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Philistia was the name of a coastal nation between Egypt and Canaan. Though not a part of Canaan, and never conquered by the Israelites, it seems to have been in the lands promised to Abraham.

The Philistines were on peaceful terms with both Abraham and Isaac, even after Yahweh punished their leadership for sinful behavior. After Joshua's success, the leadership of the Israelites failed to keep the people close to God. Because of this, God would use the Philistines to oppress the Israelites off and on for over four hundred years.


The name of the people was first recorded as the "Philistim" a subgroup of the Casluhim, a Hamite clan. The Casluhim had themselves come out of early Egypt (the founders having descended from Ham).[verse needed] The line from the delta of the Nile to Philistia goes through a barren stretch of desert in the northern Sinai desert. It is this area which these "sons of Misraim" settled. Perhaps the best origin of their name is a form of the verb kasal, meaning "to be foolish."

The name "Philistia" comes from a Hebrew verb palash, meaning to roll, or to wallow. This word is used with dust and ashes as a way to show sorrow [1]. However, a meaning of "to roll" may be a reference to the technological advancement in transportation -- the use of the wheel. By the time of the judges, the Israelites had to face this technology as they were unable to conquer them due to their chariots of iron [2]. Later, in the days of Samuel, the Philistines used a "new cart" to return the ark to Israel [3].

The "rolling" tribes that migrated up the coast found better land, and established a mighty sea-going nation that for a time rivaled that of the Phoenicians. In the time of Moses, the Great Sea was called "the sea of the Philistines" [4]. If the Casluhim drove them out, that parent group was indeed "foolish."



All that is sure from Scripture is that the Philistim, that is the Philistines, came from within the family group of the Casluhim, which came from within the Misraim, further south. This regression back north from Egypt may indicate that the Canaanite tribes had failed to migrate south after having proved superior in some way to their Misraim cousins.

Perhaps the strength of the Hittites had threatened the Egyptians enough for the latter to build a buffer colony in the desert between the two regional "superpowers." The result was the Casluhim and the Philistim. The buffer colony of the Casluhim does not seem to have survived, but the Philistines, with their chariots and super-soldiers (giants like Goliath and his brothers), were very successful.

Patriarchal Encounters[]

Building a nation with a strong maritime presence, they seem to have adopted a fish/man god similar to the later Poseidon or Neptune. The called this god "Dagon." By the time of Abraham, Philistia had established a monarchy with the rulers apparently taking the title Abimelech -- "my father is king." This title was held by the "king" of Gerar, a major city in Philistia, in the time of Abraham. Sixty or so years later, Isaac would have dealings with another man identified simply as "Abimelech" as well.

Abraham had come south from the once fertile fields outside of Sodom soon after God had destroyed that city along with many others in the Jordan valley. Having passed through on his way back from Egypt over a decade before, Abraham remembered the valley of Gerar within central Philistia. He attempted to deceive the leadership there the way he had the Pharaoh. The Abimelech was warned by God of the deceit, leading to a solemn oath between Abraham and the king that no such deceit would happen again[5].

While in Philistia, the promised son, Isaac, was born to Sarah in a baby boon that began after wombs were opened in all of Philistia[6]. All did not go as well as liked, for battles over wells for the flocks escalated to such an extent that he had to beg him to move further away from Gerar. The covenant they made established an oasis at Beersheba, the southernmost town of what would become Israel (and then Judah)[7].

The agreement with the royal family of Philistia was sadly forgotten in the days of the first Abimelech's grandson, for Isaac attempted the same ruse in the case of another famine that had arisen in northern Canaan where the family had moved before Sarah's death. Back in the land of his birth, Isaac received confirmation of the Abrahamic covenant at Gerar in Philistia[8]. However when faced with the perceived danger from the Philistine men, he used the same lie on the foreign leader. This time, the king kept an eye on the Hebrew wanderer. Seeing an intimate public embrace, the Abimelech knew Rebecca was not the sister of the man with whom he had talked. Laws were quickly made to protect Isaac and Rebecca, and disaster was once more staved off.[9]

In a repeat of the battle for water, the Philistines sought an advantage by filling Isaac's wells. Little by little, Isaac moved northeast until he arrived at the oasis at Beersheba, the border town just out of the territory of the Philistines. Once again in the land of his youth, Isaac received a visit from Yahweh who confirmed the covenant that he had made with Abraham. Soon after this, Abimelech and his chief of staff showed up to make sure that Isaac had moved out of the area for good[10].

A Constant Threat[]

The kingdom of Philistia flourished for over two centuries after the days of Isaac. The grandsons of Isaac, the family of Jacob, had very little contact with the Philistines. When famine once again struck, the Hebrews returned to Egypt for relief. The Philistines grew strong, becoming a threat on the coast northeast of Egypt. Yahweh's plan for His people had excluded returning to Canaan by way of the coastline. The harder path would take them among distant cousins rather than ancient adversaries.

However, when the Israelites finally did get into Canaan, even Joshua's forces could not conquer them[11]. When everyone who had known the great general had died, and a system of regional courts had been established to rule the tribes, the people began to forget the exodus, much less the Law of God. As a result God used the presence of the powerhouse nation on the coast both to test and to punish them. Cycles of judges ruling righteously and then failing, were accentuated by the power struggle with Philistia. One of the last judges, the mighty Samson, would bring an end to this in a dramatic way.

The Philistines had been held back by the Danite judge for about twenty years when the rather normal man would do feats only the Anakim -- that is, the giants in the land -- might be expected to do on a good day. The word was out that the Hebrew man was blessed by his God whenever he needed strength. Their spies were everywhere looking for his weakness. Their luck changed when the man began living with a Philistine girl named Delilah. She finally got the truth out of him, and called in a barber to give the strongman a "much needed" haircut (in their eyes, for Samson had the outer appearance of a Nazarite).

Having conquered Yahweh's champion, they gouged out his eyes and made him a slave. For months Samson ground corn like a mule on a grinding wheel. Finally, seeking sport, the leaders had him brought to the large assembly hall for everyone to see. What they did not know was that Samson had repented of his unbelief, and God once again gave him superhuman strength. The strongman used it to his advantage, collapsing the assembly hall upon thousands of men and women, including much of the leadership.

The Fall of Philistia[]


Philistia was a Pentapolis, which means it consisted of a close alliance of five city-states. Each of the five-city states: Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gath, and Ekron[12] all were ruled by monarchs.

The cities would've each ran themselves and their own land, and oftentimes would have many smaller cities under their control (such as Ziklag) or even weaker city states (this is probably the case for Gerar and Abimelek, who would've been too weak to be a member of the Pentapolis). In the case of subordinate towns, they would have acted most independently from their rulers, with little concern from the Pentapolis. These cities were in close proximity to their ruler town and were taken over forcefully, or started by one of the five cities; they existed to house Philistine soldiers, store commodities, and trade supplies with other nations.

While each city operated and was concerned with their own internal affairs, the alliance was close. The alliance of city-states was so close, it was considered a nation. The alliance was probably beneficial in many areas such as trade, economics, food, management of land, and most prominently military.


Each of the five city-states had their own independent military, but when interests were shared would combine into one powerful Philistine army. The army of each of the five cities would have been operated by the city they belonged to[13], but overall objectives and strategy would be determined jointly. If there was an agreed consensus of the majority of the five, a military order could be overridden or changed (as in the case of David not being able to fight with Gath)[14]. The individual city armies would be housed in their respective city, or subordinate cities and could perform independent military action, provided the other cities did not condemn it. When joint military action would occur, armies would all be sent to an agreed location to unify into one army.

There was also a great deal of joint operation of the Philistine army. This was done primarily through many jointly ran outposts and fortresses around Philistia borders and within the territory of their enemies.


  1. Jeremiah 6:26; 25:34 (Link)
  2. Judges 1:19; 4:3 (Link)
  3. 1st Samuel 6:7-14 (Link)
  4. Exod 23:31 (Link)
  5. Gen 20:1-15 (Link)
  6. Gen 20:17--21:3 (Link)
  7. Gen 21:22-32 (Link)
  8. Gen 26:3-6 (Link)
  9. Gen 25:6-11 (Link)
  10. Gen 26:13-33 (Link)
  11. Jos 13:2 (Link)
  12. Josh 13:13 (Link)
  13. 1 Sa m29:2 (Link)
  14. 1 Sam 29:4, 9 (Link)