Israel at War

“‘I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died…’” – Judges 2:21

The backdrop of Samson’s life is his constant battle against the Philistines on behalf of God’s people. A Bible dictionary explains:

The first Israelite-Philistine interaction was between Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 20:1–17. Though much of the rest of the Old Testament depicts the Philistines as an aggressive nation, they are not presented as violent during the patriarchal period. … By the time God led Israel out of Egypt, the reputation of the Philistines was much different. The Philistines had established themselves as a nation to be reckoned with, and were the deciding factor in the route taken in the exodus: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines … [for] God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt’ (Exodus 13:17 ESV).” (1)

Establishing the backdrop for the book of Judges, as, after the Exodus, Joshua leads God’s people into the Promised Land, the Bible dictionary goes on to say:

During the initial conquest of Canaan, Israel did not fully displace the Philistines (Joshua 13:2-3). The tribes of Judah and Simeon both had claim to Philistine cities (Joshua 15:10-12, 45-47; Joshua 19:1-9), though it is apparent that neither tribe was able to fully or permanently occupy these cities. In fact, the Old Testament does not tell us if Joshua ever met the Philistines in battle. The Lord described to Joshua the regions of the Israelite inheritance yet to be conquered, and included the territory of the Philistines “from the Sihor, which is east of Egypt, northward to the boundary of Ekron” (Joshua 13:3 ESV).

Judges 1:18 records some initial success of Judah in capturing three of the five Philistine cities. The following verse, however, indicates their inability to complete and maintain their possession of the region. “Judah also captured Gaza with its territory, and Ashkelon with its territory, and Ekron with its territory … and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain because they had chariots of iron (Judges 1:18–19 ESV).” This failure was costly to the nation of Israel – the Philistine foe would rise up time and again to overpower and enslave them. The judges Shamgar (Judges 3:31) and Samson (Judges 13:1–16:31) did battle with the Philistines. The nation of Israel grew in strength as it attempted to take the promised land moving westward from the Jordan River. Simultaneously, the Philistines were growing in power and ambition along the Mediterranean coast and began to attempt to expand eastward[.]

The Philistines became the archenemy of Israel during the reigns of Saul and David. While the Philistines declined in power over time, they remained a threat and an enemy throughout the duration of the divided kingdom. Both nations had times of strength and times of weakness, but neither was ever able to completely subdue the other. For example, King Uzziah of Judah conquered Gath, Ashdod, and other Philistine territories, but Ahaz lost territory to the Philistines (2 Chronicles 26:6; 28:18). A key passage in understanding the conflict between the Hebrews and the Philistines in Judges 2:19–3:3. These verses describe God’s faithfulness to keep the punitive elements of his covenant with the nation of Israel. When the Israelites refused to honor God alone, and began to practice the idolatry of the surrounding nations, He no longer drove the nations out ahead of them. He left the Philistines and several other nations to test Israel, to teach them to walk with the Lord, and to teach them how to do battle (Judges 2:22; 3:2).The Philistines and their gods are briefly mentioned in Judges 3:31; 10:6, but it is not until Samson’s marriage in Judges 14:1-20 that they took center stage as an enemy of Israel. Based on where the battles with Samson occurred, the Philistines had significantly expanded their territory inland[.] (2)

Read Judges 2:19-3:3 and make note of anything that stands out to you regarding the conflict between Israel and the surrounding nations. 

1.    Adam L. Myers, “Philistines,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

2.    Ibid.

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