The Philistines, according to the Old Testament account, were descendants of Casluhim, the son of Mizraim (Egypt), the son of Ham (Gen.10:14; 1 Chr.1:12). When they later appeared and confronted the Israelites they cam from Caphtor, the ancient name for Crete.
when the Israelites left Egypt the Philistines were extensively settled along the coastal strip between Egypt and Gaza, and they were obliged to detour inland to avoid "the way of the Philistines" (Ex.13:17). Thus, although there was no contact between Israel and Philistia at this time, we see that already this foreign nation was forcing its hand indirectly in compelling Israel to take the long route to Canaan viā the Sinai peninsular. Had there been no Philines at this time Israel might well have entered Canaan without the refining process of the Sinai desert and thus have been totally unprepared (in all aspects of living, including the religious) to survive settlement in a new land.
The Philistines were prevented from being the masters of the whole of the fertile crescent by the Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses III and Pharaoh Mernephtah in their successful campaign against the 'Sea Peoples' who invaded the Middle east viā mdoern-day Turkey and the sea (viā Egypt and Cyrenaica). This war, which ended in Philistia being restricted to the coastal plain of Canaan, not only weakened Egypt for centuries, but also destroyed the whole Hittite Empire in a swoop, and left Philistia sufficiently small to be able to harrass Israel but not too large to displace her, though Israel came close to being exterminated on several occasions.
The Israelites did not encounter the Philistines during the conquest under Jishua as they kept very much to the hill country which they coukd more readily defend against the superior military might of Philistia and other Canaanite city states that possessed the awesome chariot. Moreover, during the conquest period, the Philistines were more interested in consolidating their own gains by strengthening their Five Cities: Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, Ekron and Gath.
Once Joshua had died, contact with Philistia increased rapidly. The Philistine territories, though generally confined to the Five Cities area, extended as far north as Dor and included Joppa and the ex-Egyptian stronghold of Beth-shan on the Jordan river, as the period of the judges came to an end. But in the early days, Philistia was restricted to a relatively small area. They needed time to recouperate after the devastating wars against Egypt so we are not surprised to learn that Judah, seeking to realise its tribal inheritance, attacked and captured the Philistine cities of Caza, Ashkelon, and Ekron (Judg.1:19). But the occupation was brief as Judah and the other tribes lacked the means to hold out in the plains. Philistine cities were not to come under Israelite control again until the reign of David.
The presence of Philistia so close to the Tribal Confederacy was doubtless no accident but a part of the Divine Plan to keep Israel in check. As soon as Israel broke her Covenant with Yahweh it was not long before she was attacked, defeated and oppressed by foreign occupiers. Philistia was one of Israel's oppressors (along with Amalek, Ammon, Moab, Midian, Edom, etc.)
The Philistines were a proverbially aggressive people and were ideal in punishing Israel for sin. Israel's first recorded taste of the Philistine sword came under the reign of the judge Jephthah. Before him Israel had already apostatised several times and had been subject to invasions and harrassment from the Canaanites, Moabites, Midianites, and a half-Canaanite, half-Israelite upstart called Abimelech, son of Gideon. Now Israel was suffering from a two-pronged attack from Ammon in the east and Philistia in the west. Up to this time Israel had only served Canaanite gods but for the first time we read that they expanded their idolatry to include the gods of Syria, Sidon, Moab, Ammon and Philistia (Judg.10:6). Could this be why Philistia invaded now? For 18 painful years Philistines and Ammorites hammered at Israel, occupying its towns and villages and extracting tribute. Only when Israel had been sufficiently punished and humbled did Yahweh intervene using Jephthah as a kind of 'saviour' or 'deliverer', forcing the Philistines back into the coastal plain.
The Philistones do not appear to become active again until Samson's era by which time they had taken virtual control of all Israel for a period of 40 years (a generation). The cause of this occupation: Israelite apostacy...again. Samson does not appear to have altered the military situation in any way and is more aptly described, not as a 'saviour' or a 'deliverer' but as a one-man terrorist organisation, or even better, an immoral Tarzan. His life was devoted to harrassing and humiliating the Philistines, the crowning achievement of his acyivities being the destruction of the temple of Dagon. But beyond the heroic deeds little was done to evict Philistines from Israel as a a whole though he may have cleared a few villages in Judah and thereabouts.
The emergence of Saul was a direct response by Yahweh to remove the Philistine yoke from Israel. Saul is best remembered for his camppaigns against the Philistines, both in victory and finally in ignominious defeat. He was anointed king after the famous Philistine defeat at Michmash which drove the enemy from the hill country. It must have been the end of a long and terrifying occupation that had stretched over at least a couple of generations. No wonder that Saul beca,me an instant hero. His erratic rule, however, allowed the Philistines to continue to assert themselves, as when they challenged Israel at Ephes-dammim, and David killed Goliath (1 Sam.17:18). Saul turned against David, who became an outlaw and finally a feudatory vassal of Achish of Gath (1 Sam.27). The Philistines gained a major victory at Gilboa in the north which brought an end to Saul's monarchy and usshered in David's. After a series of battles, Philistia was subdued and incorporated into the Israelite Empire. Fighting between Israel and Philistia did not resume until the death of David when fighting errupted along the frontier. They were no longer a serious threat to Israel thereafter; Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, received tribute from them but under Jehoram the border town of Libnah was lost (2 Ki.7:22). Philistia was still aggressive in the time of Ahaz (Is.9:8-12), and the last time they are mentioned in the Bible is in the prophecy of Zechariah, after the return from Exile. Philistia was wiped out as a nation and people by the Persians.
Had the Philistines not been around to harrass, Israel would have fallen into apostacy and not come out of it. The Baal religion of the Canaanites, already largely adopted by the Confederacy in a kind of unholy partnership with their Yahweh religion, would have increased in importance until the Yahweh faith became a mere appendage to the baal system of worship. The crushing humiliation of Israel under Philistine bondage brought this stubborn and foolish people to a realisation of their dependance on Yahweh. The Philistines were, therefore, probably no more than memory-joggers. Once Israel was brought into remembrance of its heritage and how it had been delivered out of the hands of Egypt (the mightiest power in Joseph's time) and how Yahweh had delivered them from other oppressors (like the Midianites), Israel repented, Yahweh raised a deliverer, and the oppression was removed. But with each rebellion against Yahweh, the oppression of the Philistines grew worse and longer. In one sense Israel did survive because of Philistine aggression, in another sense it didn't. Israel as an entity certainly was rpeserved by the Philistine thorn-in-the-side but as a Confederacy it was not. It took a monarchy to finally subdue the Philistines and by then it was, in a religious sense, too late. Yahweh had never condoned kings because He claimed to be Israel's Sovereign. But once Yahweh was rejected as King, it was only a matter of time before Israel was destroyed. If Israel had responded more positively to the Philistine harrassment and stuck to its covenants, and not returned to idol worship time and time again, I believe that the Confederacy would have survived and the Philistines been subdued too. But once Israel made the fateful decision to become "like the nations" there was little Yahweh could do to prevent Israel's decline into oblivion, with or without Philistine pressure.
It is therefroe my conclusion that Israel would not have survived without Philistine intervention but that the Philstine factor was only one of many. Had Israel responded more to its faith it might have preserved the Theocracy and saved the Confederacy. Though the kingdom of Israel solved the Philistine menace it did not solve the religious problems. The Philistine solution was a secular, not a religious one. Yahweh could have disposed with the Philistines in His own way but since He had been rejected as Israel's monarch, Israel had to deal with Philistia using the world's methods. As it happens, Philistia survived longer than Israel but as a people it disappeared entirely. Israel has emerged again, not as a nation (though a counterfeit newcomer in the Middle East with the same name claimed to be just that in 1948) but as a messianic spiritual entity, still in global dispersion, but awaiting her return home to the Promised Land upon the return of Yah'shua the Messiah (Jesus Christ). Interestingly, the apostate counterfeit, imitating a past monarchical model, is similarly threatened by a group of totally unrelated people who have co-opted the Roman name for the Philistines, the Palestinians in a deathly theatre performance that is deceiving the world. The outcome of this contest is in any case irrelevent - the modern day 'Philistines' are those who oppose and seek to destroy today's Messianic Israelites for the battle today is spiritual, not national.
Revised and expanded on 3 August 2009