Beit she'an (BethShan in the Old Testament), is a Philistine city conquered by King David, lost for some 2,000 years, and is today re-owned again by Israel. The tribe of Manasseh used to lay claim to Bethshan even though it was located in a land given to tribe of Issachar (Joshua 17:11, Judges 1:27).
An earthquake has greatly devastated the city in 749 AD.
Bethshan (or Beth Shean, Beit Shean, Beth Shan) is located in an important strategic location within Israel. It is at the intersection where it meets the Jordan River valley and is therefore used to both guard the valleys and as a checkpoint for any Jordan River crossing in that area. The city is between the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee and the north of Jerusalem, Gibeon and Jericho.
It also stands at the entrance of the Jezreel valley (where many battles were fought by the Israelites, notably the one led by Gideon, against the Midianites, the Amalekites, and "the children of the East" in Judges 6. It was later the location at which the Israelites, led by King Saul, were defeated by the Philistines (1 Samuel 29:1–29:6), the King slained at nearby Mount Giboa. The valley of Jezreel will also be the battleground for the final Battle of Armageddon in Rev. 16:16-17 when Christ returns.
As recorded in 1Samuel, at a battle against King Saul at nearby Mount Gilboa in around 1,004 BC, the Philistines prevailed and Saul together with three of his sons, Jonathan, Abinadab and Malchishua, were killed (1 Samuel 31; 1 Chronicles 10). 1 Samuel 31:10 states that "the victorious Philistines hung the body of King Saul on the city wall of Beit She'an". As there is no archeological evidence of a Philistine occupation there, it is likely the army only passed through in the fight.
And it was recorded: “The Philistines came to strip the slain, and they found Saul and his three sons lying on Mt. Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped him of his armour … They placed his armour in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they impaled his body on the wall of Beth Shean. When the men of Jabesh-Gilead heard about it—what the Philistines had done to Saul—all their stalwart men set out and marched all night. They removed the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shean and came to Jabesh and burned them there. Then they took the bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and they fasted for seven days” (1 Samuel 31:8–13; cf. 1 Chronicles 10:8–12).
Saul’s army was probably completely devastated and only those inhabitants left at Jabesh-Gilead learned about the bodies and felt they must take them down for the shame. Despoiled and ‘exposed’ by the Philistines, the bodies were removed and buried in Jabesh, while their bones were taken and buried under a tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and the people fasted seven days.
Saul and his severed head, together with his sons, were brought down from the Wall of Beth-Shan. (Inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead recovering the bodies of Saul and his Sons", 1865 engraving, by Gustave Dore', from the "La Sainte Bible")
The tree was supposed to be there in remembrance of Saul (since when we do not know), on top of the Tel (Mound) Beth Shean.
There are two access paths to reach the summit – from the west and the south. This path on the west side ascends the steep hill and reaches the ruins of a gate, dated only to the Middle Ages, when the Tel was a fortified farm or estate. This is the latest level of the city, and under it are the remains of about 20 levels of cities spanning the time from the 5th Millennium BC! This apparently is the difficulty with Holy Land archaeology.
Jabesh-Gilead, where the battle was fought, was nearby, about 12 miles away (see map below). The Philistines did not dump the body of Saul and his 3 sons in just around the Jezreel Valley, where no one will notice, but rather took the bodies to nearby Beth Shan and have them hung on the high wall of the city for all to see.
It is possible that the Philistines, as an act of immense mockery, hung Saul and his sons at a point to show them looking at the battle field which Saul finally was defeated and had to leave (for good)!
It is telling in the Old Testament narratives that this could be a judgement and punishment from God. Somehow the merciful Lord allowed the Israelites at Jabesh-Gilead to remove the bodies in dignity and accorded a burial.
We come to see many lessons in Saul's life. We see:
Beth Shan was a prime territory in ancient Palestine. The city was indeed a major cross-road of ancient trade routes. Placed at the junction of the Jordan valley (north-south) and the Jezreel valley (east-west), it saw a great deal of traffic from just about all points of the ancient Near East. The Via Maris, an important trade route along the Mediterranean coast connects the Jezreel valley to Beth Shan, and then to the major Transjordan trade route, the King’s Highway.
The only other major national “artery” at the time was located northward at the Sea of Galilee. It was also enroute from Egypt to Mesopotamia, and Empires of Assyria and Babylon.
Is it not amazing that God has chosen these sites in the narration for Saul’s demise and shame?
On the top of Tel Beth Shean, one can clearly see across the valley and also 12 miles away to the east, where Jabesh-Gilead is located. As a visitor, one is completely overwhelmed by the view of the valley below.
An amazing detail that must not be missed is that the city of Bethshan is on the edge of this mount and Jabesh-Gilead is way below. Whatever hangs on the wall of Beth Shean can be clearly see from faraway. On the other hand, a villager on a flat plain 15 miles away from the fort on the same level will never be able to see what is hanging on the wall. Standing on Tel Beth Shean simply makes one awestruck that indeed what is recorded in the Bible is such a true story!
Archaeology tries to put things in context. Archaeology tries to ask some broader questions such as: What were the Philistines doing at Beth Shean? And why Beth Shean in the first place? After all, Saul was killed on Mt. Gilboa. And what was the wall at Beth Shean like? Apparently for these questions, fervent Bible reader and believer can find the answers without much difficulty.
But far more importantly, we can only see who is sovereign, and whose righteousness and justice are seen to command the land. God will bring the King of Kings. God will need to eventually rule Israel, and all his elect, for his own namesake. We truefully cry out for His Grace and Mercy.
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