Palestine in the Bible

The names “Palestine” and “Palestina” occur four times in the Old Testament portion of the King James Bible (1611), the most influential English translation in history.

Joel 3:3 – Yea, and what have ye to do with me, O Tyre, and Zidon, and all the coasts of Palestine? will ye render me a recompence? and if ye recompense me, swiftly and speedily will I return your recompence upon your own head; 

Exodus 15:14 – The people shall hear, and be afraid: sorrow shall take hold on the inhabitants of Palestina

Isaiah 14:29 – Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.

Isaiah 14:31 – Howl, O gate; cry, O city; thou, whole Palestina, art dissolved: for there shall come from the north a smoke, and none shall be alone in his appointed times.

“Palestine” does not occur in the New Testament.

The first clear use of the term Palestine to refer to the entire area between Phoenicia and Egypt was in 5th century BC Ancient Greece, when Herodotus wrote of a “district of Syria, called Palaistinê in The Histories, which included the Judean mountains and the Jordan Rift Valley.

105. Thence they went on to invade Egypt; and when they were in Syria which
is called Palestine, Psammetichos king of Egypt met them; and by gifts and
entreaties he turned them from their purpose, so that they should not
advance any further: and as they retreated, when they came to the city of
Ascalon in Syria, most of the Scythians passed through without doing any
damage, but a few of them who had stayed behind plundered the temple of
Aphrodite Urania.

That this was so I conjectured myself not only because they are dark-skinned
and have curly hair (this of itself amounts to nothing, for there are other
races which are so), but also still more because the Colchians, Egyptians,
and Ethiopians alone of all the races of men have practised circumcision
from the first.  The Phenicians and the Syrians who dwell in Palestine
confess themselves that they have learnt it from the Egyptians, and the
Syrians about the river Thermodon and the river Parthenios, and the
Macronians, who are their neighbours, say that they have learnt it lately
from the Colchians.

106. The pillars which Sesostris of Egypt set up in the various countries
are for the most part no longer to be seen extant; but in Syria Palestine I
myself saw them existing with the inscription upon them which I have
mentioned and the emblem.

5. Now by this way only is there a known entrance to Egypt: for from
Phenicia to the borders of the city of Cadytis belongs to the Syrians who
are called of Palestine, and from Cadytis, which is a city I suppose not
much less than Sardis, from this city the trading stations on the sea coast
as far as the city of Ienysos belong to the king of Arabia, and then from
Ienysos again the country belongs to the Syrians as far as the Serbonian
lake, along the side of which Mount Casion extends towards the Sea.

91. From that division which begins with the city of Posideion, founded by
Amphilochos the son of Amphiaraos on the borders of the Kilikians and the
Syrians, and extends as far as Egypt, not including the territory of the
Arabians (for this was free from payment), the amount was three hundred and
fifty talents; and in this division are the whole of Phenicia and Syria
which is called Palestine and Cyprus: this is the fifth division.

Now in the line stretching to Phenicia from the land of the Persians the
land is broad and the space abundant, but after Phenicia this peninsula goes
by the shore of our Sea along Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, where it ends;
and in it there are three nations only.

89. Of the triremes the number proved to be one thousand two hundred
and seven, and these were they who furnished them:–the Phenicians,
together with the Syrians who dwell in Palestine furnished three
hundred; and they were equipped thus, that is to say, they had about
their heads leathern caps made very nearly in the Hellenic fashion,
and they wore corslets of linen, and had shields without rims and
javelins. These Phenicians dwelt in ancient time, as they themselves
report, upon the Erythraian Sea, and thence they passed over and dwell
in the country along the sea coast of Syria; and this part of Syria
and all as far as Egypt is called Palestine.

Herodotus is considered the father of history. He traveled the region in the mid 5th c. BC. His mention of Palestine by that name refutes the claims that Palestine never existed as a nation or that it was invented by the Romans in the 2nd c. AD. He makes no mention of any Philistines or Judeans; even in the list of people who circumcize he mentions no Judeans.

Later Greek writers such as Aristotle, Polemon and Pausanias also used the word, which was followed by Roman writers such as Ovid, Tibullus, Pomponius Mela, Pliny the Elder, Dio Chrysostom, Statius, Plutarch as well as Roman Judean writers Philo of Alexandria and Josephus. Other writers, such as Strabo, referred to the region as Coele-Syria (“all Syria”) around 10–20 AD.

In 135 AD, the Greek “Syria Palaestina” was used in naming a new Roman province from the merger of Roman Syria and Roman Judaea after the Roman authorities crushed the Bar Kokhba Revolt. There is no evidence as to who was responsible for the name change, but circumstantial evidence links Hadrian to it, and the precise date is not certain. The common view that the name change was intended “sever the connection of the Jews to their historical homeland” is disputed.

During the Byzantine period c. 390, the imperial province of Syria Palaestina was reorganized into: Palaestina Prima, Palaestina Secundaand Palaestina Salutaris. Following the Muslim conquest, place names that were in use by the Byzantine administration generally continued to be used in Arabic. The use of the name “Palestine” became common in Early Modern English, was used in English and Arabic during the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem. In the 20th century the name was used by the British to refer to “Mandatory Palestine”, a mandate from the former Ottoman Empire which had been divided in the Sykes–Picot Agreement. The term was later used in the eponymous “State of Palestine”. Both incorporated geographic regions from the land commonly known as Palestine, into a new state whose territory was named Palestine.

Jewish historian Josephus (AD/CE 37-100) quotes Herodotus in referring to “Syria of Palaistine” and “the Syrians that are in Palaistine are circumcised.”

The 4th century church historian Eusebius (writing in Greek) twice mentions “Palaistine” in his Ecclesiastical History (2.2.6; 7.15.1). He notes that the Mediterranean coastal city Caesarea is in that region.

In the Hebrew Bible there is one word behind the various English renderings Palestine, Palestina, and Philistia. It is Peleshet.

Note the consonant link between Hebrew and Greek.

Peleshet [Hebrew]: P-L-SH-T
Palaistine [Greek]: P-L-S-T [there is no “sh” sound in Greek]

The geographical term Peleshet is used eight times in the Hebrew Bible (Exod 15:14; Isa 14:29, 31; Joel 4:4[=3:4 Eng], Pss 60:10[=v.8 Eng], 83:8[7], 87:4, 108:10[9]).

The inhabitants of Peleshet are Pelishtim, a plural noun that occurs 287x in the HB (Gen 10:14; 26:1; Exod 13:17, etc.), mostly in Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 Chronicles. Lexicons say the root palashis a verb meaning to roll (in dust or ashes) as an act of mourning (Jer 6:26; Ezek 27:30; Mic 1:10). How that relates to the people (rollers, mourners) is not clear.

The Pelishtim
From the time the Israelites first entered Canaan, under Joshua’s leadership, the “Philistines” were perennial enemies. Their center of power was the Pentapolis, a cluster of five cities along the coast of southern Canaan: Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Gaza. [See map below.] Their influence, however, stretched farther north up the coast.

The warrior giant Goliath (from the city of Gath) taunted the timid Jewish battle lines with emphatic ethnic bluster: “I am the Philistine” [anokhi ha-Pelishti]” (1 Sam 17:8). Interestingly, the Greek Septuagint renders his boast as: “I Am Foreigner” [ego eimi allophulos].

Goliath’s boast fires up teenager David’s famous response: “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come against you in the name of Yahveh Tzeva’ot, the God of the ranks of Israel, whom you have defied” (1 Sam 17:45).

The three main gods in the Pelishtim pantheon were Dagon (Judg 16:23; 1 Sam 5:1-7), Ashtoreth (Judg 10:6; 1 Sam 31:10), and Baal-Zebub (2 Kgs 1:1-6, 16).

Some 200 years after David, Isaiah condemns his fellow Judeans for forsaking God’s “light” and for being “full [of practices] from the East…[abounding] in customs of the aliens.” These include “soothsaying like the Philistines [Pelishtim]” (Isa 2:5-6).

Septuagint Translation
The Septuagint (LXX) one time renders “Peleshet” as a reference to the people: Phulistiim (Philistines, Exod 15:14).

Everywhere else, “Peleshet” is translated by the Greek hoi Allophuloi, “the Foreigners.” This rendering is also reflected in Isaiah 2:5-6 which refers to “the land of the Allophuloi and many strange [allophuloi] children were born to them.”

Isa 14:29, 31; Joel 4:4 [3:4 Eng], Ps 59:10 [60:8 Eng], 82:8 [83:7 Eng], 86:4 [87:4 Eng], and 107:10 [108:9 Eng].

Clearly, the Jewish scholars in Egypt who did the LXX considered the Pelishtim as aliens and strangers. Some might view this as an historical irony, since the Israelites arrived in Canaan after the Pelishtim. But the Biblical perspective is that the Land was an eternal gift from God to the Israelites, alone. Everyone else was a foreigner — in His land.

Whence the Pelishtim
Evidence from Egyptian inscriptions identifies the Pelishtim as “Sea Peoples.” Pottery from the cities of Ekron and Ashdod in Philistia mirrors styles in Cyprus, and the temple at Tell Qasile (near Tel Aviv) is similar to ones in the Aegean Sea area and on Cyprus. No inscriptions in a Philistine language have been found, suggesting they adopted the languages where they invaded.

Amos refers to “the Pelishtim from Caphtor” (Amos 9:7). Jeremiah forewarns that “the day is coming” when “YHVH will ravage the Pelishtim [who are] the remnant from the island of Caphtor” (Jer 47:4). Archeologists believe Caphtor is likely the island of Crete. Zephaniah says:

Woe to the inhabitants of the seacoast,
The nation of the Cherethites! [Heb: KeReiTim; cf. CReTe]
The word of YHVH is against you,
O Canaan, land of the Philistines. (Zeph 9:7)

Ezekiel makes the Cherethite—Philistine connection fairly explicit: “Thus said Lord YHVH: I will stretch out my hand against the Philistines and cut off the Cherethites and wipe out the last survivors of the seacoast” (Ezek 25:15-16).

Herodotus heard that the “Phoenicians” (Philistines) had “formerly dwelt…by the Red Sea,” but moved up to “inhabit the seacoast of Syria” (modern coast of Israel into Lebanon) (7.89.2).

In the Hebrew Bible, the coastal land Peleshet (Philistia) is occupied by the Pelishtim (Philistines) who originated from the Aegean Sea area, including Cyprus and Caphtor-Ceret-Crete.

“Palestine” in Christian Bibles

Neither “Palestina” or “Philistia” occur in the Greek New Testament.

Nearly all Bible translations today use “Philistia” in their Old Testament portions for the original Hebrew Peleshet. This designates the geographical area along the coast of Israel and southern Lebanon (including Tyre and Sidon). A few Christian versions have “Palestine” in their biblical text or in marginal notes. They may do this to orient readers to modern political boundaries.

Some may have biased theological motives.

The Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims (revised 1899) has “the people of Palestine” at Jeremiah 47:1 and “the daughters of Palestine” at Ezekiel 16:57. In both verses the Hebrew reads “Pelishtim” (Philistines).

The conservative Protestant Amplified Bible (1965) includes “Palestine” in their text in brackets:

Ezek 38:11, 12 — “I will fall upon those…who dwell at the center of the earth [Palestine].”

Dan 11:30a — “…he shall be grieved and discouraged and turn back [to Palestine] and carry out his rage and indignation against the holy covenant and God’s people.”

Dan 11:41a — “He shall enter into the glorious land [Palestine], and many shall be overthrown.”

[Also: 1 Chron 13:5; Jer 8:16; 22:20; Ezek 33:24]

The conservative Protestant New American Standard Bible (NASB)(1973, 1995) has “Palestine” in the margins at Daniel 8:9 and 11:16 to explain the biblical words “Beautiful Land.” This isn’t necessary, for the context is clear that Israel and Jerusalem are the subject at hand.

In contrast to these versions, the conservative Protestant Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) (2009) translates Daniel 8:9 and 11:16 without bias. It renders the Hebrew literally as the “Beautiful Land” and puts “Israel” in the margin. Mentioning “Palestine” is anachronistic. There was no such name in Daniel’s time.

The Message of “The Message” 
Twice in his paraphrased version The Message (2002, 2007), Eugene H. Peterson interpolates “Palestine” into his main text of Daniel:

Daniel 8:9 — “[Another horn] started small, but then grew to an enormous size, facing south and east—toward lovely Palestine [my emphasis].”Daniel 11:16 — “[The king of the north will] take over that beautiful country, Palestine, and make himself at home in it.”

The Hebrew behind Peterson’s phrase “lovely Palestine” is HaTzevi, literally “the Beautiful [Land].” Behind “beautiful country, Palestine” is Eretz HaTzevi, “the Beautiful Land.”

In the Bible, Israel is called “the Glory [tzevi] of all lands” (Ezek 20:6, 15), “a pleasant land, the most Beautiful [tzevi] inheritance of the nations!” (Jer 3:19).

When Peterson substitutes “Palestine,” in place of “the Beautiful [Land],” he interjects a name loaded with religious-political fire.

He didn’t compose his paraphrase before 1948 when “Palestine” was a proposed political entity created by European powers. He wrote when the so-called Palestinian cause is PC orthodoxy among liberal intellectuals and the State of Israel is an object of disdain by most nations of the world, including liberal branches of Christianity.

If Peterson wanted to provide geographical precision for his readers, the name “Israel” would do that. It would also be more biblical.

Peterson’s choice of “Palestine” is surely intentional. His substitution is like calling the modern state of Texas “North Mexico” (a phrase now in use by Latino activists).

As a Christian leader, perhaps Peterson thinks the occupants of “lovely Palestine” in the future will be non-Muslim Arab Christians.Or perhaps he envisions a two-state reality: Peleshet/Palestine for Christians and Muslims, while Eretz Yisrael/Eretz HaTzevi would be for Jews.

Disappointing when some Christian scholars will not allow the Bible to speak its own truth. They politicize it for modern readers. They attempt to rewrite prophecy and history — and distort scripture. Peterson and others might remember God’s ancient forewarning:

Because the Pelishtim, in their ancient hatred, acted vengefully, and with utter scorn sought revenge and destruction — assuredly, thus said Lord YHVH: I will stretch out my hand against the Pelishtim and…wipe out the last survivors of the seacoast.” (Ezekiel 25:15-16)

At the same time, the warning of judgment also includes an offer of redemption for the Pelishtim from the God of Israel, the owner of Eretz HaTzevi:

Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord YHVH, “rather than that he should turn from ways and live?… I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,” declares the Lord YHVH. “Therefore, repent and live.” (Ezekiel 18:23, 32)

Linguists propose an etymology of Philistinus from Late Latin (3–6 centuries), hence into Old French Philistin, hence into Middle English. Philistia is not used in the Latin Vulgate (4th cent.) in the 8 places where the Hebrew has Peleshet. Instead, it follows the Septuagint translations (see above).

Herodotus [c. 484–c. 425]
Histories 1.105.1 — “From there they marched against Egypt: and when they were in the part of Syria called Palestine, Psalmmetichus king of Egypt met them and persuaded them with gifts and prayers to come no further.” [Eng. trans. A.D. Godley]

Histories 2.104.3 — “The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine acknowledge that they learned the custom from the Egyptians, and the Syrians of the valleys of Thermodon and the Parthenius, as well as their neighbors the Macrones, say that they learned it from the Colchians. These are the only nations that circumcise, and it is seen that they do just as the Egyptians.” [Eng. trans. A.D. Godley]

Histories 3.5.1 — “Now the only apparent way of entry into Egypt is this. The road runs from Phoenicia as far as the borders of the city of Cadytis, which belongs to the so-called Syrians of Palestine.” [Eng. trans. A.D. Godley]

Histories 7.89.1-2 — “The number of the triremes was twelve hundred and seve, and they were furnished by the following: the Phoenicians with the Syrians of Palestine furnished three hundred . . . These Phoenicians formerly dwelt, as they themselves say, by the Red Sea; they crossed from there and now inhabit the seacoast of Syria. This part of Syria as far as Egypt is all called Palestine.” [Eng. trans. A.D. Godley]

Josephus [AD/CE 35–100]
Antiquities 8.10.3 [260] — “Now Herodotus of Halicarnassus mentions this expedition, having only mistaken the king’s name; and [in saying that] he made war upon many other nations also, and brought Syria of Palestine into subjection, and took the men that were therein prisoners without fighting.” [Eng. trans. William Whiston]

Contra Apion 1.2 [169, 171] — “His [Herodotus’] words are these: ‘The only people who were circumcised in their privy members originally were the Colchians, the Egytpians, and the Ethiopians; but the Phoenicians and those Syrians that are in Palestine confess that they learned it from the Egyptians.’ … This, therefore, is what Herodotus says, that the ‘Syrians that are in Palestine are circumcised.’ But there are no inhabitants of Palestine that are circumcised excepting the Jews; and therefore it must be his knowledge of them that enabled him to speak so much concerning them.” [Eng. trans. William Whiston]

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