It seems that, no matter where you turn in the Old Testament, Israel is fighting the Philistines. While that’s a slight exaggeration—there were fights with other nations, too—it is true that Israel and the Philistines had their share of run-ins. The Philistines were an ancient people, listed in the records of those who descended from Noah’s son Ham after the time of the flood (Genesis 10:14). Abraham and Isaac interacted with the Philistines in Canaan (Genesis 21:33–34). But it was during the time of the Exodus that the Lord promised that the land of Israel would include the territory of the Philistines (Exodus 23:31); this promise meant that some kind of conflict would have to take place for Israel to displace the Philistines.
When Joshua was old, he mentioned the land of the Philistines as one of the areas that still remained to be defeated by Israel (Joshua 13:1–3). Because the Philistines were not completely removed, Israel faced them as perennial enemies.
During the time of the judges in Israel, the Philistines were often a thorn in Israel’s side. Jephthah, Shamgar, and Samson all fought against Philistia. The battles between Israel and the Philistines continued in the days of Eli and later erupted in the conflict between David and Goliath, a battle fought within a larger Israel-Philistine conflict (1 Samuel 17). David defeated Goliath, initiating a great victory for Israel, yet the history of Israel and the Philistines was not done.
During Solomon’s reign in Israel, the Philistines were subdued, yet the later prophets note that the Philistines continued to war against Israel. The Philistines were devastated by the same Assyrian Kingdom that overtook Israel (2 Kings 18:33–35). Philistia was not completely destroyed until the time of the Babylonian and Persian Empires.
From the first Hebrew, Abraham, until the deportation of Judah to Babylon, the Philistines were a constant enemy of Israel. The conflict was over more than land; it involved divergent worldviews. Unlike the Israelites, the Philistines served human-made deities and were known as a violent, warlike people.
Seven major battles between Israel and the Philistines are recorded in the Old Testament. They include the Battle of Shephelah (2 Chronicles 28), the Battle of Aphek (1 Samuel 4), the Battle of Eben-Ezez (1 Samuel 7:13–14), the battles at Michmash (1 Samuel 14), the battle involving David and Goliath (1 Samuel 17), the battle at Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31), and Hezekiah’s defeat of the Philistines (2 Kings 18:5–8).
The Philistines’ eventual defeat was not due to Israel’s strength or military prowess. As Psalm 44:3 says, “It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.”