Glimpses of Israel - Bethshan

by Joseph Hunting

Bethshan is one of the most interesting archaeological digs in Israel. The tel is a huge mound that was once the site of nineteen cities which had been built on the ruins of each successive city destroyed by invading armies.

The name Bethshan probably means the house of the Phoenician diety, Sha'an and the original city was most likely a fortress guarding the approaches to the Jezreel valley 5,000 years ago.

Prior to the invasion by the Hebrews under Joshua, Bethshan was an Egyptian garrison. In due course the Canaanites re-occupied the city which was famed for its iron chariots: " ... and all the Canaanites that dwell in the land of the valley have chariots of iron, both they who are of Bethshan and her towns, and they who are of the valley of Jezreel." (Joshua 17:16)

Centuries later the armies of the Philistines clashed with Israel led by Saul and Jonathan. Before the sun set both Saul and Jonathan were among the slain on Mt. Gilboa. "And it came to pass on the morrow when the Philistines came to strip the slain, that they found Saul and his three sons fallen in Mt. Gilboa. And they cut off his head and stripped off his armour, and sent into the land of the Philistines round about, to publish it in the house of their idols and among the people. And they put his armour in the house of Ashtaroth: and they fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan." (1st Samuel 31:8-10)

A thousand years later the Romans fortified the city and built a magnificent amphitheatre which has recently been restored. Bethshan was again settled in 1949 by Israelis and the tel has since yielded a wealth of archaeological artifacts from which the history of this ancient city can be traced.