Israel Guide: Beit Shean

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” The Philistines were waging war against Israel. The soldiers of Israel fled from the Philistines and were slain at Mount Gilboa. The Philistines overtook Shaul (King Saul) and his sons and the Philistines killed Yonassan, Avinadav, and Malki Shua, the sons of Shaul. The battle against Shaul himself was fierce. The enemy archers saw him and he feared the archers greatly. Shaul said to his arms bearer, ‘Draw your sword and slay me, rather than I fall into the hands of these gentiles. Before they slay me, they will taunt me.’ The arms bearer feared to do this and so he refused. Shaul took the sword himself and fell upon it. When the arms bearer saw that Shaul had died, he too fell upon his sword and died with him.

“Shaul, his three sons, the arms bearer, and all the other soldiers died together that day. When the people of Israel who were across the valley and those across the Jordan saw that the other soldiers of Israel had fled and that Shaul and his sons had died, they abandoned their cities and fled. The Philistines then came and dwelled in them.

“On the next next day, when the Philistines came to rob the corpses, they found the slain bodies of Shaul and his sons at Mount Gilboa. They severed his head and took his weapons. They sent word throughout the land of the Philistines announcing it in the temples and to the people. They placed Shaul’s weapons in the temple of Ashtoros and nailed his corpse to the wall in the city of Beth Shean.” (I Sam. 31:1-10)

Thus concludes the story of the first king in Israel. The sad saga came to an end in the city of Beth Shean.

The beautiful city of Beth Shean was located in the lush Jordan Valley not far from Mount Gilboa and close to the Jordan River, in the portion of land belonging to the tribe of Menasheh (Josh. 17:11). The rich soil and fresh water made Beth Shean one of the most desirable areas in Eretz Yisroel. Rebbe Yochanan proclaimed, “If Gan Eden is in Eretz Yisroel, its gateway is in Beth Shean.” (Erub. 19a)

Like many other cities that Yehoshua conquered , the Bnai Yisroel were not able to drive out the Philistine inhabitants of the city and so Beth Shean remained in the hands of the Philistines until it was eventual conquered by Dovid HaMelech (Judg. 1:27) The city remained under Jewish control until 300 years later when the Ten Tribes were conquered and exiled by the Assyrians.

When the Jews returned after the seventy years of “golus Bavel,” the Babylonian exile, they were unable to recapture Beth Shean. As a result, the produce that grew in Beth Shean was not subject to many of the laws of “terumos and ma’aseros.” (Chullin 6b)

It seems that Beth Shean remained largely uninhabited for about 400 years until the conquest of Alexander the Great, around 370 BCE. Under Alexander, the city was rebuilt. There were large open-air markets, magnificent public buildings, flowing fountains, and theaters. It was the center of Greek culture in Northern Israel. The name was changed to Scythopolis, named after the Russian Scythian mercenary warriors who helped Alexander in his conquests.

After Alexander died, his empire was divided into thirds, Rome, Egypt, and Syria. Egypt and Syria constantly fought over the control of Beth Shean. This argument was finally settled by the Maccabeans who captured the city in 104 BCE. The “goyim” who lived there were given the choice of converting to Yiddishkeit or leaving the land. They chose the latter. The Maccabees eradicated all traces of Greek culture and “avodah zora” and restored the original name, Beth Shean.

During the Jewish revolt of 68 CE against Roman dominion, which led to the destruction of the Bais HaMikdash, Beth Shean was captured by the Romans and the Jewish inhabitants were massacred. Once again the city was in non-Jewish hands.

Over the course of the next few centuries, Beth Shean slowly attracted Jews and Gentiles, pagan Romans and Christian Byzantines to the city. Even the Cussim (Samaritans) established a community there. Beth Shean was an active agricultural center of Eretz Yisrael, but the culture and flavor of the city was definitely Roman. The remains of a great Roman theater, where gladiators had fought, can still be seen in Beth Shean today. Other ruins that can be seen are the remains of a great pool and fountain, public bathrooms and bathhouses, shops, monuments, and the agora or public marketplace. Nearby are the remains of an ancient shul. The shul has Aramaic inscriptions in honor of those who donated money for the construction and upkeep of the building. It is interesting to note that the Yerushalmi Megilah 3:3 remarks that Rebbe Berachiah visited the synagogue of Beth Shean.

The Jews of Beth Shean were disqualified from being a “shliach tzibur” because they pronounced the letter “ayin” like an “alef” and the “alef” like an “ayin.” For the same reason, Cohanim from Beth Shean were not allowed to “duchen.” (Meg. 24b) I guess that would disqualify many of us too!

When the Moslem Arabs conquered Eretz Yisroel in the seventh century CE, Beth Shean was neglected. The buildings fell into a state of disrepair and most of the population moved away. On January 18, 749, a terrible earthquake hit Beth Shean. Thousands were killed and the city was reduced to a pile of ruble.

When the European Crusaders came in the twelfth century, Beth Shean was made into an independent state. The lord of the Beth Shean fiefdom lived in a castle surrounded by a moat. Ruins of the castle and its moat can still be seen.

This independent statehood was short lived. In 1263 the Crusaders were driven out of Beth Shean and the city was made part of the Syrian district of Damascus. Under the Syrians, Beth Shean once again flourished as a fertile agricultural center. The French Rabbi, Estori Parchi- author of Kaftor U’ferach, described the city as “blessed and pleasant, full of joy, it is surely the gateway to the Garden of Eden.”

For the remainder of its history, Beth Shean was an Arab village until the Israel War of Independence, in 1949, when it was captured by the Israelis. The area was settled by Jewish immigrants from North Africa.

Today, the ancient remains of Beth Shean are a popular tourist site and it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.