When we talk of Palestine, we immediately think of the Palestinians, a group of Muslims, who are fighting to be recognized as a separate nation.
Israel has basically opposed this initiative for one simple reason — one of the leading political groups in Palestine, Hamas, stated in its 1988 covenant that one of its goals is the annihilation of Israel:
“Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it” (The Martyr, Imam Hassan al-Banna, of blessed memory).”
Israel is unwilling to accept Palestine as nation until they are willing to accept Israel as a nation.
But what does the word Palestine refer to?
Most believe it was a word the Roman developed to describe the ancient Philistines who have have since disappeared. Based on this belief, modern Palestinians have claimed this area as their homeland.
However, modern scholarship is challenging this notion.
There is strong evidence that the word Palestine was originally used to refer to Israel, not the Philistines.
In an article published in Biblical Archaeological Review in 2001, David Jacobsen presents his case.
First as a cultural group and nation, the Philistines disappeared over four centuries before the Roman empire formed. The Philistines were taken into captivity by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar around 617 BC. He took Israel into captivity 20 years later (597 BC), but there was one huge difference, while the Israelis returned to their homeland in 537 BC, the Philistines never did.
After defeating the Babylonians, King Cyrus of Persia issued an edict allowing all nations in captivity to return to their homeland. For some unknown reason, the Philistines were content to stay where they were. So it would be a bit unusual to name the area after a people who had not lived in the region for nearly five centuries.
So when later writers started talking about Palestine who were they referring to?
According to Jacobsen, Israel.
He cites the writing of the Greek historian Herodotus who lived between 484 BC and 425 BC. Though he did not describe those living in Palestine as Jews, he referred to them a circumcised. Since no other culture, including the Philistines, in the region practiced circumcision, who else could Herodotus being referred to other than Jews.
Then the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) adds to the discussion when he refers to the dead sea as being in Palestine.
So what is so significant about that? It is this: the Philistine nation was located north of Israel and since the Dead Sea is in the traditional homeland of Israel, Aristotle was using the term to describe the territory of the Jews, not the Philistines.
After the Romans conquered Israel in 135 BC, they began to refer to the area as Palestine. Though some believe Emperor Hadrian was trying to insult the Jews, historical references suggest this wasn’t the case. By this time, Palestine was the accepted name of the Jewish homeland.
So why did the word Palestine become the name for the Jewish homeland instead of Israel?
Jacobsen provides this interesting theory on why it took place and it centers around the Biblical story of how Jacob wrestled with an angel of God in Genesis 32:25-32.
Because the patriarch wrestle with God all night, the angel changed Jacob’s name to Israel which literally means “he who strives with God”:
28 He said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but [a]Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28 NASV)
This is the first reference to the word Israel that would become the name of the Jewish nation.
So how do we get the word Palestine out of this story? To do that we have to turn to the Septuagint, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, where we find a word very similar to Palestine.
The Greek word for wrestle is “Palaistes” and the Greek word for Palestine is “Palaistine.” Considering this is the passage where we find the first reference to Israel, it seems the Greeks used the Palaistine to describe the Jewish territory.
So why did the Greeks do this?
Jacobsen says the Greeks loved their ancient heroes such as Hercules and Achilles and Israel’s story of man wrestling with an angel of God immediately catch their attention. Secondly, wrestling was also one of the favorite sports of the ancient Greeks where famous wrestlers had rock star status.
The Greeks started to use the word “Palaistine” to describe the land of the man (Israel) who wrestled with God.
Though the word Palestine is today used to solidify the Palestinians claim to the area, in fact the word describes Israel’s historical connection to the land that goes back thousands of years.