we have also (about 1480 BC) letters from chiefs subject to Amenophis III at Joppa, Ashkelon, Gezer, Lachish and Keilah which show us a Semitic population, not only by the language of these letters, but also by the names of the writers. In the case of Ashkelon especially the Semitic rulers are found to have worshipped Dagon; and, though the name “Philistine” does not occur, the race was clearly the same found by the Assyrians in 800 BC in the land of Palastan beside the Great Sea. These names include Yamir-Dagān (“Dagon sees”), Dagāntakala (“Dagon is a protection”) and Yadaya (the “grateful”) at Ashkelon; Bua (“asked for”), son of the woman Gulata, at Joppa; Yabnilu (“God made”), at Lachish, with Zimridi - a name found also in Sabean Arabic; while, at Gezer, Yapa'a represents the Biblical Japhia (Jos_10:3), and Milkilu (“Moloch is king”) the Hebrew Malchiel. Others might be added of the same character, but these examples are enough to show that, in the time of Moses and Joshua, the population of Philistia was the same that is noticed in the Old Testament as early as Abraham's age.

2. Egyptian Monuments:

When therefore scholars speak of the Philistines as being non-Semitic - and probably Āryan - invaders of the country, arriving about 1200 BC, they appear not only to contradict the Bible, but also to contradict the monumental evidence of the earlier existence of Semitic Dagon- worshippers at Ashkelon. In this later age Rameses III was attacked, in Egypt, by certain northern tribes who came by sea, and also by land, wasting first the country of the Hittites and Amorites. Among them were the Danau, who were probably Greek Danai. They were exterminated in the Delta, and in the subsequent advance of Rameses III to the Euphrates. On a colored picture they are represented as fair people; and two of the tribes were called Pūrstau and Takarri, whom Chabas supposed to be Pelasgi (since l and r are not distinguished in Egyptian) and Teucrians. These two tribes wear the same peculiar headdress. Brugsch supposed the former to be Philistines (Geog., I, 10), but afterward called them Purosata (Hist Egypt, II, 148). The inscriptions accompanying the picture on the temple walls say that they came from the north, and “their home was in the land of the Purstau, the Takarri,” etc. There is thus no reason at all to suppose that they were Philistines, nor did they ever settle in Philistia.

3. Assyrian Texts:

The Assyrian texts agree with those already mentioned in making the inhabitants of Philistia Semitic. Rimmon-nirari, about 800 BC, was the first Assyrian conqueror in Palastau (“by the great sea”). In 734 and 727 BC, Tiglath-pileser attacked the Pilisti, and mentions a king of Ashkelon named Mitinti (“my gift”), and his son Rukufti whose name resembles that of the Kenite called Rechab in the Old Testament. The name of the king of Gaza was Chanun, or “merciful.” In 711 BC Sargon took Ashdod, and speaks of its king Azuri, whose name recalls the Amorite Aziru, and of Aḥimiti (“a brother is sent”), and the usurper Yamanu (“stedfast”), who fled before him. Sennacherib, in 702 BC, gives the names of cities in Philistia (including Eltekeh and Beneberak near Joppa) which are Semitic. He notices Ṣidḳa (Zadok) of Ashkelon, and also Sarludari (“the Lord be praised”), son of Rukubti in the same city, with Mitinti of Ashdod, and Padii (“redeeming”) of Ekron, while Ṣil-b'el (“Baal is a protection”) was king of Gaza. In 679 BC Esarhaddon speaks of Ṣilli-b'el (“Baal is my protection”) of Gaza, with Mitinti of Ashkelon, Ika-samsu (“the sun-god is manifest”) of Ekron, and Abi-milki of Ashdod, who bore the ancient Philistine name Abimelech. In 670 BC, when Assur-bani-pal set up many tributary kings in Egypt, we find again the name Sarludari applied to a ruler of Pelusium, who may have been a Philistine. It is thus abundantly clear that the monumental notices all agree with the Old Testament as to the names and nationality of the Philistines, and as to their worship of Baal and Dagon; the conjecture that they were Āryan foreigners, arriving in 1200 BC, is not based on any statement of the monuments, but merely rests on a guess which Brugsch subsequently abandoned. It resembles many other supposed discrepancies between Biblical and contemporary records due to the mistakes of modern commentators.

III. The Cretan Theory.

1. Cherethim and Kretes:

This strange theory, which is apparently of Byzantine origin, would make the Philistines come from Crete. It still finds supporters, though it does not rest on any Biblical or monumental evidence. The Ḥerethim (Eze_25:16; Zep_2:5) were a Semitic people named with the Philistines in Canaan. The Septuagint renders the word with Krētēs or Krētoi; and, about 1770 AD, Michaelis (Spicil., I, 292-308) argued that this meant “Cretans,” and that the Philistines therefore came from Caphtor, which must be Crete. The passages, however, refer to Philistia and not to any island, and the Septuagint translators, as we have seen, placed Caphtor in Cappadocia. The Cherethi - in the singular - is mentioned (1Sa_30:14) as a people of Philistia (1Sa_30:16), near Ziklag, and their name probably survives at the present town called Keratîyeh in the Philistine plain.

Yet, many theories are founded on this old idea about the Cherethites. Some suppose that Tacitus confused the Jews with the Philistines as having come from Crete; but what he actually says (History v. 11) is that “the Jews ran away from Crete,” and “the inhabitants are named Idaci (from Mount Ida), which, with a barbarous augment, becomes the name of the Judaei.” This absurd derivation shows at least that Tacitus did not mean the Philistines. Stephen of Byzantium said that the god Marna at Gaza was like the Cretan Jove. Probably he had seen the huge statue of a seated Jove found near Gaza, and now at Constantinople, but this is late Greek work, and the name Marna (“our lord”) is Semitic. Stephen also thought that Minois - the port of Gaza - was named from the Cretan Minos, but it is an Arabic word Míneh, for “harbor,” still applying to the same place.

2. Caphtor and Keft:

No critical student is likely to prefer these later speculations to our present monumental information, even without reference to the contradiction of the Bible. Yet these blunders have given rise to the supposition that Caphtor is to be identified with a region known to the Egyptians as Keft, with inhabitants called Kefau. The latter are represented in a tomb of the XVIIIth Dynasty near Thebes. They are youths of brown color, with long black hair, and the same type is found in a Cypriote figure. They are connected with islanders of the “green sea,” who may have lived in Arvad or in Cyprus; but there is no evidence in any written statement that they were Cretans, though a figure at Knossos in Crete somewhat resembles them. There are many indications that this figure - painted on the wall of the later palace - is not older than about 500 BC, and the Sidonians had colonies in Crete, where also pottery is found just like that marked by a Phoenician inscription in Cyprus. The Kefau youths bring vases as presents, and these - in all their details - are exactly the same as those represented in another picture of the time of Thothrues III, the bearers in this case being Ḥarri from North Syria, represented with black beards and Semitic features. Moreover, on the bilingual inscription called the Decree of Canopus (238 BC), the Keft region is said to be “Phoenicia,” and the Greek translator naturally knew what was meant by his Egyptian colleague. Keft in fact is a Semitic word for “palm,” occurring in Hebrew (Isa_9:14; Isa_19:15), and thus applicable to the “palm”-land, Phoenicia. Thus, even if Keft were related to Caphtor, the evidence would place the Philistine home on the Phoenician shores, and not in Crete. There is indeed no evidence that any European race settled near the coasts of Palestine before about 680 BC, when Esarhaddon speaks of Greek kings in Cyprus. The Cretan theory of Michaelis was a literary conjecture, which has been disproved by the results of exploration in Asia.

IV. David's Guards.

1. The “Cherethi” and the “Pelethi” Not Mercenaries:

Another strange theory, equally old, represents David as being surrounded with foreign mercenaries - Philistines and Carians - as Rameses II employed mercenaries called Shairtanau from Asia Minor. The suggestion that the Cherethites were of this race is scarcely worth notice, since the Hebrew letter kāph ()כ is never represented by sh in Egyptian. David's band of Hebrew exiles, 400 in number, followed him to Gath where 200 Gittites joined him (2Sa_15:18). In later times his army consisted of “the Cherethi” (kerēthī, in the singular) and “the Pelethi” (pelēthī), commanded by the Hebrew leader Benaiah, son of Jehoiada (2Sa_8:18; 2Sa_15:18; 2Sa_20:7; 1Ki_1:38, 1Ki_1:44), together with the Gittites under Ittai of Gath. These guards are never said to have been Philistines, but “the Cherethi” is supposed to mean one of the Cherethim tribe, and “the Pelethi” to be another name for the Philistine. As regards the Gittites, the fact that they came from Gath does not prove that they were Philistines, any more than was David himself because he came back from this city. David calls Ittai an “enemy” and an “exile,” but it is probable that he was the same hero, so named (2Sa_23:29), who was the son of Ribai from Gibeah of Benjamin. He had himself not long joined David, being no doubt in exile at Gath, and his tribe at first opposed David, taking the side of their tribesman Saul. Even when Ittai's men joined the Cherethi and Pelethi against Absalom, they were naturally suspected; for David still had enemies (2Sa_15:5-13) among Benjamites of Saul's house. It is also surely impossible to suppose that David would have left the ark in charge of a Phili; and Obed-edom the Gittite (2Sa_6:10) was a Levite, according to a later account (1Ch_15:18), bearing a Hebrew name, meaning perhaps “servant of men,” or “humble worshipper.” It seems equally unlikely that, in later times, a pious priest like Jehoiada (2Ki_11:4) would have admitted foreign mercenaries into the temple. In this passage they are called kārī, as also in 2Sa_20:23, where the Septuagint has Cherethi. The suggestion of Wellhausen that they were Carians does not seem probable, as Carians had not even reached Egypt before about 600 BC.

2. Meaning of These Terms:

The real explanation of these various words for soldiers seems simple; and David - being a very popular king - is not likely to have needed foreign mercenaries; while the Philistines, whom he had so repeatedly smitten, were very unlikely to have formed trusty guards. The word “Cherethi” (kerēthī) means a “smiter” or a “destroyer,” and “Pelethi” (pelēthī) means “a swift one” or “pursuer.” In the time of Joash the temple-guards are called kārī (2Ki_11:4, 2Ki_11:19, Carites), which the Septuagint treats as either singular or plural, and rācīm or “runners” (see 1Sa_22:17; 1Ki_14:27, 1Ki_14:28; 2Ki_10:25), these two bodies perhaps answering to the Cherethi and Pelethi of David's time; for kārī means “stabber.” The term rācīm, or “runners,” is however of general application, since Jehu also had troops so called (2Ki_10:25). Evidently we have here two classes of troops - as among the Romans - the heavier regiment of “destroyers,” or “stabbers,” being armed with swords, daggers or spears; while the “swift ones” or “runners” pursued the defeated foe. Thus, in Egypt we find, yet earlier, the ax-man supported by the bow-man in regular regiments; and in Assyria the spear-man with heavy shields defending the bow-man. We have also a picture of the time of Tiglath-pileser II representing an Assyrian soldier on a camel. The Pelethi or “pursuers” may have been “runners” on foot, but perhaps more probably mounted on camels, or on horses like the later Assyrians; for in the time of Solomon (1Ki_4:28) horses and riding camels were in use - the former for chariots. It is clear that David's band, leaving the vicinity of Jezreel (1Sa_29:1; 1Sa_30:1), could not have reached Ziklag “on the third day” (a distance of 120 miles) on foot; so that the camel corps must have existed even before the death of Saul.

3. Native Hebrews:

These considerations seem to make it evident that David's guards were native Hebrews, who had been with him as exiles and outlaws at Adullam and Gath, and that the Cherethi or “destroyer” only accidentally had a title like that of the Philistine tribe of “destroyers” or Cherethim, who were not Cretans, it would seem, any more than the “stabbers” were Carians.

4. Review:

The general result of our inquiry is, that all monumental notices of the Philistines agree with the Old Testament statements, which make them to be a Semitic people who had already migrated to Philistia by the time of Abraham, while the supposed discrepancies are caused by the mistakes made by a commentator of the 18th century, and by archaeologists of later times.

Taken from: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia by James Orr, M.A., D.D., General Editor