Beth Shean

Large portions of the First Testament become comprehensible when we stand on the tell of Beth Shean and look around. In addition, an immense Roman city is being unearthed below, bringing home to us what it signified, physically, when Rome appeared in the land. 

Beth Shean was important. Several things signify this:

  • In the mid-second millennium BC, it became the chief Egyptian military base in the area, as indicated by numerous Egyptian finds on the tell, more than anywhere outside Egypt.

  • When the Romans organized the Decapolis around 58 BC, they made Scythopolis (as the city was then called) the capital of the league. It was the only Decapolis city west of the Jordan.

  • On again organizing the land in 400 AD, the Romans made Scythopolis the capital of Palaestina Secunda. Caesarea Maritima became the capital of Palaestina Prima, Petra (in Jordan today) of Tertia. 

What made Beth Shean important? First, its geography. As a result of faulting, the Jezreel Valley branches off to the west from the Jordan. The latter has several good fords nearby. (At the time of the First Testament there were no bridges in the land.) One could come down off the King's Highway in Transjordan, ford the river, and then make a gentle ascent to Megiddo, there joining the Great Trunk Road to Egypt. Thus the way through Beth Shean was the best link-road joining the two international routes.

We may put the matter as follows: Whoever controlled the Great Trunk Road and the King's Highway held the land in a pincers. But a pincers requires a hinge to join the two pieces. That hinge was Beth Shean.

The city had abundant water. Two streams flowed on either side of the mound, although today there is only one, the Harod. The soil was extremely good. In the Byzantine period Scythopolis became famous for its linen, which it manufactured from the flax it grew in the Jezreel Valley.

Scythopolis: the Roman-Byzantine City

We are on the north side of the tell , having just heard the story of Saul. From here we can begin to get an idea of the city's later history. In the Hellenistic period, the population was too large for this mound alone, so some people moved to the hill across the river. Only in the Roman period did they build below. Eventually, under the Pax Romana, the sense of security increased, and most activities shifted to the valley west and south of us. The tell became the acropolis ("top of the city") with a temple to Zeus. Before 1985 the entire area below us, except the theatre, was covered with eucalyptus trees. In that year the modern Beth Shean had a serious problem of unemployment. Archaeologists knew there was plenty waiting to be dug. Here was the capital of the Decapolis, but only the tell and the theatre had been excavated. Since Decapolis cities such as Jerash (Gerasa) in Jordan are splendid, this must be splendid too! And so they were able to put 200 breadwinners from Beth Shean to work. 

We go to the eastern edge of the tell and look to the Harod River. There we can see the remains of a triple-arched Roman bridge. (The Romans were the first to introduce bridges to the land). Beyond it was the main entrance to the town. 

We walk to the south side of the tell, noting the mud brick structures on the left, which may have been Israelite. On the southern edge, we have a grand view of the ruins. The downtown area extended beyond the theatre to an amphitheater, out of view. Indeed, the area of the Byzantine city was a square mile (Jerusalem's Old City is less, a square kilometer). The population, in the Roman period, may have been 20,000, in the Byzantine, 50,000.

After orienting ourselves, we shall go down and visit the places. I shall describe them now as if we could "telescope in" from the tell.

The theatre dates from the 2nd century AD. Today it has two tiers of seats, but then it had three. (The earthquake of 363 brought it down, and it was never repaired to its original height.) The seats were all of white limestone imported from Mt. Gilboa, and they were set at an angle to catch the natural rise of the sound waves from the stage. About 7000 people could fit inside. On hot or rainy days, the whole top would be covered with a canopy, made perhaps from the town's famous linen. The niches for the supporting posts are visible in the seats. This raised a problem of stuffiness, which the Romans solved (Oscar Seyffert informs us) by squirting a mixture of saffron and water into the air between acts. The alcoves beside the exits, unique to this theatre, may have held the spraying machines, especially needed in so hot a valley.

East of the theatre, a 2nd-century Roman bathhouse stretched all the way to a porch or stoa, now indicated only by its line of impressive pillars. If we look back toward the theatre, the southwestern corner of the bathhouse is marked by a few slender pillars, between which one can see, even from the tell, the seats of the public restroom. On a close-up view, we note beneath the rows a ditch, through which was channeled the southern river of Scythopolis, taking the waste to the Jordan (a tradition proudly maintained until our own day). Men and women used the restroom at different times. There were no dividers between the seats. It was a favorite place for a chat. 

Returning to the line of impressive pillars: originally, between them and the street, there was a shallow reflecting pool, so that one saw them twice. The Byzantines filled the pool and built shops, calling the street "Sylvanus Street" after the Samaritan lawyer who financed its reconstruction in 515. On January 18, 749 an earthquake brought the city down, including these pillars. One covered the skeleton of a man reaching for a bag of coins. This quake devastated much of the country, especially in the Syro-African rift valley. We have literary records of many Jewish casualties in Tiberias. Scythopolis never recovered, although a small town was built over part of the ruins, incorporating pillars in the foundations.

We follow Sylvanus Street toward the tell, encountering next on our left a square platform. This supported a monument that greeted those coming from the main gate. It included statues made of green Athenian marble. Next we find a nymphaeum (a public fountain with statues of nymphs), and next, at the corner, a temple to Dionysus, patron god of the city. 

Today we see the steps of this temple, along with the huge pillars of its facade that fell in the earthquake. The Byzantine Christians got rid of its inner chamber (cella), but left the facade. Here then we encounter, as at Sepphoris, the cult of Dionysus. 

A ceremonial staircase connected the Dionysus temple with the Zeus temple on the acropolis. For Zeus was the father of Dionysus. The mother, however, was not Hera, his wife, but Semele, a mortal. Disguised as an old woman, Hera wheedled the pregnant Semele into wheedling Zeus to show himself in his true form. This was the lightning stroke, which turned Semele to a crisp. Zeus saved the embryo and sewed it into his thigh, out of which, at term, burst the god of flowing wine. 

The columned street coming down toward the tell, intersecting Silvanus at the temple, is called Palladius, after its 4th-century founder. In a mosaic inscription, Palladius assures us that he donated the money for the street from his own pocket. (He does not say how the money got into his pocket, but that would take too long for a mosaic inscription.) To the south of this street was the agora or marketplace, including some striking animal mosaics. To its north is an open semicircle with small rooms radiating off it. In one of them we find a 6th-century mosaic showing a rather unhappy looking Tyche (the luck of the city), with the urban wall on her head for a crown. She holds a cornucopia. We may wonder what a goddess like this is doing in a Christian city, but then we see that the date palm growing out of the horn is a cross. 

Several of the floors in the rooms of this semicircle have mosaics containing erotic poems in Greek. 

Continuing westward on Palladius street, we find a 4th-century bathhouse on the north side. Since the reconstructers did not know what the roofs looked like, they made roofs they were sure would not resemble the originals. Inside, however, we find the country's best-preserved saunas (calidaria).

We have seen two bathhouses. Five have been found, including one for lepers.

We have not, however, seen the remains of churches. There was one on the acropolis. But the Byzantines wanted the downtown area for bathing and commerce, shunting religion to the margins. On the hills south of the Harod River are the remains of a 6th century monastery, as well as Jewish and Samaritan synagogues. The monastery, built by "the lady Mary" (perhaps the wife of a Byzantine official) includes a large mosaic. The months are depicted, each "represented by a man equipped for an occupation typical of the season." (Murphy-O'Connor , p. 195).  

Palladius street leads us up to the modern entrance. We can then walk or drive around to the amphitheatre ("double theatre"). Such structures, among them the Coliseum in Rome, were used for the bloodiest spectacles of Roman public life: gladiator and animal fights, as well as execution by animals. Only the arena (from Latin harena, meaning sand, which was used to soak up the blood) and the first few tiers of benches remain, but in the 2nd century AD it had between eleven and thirteen rows, accommodating about 6000 people, including soldiers from the Roman Sixth Legion. In all of Asia Minor no amphitheatres have been found, but in this small land we know of five so far: here, in Beit Guvrin (the best-preserved), in Shechem, and two (from different periods) in Caesarea Maritima. The reason: after the first Jewish revolt, Roman legions were stationed here, and the armies loved spectacles of blood. Yet not only the armies. From the time of Julius Caesar, no Roman politician could gain favor with the people if he did not stage extravagant spectacles ending in death. The effect was aphrodisiac. After the killings inside, prostitutes made a killing at the gates.

In this example at Scythopolis, the first row is more than ten feet above the arena, and of course there would have been a fence as well, protecting the drooling spectators from the beasts and gladiators. These beasts would have included lions, caught in what was still then the "thickets of the Jordan" (Jeremiah 49:19). (The last lion was sighted in the 13th century.) During the persecutions by Decius (250 AD), Valerian (258) and Diocletian (304), Christians would have undergone martyrdom here.

Given such memories, the Byzantines had no interest in amphitheatres. They buried this one with a neighborhood, whose basalt-cobbled streets we may walk.

View from the Tell of Beth Shean: The death of Saul in context

We climb the tell to a point on its north side, near a partial reconstruction of the Egyptian governor's mansion. From here we have a complete view around. 

To the southwest are the mountains of Gilboa, stepping down into the Jezreel Valley. The very lowest step is Tel Jezreel, where Ahab and Jezebel had their winter capital, near Naboth's kerem (vineyard or olive grove). The Harod River, flowing below us, has its origin in a spring at the foot of Gilboa, where Gideon chose his 300 (Judges 7). Sighting up the Jezreel Valley, we are looking toward the pass at Megiddo, with Mt. Carmel to its right. North of Tel Jezreel, just across the valley, is the Hill of Moreh, where the Midianites were camping when Gideon's band sneaked up, and where later the Philistines camped when Saul stood at Jezreel in fear for his life. To the right of Moreh, closer in, is a rise of land that prevents us from seeing Mt. Tabor; just on the other side of it lies Ein Dor, where Saul consulted with a witch.

If we complete our turn, facing east, we see the Jordan, toward which the Midianites raced in panic on their camels, and Gideon called out the tribes of Israel to cut them down at the fords. Above are the heights of biblical Gilead, atop which, about twenty-five miles to the east, ran the King's Highway from Damascus to Arabia. On it, almost due east of us, was Ramot Gilead, where Omri and his descendants often fought the Arameans, trying to complete their grasp on the key to wealth and power.

Turning ESE, sighting over a gabled tin roof to the other side of the Jordan, we see a village on the place of ancient Pella, a Decapolis city where the Christians of Jerusalem took refuge during the First Revolt against Rome. If we now ascend to the first layer of hills (not the horizon), we are in the area of Jabesh Gilead, which figures in the story of Saul. 

The choice of Saul as king

Archaeological surveys indicate a marked decline in settlement through most of the land in the second half of the second millennium BC, followed by a sudden upsurge in the 12th century. Most of the new settlers had been semi-nomads, herders of small livestock, who now took up agriculture. Some of their communities developed into towns we associate with biblical Israel.

The "Israel" of these semi-nomadic settlers was at first a not-so-reliable confederacy of clans and tribes, each intent on keeping its independence. When a crisis arose, they depended upon the charisma of a leader to unite them, and the process took time. As long as their enemy was equally slow to mobilize, they could get by without a standing army, that is, without a human king.

The shift to human kingship was spurred by pressure from the Philistines (ca. 1050 BC). By then the Israelite settlers had put roots in the soil: they had something permanent they did not want to lose. What is more, unlike their earlier enemies, the Philistines did not need much time to mobilize. Based on the southern coast, they could strike quickly up through the territory of Benjamin on the southernmost good link-road between the western trunk and the King's Highway. 

The Israelites no longer had enough warning time to mobilize the tribes in the old manner. They chose, therefore, a human king who could tax their produce and maintain a standing army. It made geographical sense that he came from Benjamin, for this was the tribe on the link road where the Philistines first put the pressure.

Saul of Benjamin was a transitional figure. He started like the charismatic leaders before him: by rescuing people. When the Ammonites besieged the Israelites of Jabesh Gilead, they demanded that each man surrender his right eye. The men of Jabesh appealed to Saul, who made a raid across the Jordan and rescued them (1 Samuel 11).

After Saul's coronation, however, something goes wrong with him. Perhaps charisma and permanent kingship do not go easily together. The God who gives charisma can also take it away. In Saul's case, it was replaced by spells of madness. As the Bible puts it, he lost his earlier contact with God. The loss is explained in two ways: he did
not wait for Samuel before performing a sacrifice, and he did not execute the Amalekite king as God had commanded (1 Samuel 13: 7-14 and 1 Samuel 15). Standing on Tell Jezreel, looking at the Philistines camped on the Hill of Moreh, the king knew he no longer had that contact.

The death of Saul

Having lost his contact with God, Saul sought to take counsel with the human source of his authority, Samuel. Here there was a catch, however: Samuel was dead. Undeterred, Saul and some of his officers disguised themselves and sneaked around the eastern side of Mt. Moreh to Ein Dor, to a witch. Here too was a catch, for Saul had banned witchcraft. Nevertheless, he persuaded the woman to "bring up" Samuel: 

1 Samuel 28:9-25

But the woman said to him, "Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who are mediums and spiritists from the land. Why are you then laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?" Saul vowed to her by the LORD, saying, "As the LORD lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing." Then the woman said, "Whom shall I bring up for you?" And he said, "Bring up Samuel for me." When the woman saw Samuel, she cried out with a loud voice; and the woman spoke to Saul, saying, "Why have you deceived me? For you are Saul." The king said to her, "Do not be afraid; but what do you see?" And the woman said to Saul, "I see a divine being coming up out of the earth." He said to her, "What is his form?" And she said, "An old man is coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe." And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage.

Then Samuel said to Saul, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" And Saul answered, "I am greatly distressed; for the Philistines are waging war against me, and God has departed from me and no longer answers me, either through prophets or by dreams; therefore I have called you, that you may make known to me what I should do." Samuel said, "Why then do you ask me, since the LORD has departed from you and has become your adversary? The LORD has done accordingly as He spoke through me; for the LORD has torn the kingdom out of your hand and given it to your neighbor, to David. As you did not obey the LORD and did not execute His fierce wrath on Amalek, so the LORD has done this thing to you this day. Moreover the LORD will also give over Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines, therefore tomorrow you and your sons will be with me. Indeed the LORD will give over the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines!".

Then Saul immediately fell full length upon the ground and was very afraid because of the words of Samuel; also there was no strength in him, for he had eaten no food all day and all night. The woman came to Saul and saw that he was terrified, and said to him, "Behold, your maidservant has obeyed you, and I have taken my life in my hand and have listened to your words which you spoke to me. So now also, please listen to the voice of your maidservant, and let me set a piece of bread before you that you may eat and have strength when you go on your way." But he refused and said, "I will not eat." However, his servants together with the woman urged him, and he listened to them. So he arose from the ground and sat on the bed. The woman had a fattened calf in the house, and she quickly slaughtered it; and she took flour, kneaded it and baked unleavened bread from it. She brought it before Saul and his servants, and they ate. Then they arose and went away that night.

(David, having fled from the jealous Saul and gathered a band around him, was by this time a Philistine vassal with his own city, Ziklag. He was therefore duty bound to join the Philistines in battle -- a sticky wicket, if he ever wanted to rejoin his people. Fortunately for him, however, the Philistines remembered where he came from and decided not to trust him. They sent him back to his town.)

1 Samuel 31:1-13

Now the Philistines were fighting against Israel, and the men of Israel fled from before the Philistines and fell slain on Mount Gilboa. The Philistines overtook Saul and his sons; and the Philistines killed Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua the sons of Saul. The battle went heavily against Saul, and the archers hit him; and he was badly wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armor bearer, "Draw your sword and pierce me through with it, otherwise these uncircumcised will come and pierce me through and make sport of me." But his armor bearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. So Saul took his sword and fell on it. When his armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword and died with him. Thus Saul died with his three sons, his armor bearer, and all his men on that day together.

When the men of Israel who were on the other side of the valley, with those who were beyond the Jordan, saw that the men of Israel had fled and that Saul and his sons were dead, they abandoned the cities and fled; then the Philistines came and lived in them.It came about on the next day when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped off his weapons, and sent them throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people. They put his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan. Now when the inhabitants of Jabesh-gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men rose and walked all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan, and they came to Jabesh and burned them there. They took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree at Jabesh, and fasted seven days.

The word is brought to David in Ziklag. He sings this lament (2 Samuel 1:19-27):

"Your beauty, O Israel, is slain on your high places!
How have the mighty fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
Or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
The daughters of the uncircumcised will exult."

"O mountains of Gilboa,
Let not dew or rain be on you, nor fields of offerings;
For there the shield of the mighty was defiled,
The shield of Saul, not anointed with oil."

"From the blood of the slain, from the fat of the mighty,
The bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
And the sword of Saul did not return empty.
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and pleasant in their life,
And in their death they were not parted;
They were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions."

"O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
Who clothed you luxuriously in scarlet,
Who put ornaments of gold on your apparel."

"How have the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan is slain on your high places.
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
You have been very pleasant to me.
Your love to me was more wonderful
Than the love of women."

"How have the mighty fallen,
And the weapons of war perished!"

2 Samuel 2:1

Then it came about afterwards that David inquired of the LORD, saying, "Shall I go up to one of the cities of Judah?" And the LORD said to him, "Go up." So David said, "Where shall I go up?" And He said, "To Hebron."

The death of Saul left the tribes extremely vulnerable to the Philistines. David went to Hebron in his home tribe of Judah, whose people submitted to his kingship. After seven years the other tribes approached him and asked that he protect them as well. Hebron was too far south, though, and too Judah-bound, to serve as a satisfactory capital for a kingdom including the northern tribes. Then David's eyes lit upon a city that straddled the border between Judah and the north, belonging to no tribe: Jerusalem.

Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (

© 2003 Near East Tourist Agency (NET)
Text © 2003 Stephen Langfur