Modern Christians react negatively to the word "Philistine." Typified by the terrifying Goliath and the treacherous Delilah, the Philistines are commonly viewed as uncultured, uncivilized, and cruel, the barbarians of the ancient world. Modern research disputes this stereotype, however. New findings reveal that the Philistines were cultured and sophisticated. The Israelites, God's chosen people, were quite primitive by contrast. Understanding this fact makes the Bible stories of the conflict between these two cultures more vivid.
The Philistines were part of a seafaring people from the Aegean who appeared in the Near East around 1250 BC. After a period of conflict with the Egyptians to the south, the Philistines settled on the coastal plain of Israel. The culture around them was in decline because of the collapse of empires, natural disasters, and hostilities between the small nations of the region.
About the time the Philistines arrived, the Israelites entered Israel from the east. The historical drama that subsequently unfolded would determine which of the two cultures would dominate the other. The battles that erupted from this conflict fill the pages of the Old Testament.
THEIR POLITICS AND MILITARY
The Bible's description of the Philistines was controversial for many years. Philistine cities such as Ekron, Gath, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Gaza did not fit the political culture of the Middle East at that time, and champion-to-champion ("one-on-one") combat and the armor Goliath wore were unknown in Canaan. Recent discoveries, however, have shown the Greek (Aegean) background of these highly civilized people. The political structure of their cities was similar to the city-states of the Aegean, and combat between champions fills Greek mythology.
Egyptian descriptions of the Philistines support biblical ones. Reliefs and inscriptions found in the temple of Ramses lll in Egypt give us insight into the Philistines' appearance and technology. Their soldiers were quite tall and clean shaven. They wore breastplates and short kilts, and their superior weapons included chariots drawn by two horses. They carried small shields and fought with straight swords and spears. These details affirm our faith in the Bible's descriptions found in Judges 1:19, 1 Samuel 13:19-22, and 1 Samuel 17:4-7.
THEIR ART AND TECHNOLOGY
The artifacts discovered in archaeological excavations of Philistine cities show great artistic and technological skill. Their pottery is more aesthetically pleasing than that of neighboring cultures. The Philistines painted their pottery with red and black geometric designs (loops, crossed lines, concentric circles, even birds) on white backgrounds. Unlike the Israelite remains of the period, Philistine pottery, in its shape and intricacy of design, reveals a culture concerned about appearance as well as function. In Philistine excavations, bottles with long cylindrical bodies and gracefully curved necks are common. Archaeologists have also found bell-shaped bowls and beer mugs with strainer spouts that bring to mind the drinking party attended by Samson the Israelite.
The Philistines were successful in several key industries. The Bible affirms their ability to work with the latest in metal technology, iron. Iron tools and weapons, absent from Israelite sites of the same period, are common in Philistine ruins. Philistine cities give evidence of careful town planning, including industrial zones. The olive industry of Ekron alone includes about 200 olive oil installations. Engineers estimate that the city's production may have been more than 1,000 tons, 30 percent of Israel's present-day production. Certainly, the sophisticated Philistines represented the latest in technology and culture to the less advanced peoples around them?in much the same way that Western culture holds allure for the developing world today.
The religion of the Philistines appears sophisticated and modern as well. Carefully planned temples and worship centers abound in their cities. Their main god was Dagon, thought to be the god of grain (though some scholars believe Dagon was the fish god). Temples in honor of the god of fertility have been found in Gaza, Ashdod, and Beth Shean. The mistress of this god, and a frequent target of biblical writers, was Ashtoreth, who was associated with war and fertility (1 Sam. 31:8-13). Worship of this goddess involved the most immoral practices imaginable. Beelzebul, thought to be the son of Dagon, was worshiped at the Philistine city of Ekron (2 Kings 1:1-6). The worship of this deity involved sacred prostitution and possibly even child sacrifice. The practices were so horrible that the followers of Yahweh changed the name from Beelzebul (meaning "Lord, or Prince, Baal") to Beelzebub (with the derogatory meaning "lord of the flies"). By New Testament times, the name Beelzebub, long used to describe the most evil and perverted practices and people of the Middle East, had become a synonym for the devil. More than once Jesus himself used this term to describe Satan (Matt. 10:25 and 12:24).
Unfortunately, the values of a culture accompany its benefits and products. So the Israelites faced a dilemma. They wanted the benefits and products of the Philistines, but how could they have these things without adopting the values and practices that God so detested?
Samson wrestled with this problem and eventually lost. Being devoted to Yahweh, he certainly recognized the ungodliness in Philistine culture and the danger it posed to God's people. But the lifestyle of the Philistines was so attractive. The Bible describes the outcome of Samson's moral battle in geographic terms: "...he fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Delilah" (Judg. 16:4). The Soreq, an area controlled by the very culture God had called Samson to confront, became the place of his compromise. He became one with the Philistines and could no longer help the world to know that Yahweh is the one true God.
CHRISTIANS TODAY FACE THE SAME DILEMMA
Samson's struggle is the same one faced by modem Christians. Our mission is to work within a secular culture to affect it positively for God. We are even called to use its technology in the process. But western culture seduces us in the same way Philistine culture seduced the Israelites. Our culture offers wealth, pleasure, and gratification of every desire, without having to consider the cost to an individual or a nation. How easy it is to fall in love in the Soreq!
Samson soon discovered that he had a price to pay for failing to remain pure: the loss of his relationship with God. We must learn from his sad story. The Philistines had good things to offer, and David used many of them to prosper the Israelites. But God wanted his people to be separate from the pagan culture while using its technology to advance his cause.
If we allow ourselves to be seduced by the world as Samson was, we will be useless as God's instruments because we will no longer have our eyes focused on God and what he desires of us. We must remember that the world and its pleasures will pass away, but what God has wrought through his Son, Jesus, will remain forever.