“Now the Philistines gathered together their armies for battle…”

The writer of I Samuel carefully chose what to include and not include in his chronicle. He would have done this because of the limited amount of space he would have (limited by what would fit on one scroll). Even more importantly, he would have chosen based on the purposes and point he wants to make in his recorded history. Critics may claim that this would be “creating” or “editing” history. Not so. Every historian today does the same thing, choosing what is included in his account which best illustrates his emphasis.

So, who are the Philistines?

  1. Philistines are listed in Genesis in the Table of Nations (Genesis 10), and later as interacting in congenial fashion with Abraham (Genesis 21) and Isaac (Genesis 26) – use a Bible concordance and search for “Philistines”
  2. They are next mentioned hundreds of years later during the Exodus (Exodus 13:17; 23:31) and the Conquest of Canaan (Joshua 13:2,3)
  3. During the Judges we encounter the Five Lords of the Philistines (Judges 3:3) and their Five Cities of Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath.
  4. Smith’s Bible Dictionary quotes Amos 9:4 and Jeremiah 47:4 where the Philistines are said to have come originally from “Caphtor,” thought by some scholars to be Crete. It also points to Deuteronomy 2:23 which says those from Caphtor destroyed the original inhabitants of the coastal plain and replaced them.
  5. According to the Wikipedia article on the Philistines, this is consistent with rabbinic sources that claim the “Philistines” in the Books of Moses are not the same as the Philistines of Judges and through the rest of the Old Testament history. This article goes on the relate references in Egyptian records of “Sea Peoples” who tried to invade Egypt, were repulsed under Ramasses III and then settled along the southeastern coast of the Mediterranean (Land of the Philistines in the Bible).
  6. For sure, according the the Bible record, the Philistines beginning in the days of the Judges forward were aggressive, warlike and hostile enemies of the Israelite peoples who dwelt inland from them.
    1. During the Judges there were major conflicts under the judges Shamgar (3:31) and, most famously, Samson (chapters 13-16).
    2. During the days of Eli the Ark of the Covenant is captured by the Philistines (I Samuel 4:1-10)
    3. They are defeated under Samuel’s leadership of Israel (I Samuel 7:3-14)
    4. The chronicler emphasizes that the Philistines had mastered the use of iron (Iron Age), while Israel had not yet done so (Bronze Age) (I Samuel 13:19-21). This put Israel at a severe disadvantage both in military weaponry (iron versus bronze) and economically as Israel had to purchase even their iron farm implements from the Philistines during this time.
    5. The oppression and assaults of the Philistines were a major contributing factors to Israel asking for a king. Saul was chosen so his leadership and military command might match up better with the Philistine kings and their military. Until Saul, Israel’s army was mostly made up of volunteers led by men with little or no military experience.
    6. Saul’s son Jonathan had scored a military victory over the Philistines (I Samuel 14) about 15 years before the events of I Samuel 17.
    7. Our story in I Samuel 17 with David Goliath fits here in our timeline of the Philistines.
  7. Then in I Samuel 31 it is the Philistines who defeat Saul’s army, leading to Saul and Jonathan’s deaths.
  8. The Philistines will be decisively defeated by King David (II Samuel 5:17-25) and seldom seem to be a major threat through the remainder of the United and Divided Kingdoms. They were finally annihilated or carried into captivity by the Assyrians and/or Babylonians along with Israel.

Knowing this brief history of the Philistines helps us understand the significance of the event about to transpire in I Samuel 17. Most of the above facts were assembled using a Bible concordance to see where the Philistines are mentioned by name, and a couple of good Bible dictionaries which outline the various interactions between the Philistines and the Israelites.

Our image is a painting by James Tissot (1836-1902) entitled, “Samson Slays a Thousand Men” and is available through the Wikimedia Commons.