In what is considered to be one of the oldest settlements in the world, this city has offered possibly more archaeological discoveries than any other in the region. Also known as Beth-Shan, Beit Shean, Baithsan, Bethsa, Tell el-Huşn and later named by the Greeks as Scythopolis (capitol of the Decapolis), site inhabitants date as far back as 4500 BC. This date rivals the oldest city in archaeological history, ancient Jericho. The Semitic name of the city can be interpreted to mean, “house of rest.” However, many believe it was more likely identified with the meaning “temple of Shan,” due to the Sumerian worship of the serpent god Ŝahan.
The city is situated at a junction between the Jezreel and Jordan Valleys. The tel rises approximately 213 ft and is .5 mile in circumference. Located in Issachar (Joshua 17:11-12, 16; Judges 1:27, 28), Beth-Shean was given to Manasseh. However, Manasseh was unable to completely drive the Canaanites out of the land because of their “chariots of iron,” and thus, they remained in the land. To complicate matters, the Israelites then put the Canaanites to slave labor, which ironically is what they had been delivered from.
Later, Israel demanded her first king, much to the chagrin of the Prophet Samuel. Saul was anointed, but soon came to be a disappointment as a man and leader from God. David is subsequently anointed by Samuel as king, but has to run for his life because of Saul’s insane jealousy. Towards the end of Saul’s reign, Israel had been struggling to break the Philistine hold on the land of Jezreel. After Samuel dies, Saul gathers his forces and prepares to confront the enemy (1 Samuel 28:4). However, when he sees the Philistine army, he is terrified and turns to inquire of God. He receives no answer from the Lord, so in his desperation, he seeks out a medium (spiritist) for consult. While he does not ask her to specifically tell him what to do, he does ask her to bring Samuel up from the dead. Much to the surprise of the medium, it works, and Samuel appears. Samuel chastises him for disobeying God and tells him he will lose the battle.
Meanwhile, as the Philistines are gearing up for battle against Saul’s army, David and his men approach them from the rear. The surprised Philistines recognize him and want to know why he is there. For years David had been hiding in the land of the Philistines from the hand of Saul, who sought to kill him. Even though he had to act as if he were insane, he survived for 1 year and 4 months (1 Samuel 27:7) in the hotbed of Israel’s worst enemy and ended up collecting his elite fighting group of “mighty men.” David leaves from the immediate land of the Philistines and goes to Gath. He tells the king there (Achish) that he has come in peace and sets up camp. But then he raids the sounding lands of all those who were set against Israel. When David returns, Achish inquires where he has been raiding. David lies and tells him he has been in the south country, which belonged to the Israelites. Achish believes that David is purely anti-Israel now, and trusts him.
Achish is aligned with the Philistines and thus, musters for battle against Saul. David is unaware whom specifically the Philistines were fighting against. But he must keep up the façade with Achish in order to keep his cover. However, when he rides up with Achish to the battle camp, the Philistines recognize him and begin to inquire why he is there. The Philistines do not trust David to stay true in the fight and believe it is too risky to have him along. Achish then appeals to David to hang back because of the friction.
David departs the battlefront and comes back to his camp in Ziklag, only to find that it has been raided by the Amalekites while he was gone. They took everyone captive (which included David’s wives and children) and all their possessions and then burned the rest to the ground. The people started to turn against David, but he pulled himself together and consulted the Lord for direction. He receives word from the Lord to pursue the marauders and rescue his people. After finding an abandoned Egyptian that had been fighting for the Amalekites, he finds the location of the enemy and lays them waste. All of David’s people and possessions are rescued, including his wives and children.
Meanwhile back at Mount Gilboa, the Philistines are roundly defeating the Israelites (1 Samuel 31:1). The sons of Saul are killed and the Philistines are now in pursuit of him. Archers manage to mortally wound him and Saul begs his armor bearer to finish him off. The armor bearer refuses, so Saul falls on his own sword and commits suicide. The armor bearer sees this, panics, and does likewise to himself. Later the Philistines find the bodies of Saul and his sons. They stripped Saul’s body of his weapons and decapitated him. His weapons were stored in the temple of Ashtaroth and they fastened his body, along with the bodies of his sons, to walls of the city of the site we visit here, Beth-Shan (Shean).
By the time of King Solomon’s reign, the city will be administered to under Megiddo/Ta’anach (1 Kings 4:12). It will be listed multiple times throughout Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine history, when it will be known as Scythopolis. When the Maccabean revolt occurs, this particular city will be spared because of its lack of resistance and support of the Jews. Later, it became the capitol city of the Decapolis, even though the vast majority of the district was to the east of the Jordan and Scythopolis was to the west. Remnants of synagogues from the 6th and 7thc AD have been discovered with Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic inscriptions. The city fell to Islamic conquest in 636 AD and was utterly destroyed. A mosque was built on site and the city was renamed as “Besian” by the Muslims.
As a footnote, going back into the 15th-16thc BC periods, it is important to note the presence of ancient figures identified in the archaeological stratigraphy of Beth-Shean. Pharaoh Thutmose III and Ramses III are evidenced in artifacts, as well as hieroglyphics declaring the presence of the “Sea Peoples,” who are later identified as “Philistines.”
- Joshua 17:11, 16
- Judges 1:27
- 1 Samuel 31:10, 12
- 2 Samuel 21:12
- 1 Kings 4:12
- 1 Chronicles 7:29