Initially, a major fortified city of the Canaanites, located at a strategic point commanding the entrance to the Valley of Jezreel from the Jordan Valley. The name is continued in that of Beisan (Bet Sheʼan), while the ancient site is located nearby at Tell el-Husn (Tel Bet Sheʼan). The land in the area of Beth-shean is about 120 m (390 ft) below sea level, and to the E it drops off sharply to a point some 275 m (900 ft) below sea level by the banks of the Jordan River, about 5 km (3 mi) away. Built on a large mound on the rim of this declivity, Beth-shean was in an excellent position militarily. To the W of Beth-shean the flat valley plain, through which the river Jalud (Nahal Harod) courses, is well watered and fertile and steadily rises until it reaches Jezreel some 17 km (11 mi) to the WNW.
Beth-shean was also a junction town on the favored route leading from the Mediterranean Coast through to the Jordan Valley and on to Damascus and Arabia.
Archaeological excavations at Beth-shean have revealed numerous strata or levels of ancient ruins, the earliest evidently dating back before the time of Abraham. (DIAGRAM, Vol. 1, p. 959) Toward the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., Beth-shean appears to have come under Egyptian domination as a result of Thutmose III’s victory at Megiddo. Archaeological evidence indicates that it was an Egyptian outpost throughout the reigns of several Pharaohs.
At the time of the Israelite conquest of Canaan (1473-c. 1467 B.C.E.), Beth-shean was located within the territory allotted to Issachar but was assigned to the tribe of Manasseh for a possession. (Jos 17:11; 1Ch 7:29) The men of Manasseh failed to drive out the Canaanites in Beth-shean and other towns of the valley, presenting as their reason the military advantage exercised by the Canaanites with their war chariots equipped with iron scythes, which reason, however, did not satisfy their commander Joshua. The Canaanites, though not dispossessed, nevertheless were eventually subjugated to the point of rendering forced labor.—Jos 17:12, 13, 16-18; Jg 1:27, 28.
Beth-shean was in the possession of the Philistines at the time of the reign of King Saul, and following Saul’s defeat at adjacent Mount Gilboa the Philistine victors placed Saul’s armor in “the house of the Ashtoreth images” and his head on the house of Dagon, and hung the dead bodies of Saul and his sons on the wall of Beth-shan (Beth-shean), evidently on the interior side facing the city’s public square. Courageous and daring Israelites of Jabesh-gilead, about 20 km (12 mi) away on the other side of the Jordan, retrieved the bodies, perhaps penetrating the city at night in order to do so.—1Sa 31:8-13; 2Sa 21:12; 1Ch 10:8-12.
In harmony with the above account, in the excavations at Tell el-Husn the ruins of two temples were uncovered, one of which is considered to be the temple of Ashtoreth, while the other, farther to the S, is suggested by some to be the temple of Dagon. The temple of Ashtoreth is estimated to have continued in use until about the tenth century B.C.E. Evidence indicates an earlier worship of a Baal god referred to in one stele as “Mekal the master [Baal] of Beth-shan.”
The city was eventually conquered by the Israelites, doubtless during the time of David’s reign; and during the reign of Solomon, Beth-shean was included in one of the 12 royal supply districts. (1Ki 4:12) Following the division of the kingdom, Pharaoh Shishak (called Sheshonk by the Egyptians) invaded Palestine during King Rehoboam’s fifth year (993 B.C.E.). (1Ki 14:25) A relief on a wall at Karnak in Egypt depicts Shishak’s victorious campaign and conquest of numerous towns, including Beth-shean.
By the time of the Maccabees the name of Beth-shean had been changed to Scythopolis, and it is referred to by Jewish historian Josephus as the largest city of the Decapolis. (The Jewish War, III, 446 [ix, 7]) It was the only one of these ten cities lying W of the Jordan.
[Picture on page 303]
Beth-shean, built on this mound, dominated the east entrance to the Valley of Jezreel