The “Philistines” to the North

The Philistines in the Bible and the northern Sea Peoples

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2014.—Ed.


Who were the Philistines? In the Bible, the Philistines and the Israelites were enemies.

To accuse someone of being a philistine today implies that that person is crass, unintellectual and lacking in culture. Where did this term come from? Who were the Philistines? In the Bible, the Philistines were the enemies of the Israelites. The Biblical conflict is well-attested, from Samson’s slaying of a thousand Philistines (Judges 15) to David’s battle with the Philistine giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17) to King Saul’s impalement on the walls of Beth Shean at the hands of the Philistines (1 Samuel 31). Through archaeology, however, we have learned that the Philistines were just one tribe of Sea Peoples who invaded Canaan in the 12th century B.C.E. and settled along the coast. The Bible refers to all of these tribes collectively as the Philistines.

The Philistines established the famous Pentapolis—Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gath and Ekron—in the southern coastal plain. Archaeological excavations at each of these sites, save for Gaza (due to the modern buildings constructed atop its tell), reveal a rich material culture with origins in the Aegean. The Philistines were far from lacking in culture as the modern derogatory term suggests.

In “The Other ‘Philistines’” in the November/December 2014 issue of BAR, Ephraim Stern sheds light on the “Philistines” in the Bible who lived in the northern region of Canaan. These settlers may be called the northern Sea Peoples to differentiate them from the Sea Peoples who lived in the south (the Philistines).

As the point where three of the world’s major religions converge, Israel’s history is one of the richest and most complex in the world. Sift through the archaeology and history of this ancient land in the free eBook Israel: An Archaeological Journey, and get a view of these significant Biblical sites through an archaeologist’s lens.


Reliefs at the Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu depict the Egyptians in battle with three tribes of Sea Peoples: the Danunu, the Sikils and the Philistines. Photo: Leslie Anne Warden.

Capitalizing on the power vacuum left by the Egyptians and Hittites, the Sea Peoples launched a series of attacks in the Levant in the second half of the 13th century B.C.E. Pioneering archaeologist Trude Dothan describes this struggle in “What We Know About the Philistines”:

In wave after wave of land and sea assaults [the Sea Peoples] attacked Syria, Palestine, and even Egypt itself. In the last and mightiest wave, the Sea Peoples, including the Philistines, stormed south from Canaan in a land and sea assault on the Egyptian Delta. According to Egyptian sources, including the hieroglyphic account at Medinet Habu, Ramesses III (c. 1198–1166 B.C.) soundly defeated them in the eighth year of his reign. He then permitted them to settle on the southern coastal plain of Palestine. There they developed into an independent political power and a threat both to the disunited Canaanite city-states and to the newly settled Israelites.

We know about the different tribes of Sea Peoples not from the Bible but from Egyptian sources—and from archaeology. The famous sculpted reliefs at the Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu depict the Egyptians in battle with three tribes of Sea Peoples: the Danunu, the Sikils and the Philistines (pictured above). In addition, the 11th-century B.C.E. Story of Wenamun papyrus describes an Egyptian priest’s journey to the Canaan/Phoenician coast to purchase Lebanese cedar trees and includes a reference to the Sikil settlement at Dor.

For more on the Philistines, check out The Philistines BAS Library Special Collection, featuring articles by such experts as Trude Dothan, Seymour Gitin and Lawrence E. Stager.


This cow scapula, or shoulder blade, with incised grooves from Dor has also been found at a number of other Sea Peoples’ sites and probably originated in Cyprus. Its purpose is unknown. Photo: Courtesy Ephraim Stern.

Archaeological investigations north of the Philistine Pentapolis have uncovered five significant sites inhabited by the northern Sea Peoples—Aphek, Tell Qasile, Tell Gerisa, Jaffa and Dor—of which Dor is the largest.

Excavations at the northern Sea Peoples’ site of Dor, which author Ephraim Stern directed for two decades, reveal that the Sikil city boasted a particularly strong defense wall and engaged in metallurgical activities. Cult objects discovered at Dor reflect Aegean and Cypriot origins and are also attested in the Philistine material record.

There are, however, some differences in the material culture of the northern and southern Sea Peoples. This monochrome strainer-spout jug from Dor (pictured below left) helped Stern distinguish between the pottery of the southern Philistines and the northern Sea Peoples. Although the jug is decorated with motifs similar to Philistine bichrome pottery, it is painted in only one color—red. Monochrome pottery, Stern concluded, differentiates northern from southern Sea Peoples’ vessels.


Northern Sea Peoples’ vessels, such as this one from Dor, are monochrome—they are painted in just red. Photo: Courtesy Ephraim Stern. Philistine vessels are bichrome—they are decorated with red and black paint.

Discover more differences in the material culture of the northern Sea Peoples and the southern Philistines by reading the full article “The Other ‘Philistines’” by Ephraim Stern in the November/December 2014 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read “The Other ‘Philistines’” by Ephraim Stern as it appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 13, 2014.


Related content in Bible History Daily:

Where Did the Philistines Come From?

Philistine Cemetery Unearthed at Ashkelon

Adornment in the Southern Levant

The Philistine Marketplace at Ashkelon

Queen of the Philistines: Trude Dothan (1922–2016)

Severed Hands: Trophies of War in New Kingdom Egypt


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  • Levi says

    I would guess the cow scapula is used for music, raking a stick across the incised groves.

  • pluto says

    listen up its easy keftiu is said to be in asia minor syria ethiopia egypt babylon
    why are all these nations carrying cretan bull head rhyton w
    why are these so called pharoahs being buried with cretan religious artifacts ?
    an egyptian pharoah prefers religious cretan ware rather then his own egyptian religion ware and especially for the after life ? who are these people and vwere are they all from ?
    in greek mythology homer doesnt have that problem identifying place names with rulers
    the greeks are not from this earth but certainly the first set foot on it
    long live ZEUS your all his children take it or leave it is what it is

  • Carl says

    After reading the current article in BAR, and looking over the color drawing of the sculpted reliefs. I wonder about the ethnic origins of these people. The reliefs are showing Egyptians fighting from their boats with these sea peoples. One group has Broom like head dresses, and are caucasian looking. Then there are darker skinned “Africans” wearing helmets with bull horns, but also some caucasian prisoners with the same helmets in an Egyptian boat. Do these helmets represent a connection to Bull worship? A connection to Santorini? Where did this mixed ethnic group come from, and why did they coalesce together? There names may give something away… Dananu. Could they be worshipers of goddess Dianna?

  • jose says

    WJs is new erudits pubblish the new history … ahahahahahaha

  • Paul says

    Kurt makes a good point about the alleged Phillistine presence at Gerar long before the arrival of the Sea Peoples in 1200 B.C.E., and it seems that the term “Phillistines” was applied to other Sea Peoples who disappeared from the historical record, like the Minoans who were also from the island of Crete. During the period of Hyksos domination the Minoans established relations with the Hyksos rulers in Egypt at Tanis, the biblical Zoan. Recently scholars have focused on an obscure reference to what may have been a tsunami on a stela of the Pharaoh who expelled the Hyksos from Egypt, Ahmose I. It has been suggested that this was the turning point that ended Hyksos domination in Egypt since their seaports were destroyed.
    In Psalm 78:12-13 there is a connection between the “field of Zoan” and the parting of the sea though it doesn’t say which sea. It’s possible that in verse 43 the “miracles in the field of Zoan” is the act of God that would change the course of history. This was thought to have taken place around 1600 B.C.E., a thousand years before the culture of horseback-riding was introduced from the steppes of Eurasia, so that the references to horse and rider in the sea in Exodus 15:1,21 is likely an eye witness account of the remnants of the Hyksos forces in the flood waters.

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