The Philistines – a Giant Problem for Ancient Israel
Updated: May 4
Who were the Philistines?
There is no historical information drawn directly from Philistine sources to tell us about this war-loving people. What little we know about them comes from the people they impacted and other sources from their time. This includes information from Egyptian and Assyrian texts, as well as what we learn from Bible references.
The name, “Philistine” comes from the Hebrew word Philistia though, in the Greek, they are called palaistinei, from which we get the modern name “Palestine.” While in our culture the term “Philistine” is used to describe a person who is not very cultured, in their time the Philistine people were neither unsophisticated nor uncultured. Instead, they were a fairly advanced seafaring people who developed skills well known to the other people of Canaan.
It appears the Philistines originated in Caphtor, the Hebrew term for the island of Crete and the surrounding Aegean region. They apparently moved to the coast of Canaan about the same time as the Israelites entered the land and moved inland during the time of Samson.
What the Philistines were known for?
The Philistines were most famous for 2 things: alcohol and weapons. Many ancient texts describe their production of, and amazing consumption of, alcoholic beverages -- especially beer. Philistine ruins contain the remnants of many breweries and wine presses, as well as a huge assortment of beer mugs. Samson’s wedding feast, described in the book of Judges, mentions the Philistine tradition of holding drinking celebrations that lasted a week.
Mostly, though, the Philistines were known for the production of iron weapons, which were far superior to the bronze ones used by other peoples in the region. The Bible notes that, during the reign of King Saul, Israelites had to pay the Philistines to sharpen or repair their iron tools (1 Samuel 13:19-21). Because of these advanced weapons, the Philistines were able to conquer many of the inhabitants of Canaan.
In addition to their superior weapons, the Philistines hired giants to give them even more of an advantage during battle. Goliath and his brothers were among these mercenary giants. For nearly 200 years, the Philistines warred with, harassed and oppressed the Israelites, so the Jewish people remained in constant fear of them.
How it Relates to the story of David
It appears that “war by proxy” was a common idea in the time of David. It was a supremely logical approach to warring. Instead of entire armies fighting and dying for dominance, a champion was chosen by each side to represent the warring parties. This spared a lot of bloody casualties which could weaken the winning army and lessen the value of captured prisoners. The concept was based on the belief that each side’s god would fight on their behalf to determine the outcome – the same result that would have happened if the full armies had fought. Each side agreed to abide by the result.
1 Samuel 17 records the stakes: “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.”
The Israelites were, naturally, worried about this battle, which was hardly fair. The giant wore armor, weighing over 125 pounds, on his head, body and legs. He carried an iron-tipped sword that weighed 15 pounds, and he had a shield so large he needed a man to carry it into battle for him. As you can imagine, he was very sure of victory and he continually boasted about that to the enemy camp.
For their part, the Israelites were terrified of Goliath. They had no giants to go against him in a fair fight, and it seems they didn’t have any man willing to volunteer. That is until young David arrived on the scene. Because of his strong faith in the one true God, he was willing to stand up to the giant without fear. And God had uniquely equipped him for the task as he cared for his family’s sheep.
Goliath was overconfident in both his stature and his armor, even if he didn’t think the god of the Philistines was on his side. David was young and quick and experienced in stopping lions and bears which had threatened his sheep. He faced the giant with nothing but a sling, a few smooth stones, and a strong faith. In the end, the giant lay dead at his feet.
So when you hear the story of David and Goliath, remember the boy faced longer odds than you probably thought, but faith gave him (and his people) the victory.