Glimpses of Israel - Beth Shean

by Joseph Hunting

Beth Shean together with Megiddo were two of the most strategically placed cities in the Holy Land. Placed at either end of the Jezreel Valley on the major road link between Egypt and the Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian empires they were the most heavily fortified cities of that region.

The name Beth Shean probably means the house of the Phoenician serpent god Sha'an. In New Testament times it was called Scythopolis and its modern Arabic name is Beisan.

The tel, one of the largest in Israel, has revealed no fewer than nineteen levels of cities built one atop the previous one. It was a fortress city centuries before Abraham left Chaldea. As Beth Shean guarded the trade route between Chaldea and Canaan the Patriarch would have passed this city as he journeyed southward through Shechem to the plains of Mamre.

About 1,500 B.C. the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III captured the city and it remained in Egyptian hands for a further 300 years. When Joshua invaded Canaan the Israelites were unable to conquer Beth Shean because its defenders had chariots of iron (Joshua 17:12-16). Five hundred years later the Philistines occupied the city and put Saul's armour in the temple of Astoreth and hung his body on the wall of Beth Shean (1 Samuel 31:10).

As one wanders amongst the ruins of the Roman occupation a thousand years later there is evidence of a great city, known then as Scythopolis. The Roman theatre is huge and is one of the finest examples of its kind still in existence. One can only marvel at the opulence of Beth Shean during its Roman heyday. Magnificent columns of Aswan granite are strewn around. They had been shipped from upper Egypt to this flourishing outpost of the Roman empire.

The modern town of Beth Shean is content to bask in the history of this city which dates back 5,000 years and would vie with Jericho as one of the most ancient centres of civilization.