Bet She’an, Where Archaeology Meets The Bible

Roman Ruins and Tel at Bet She'an
Roman Ruins and Tel at Bet She’an

Bet She’an, “house of rest” or “place of quiet,” is located four miles west of the Jordan River, fifteen miles south of the Sea of Galilee, and about forty-five miles north of Jericho. Tel Bet She’an lies where two fertile valleys, the Harod Valley and Jordan Valley, meet. The Harod Valley and the Harod River both begin at Mount Gilboa, the location of Ein Harod or Harod Springs – better known as Gideon’s Springs from the Biblical account of Gideon battling the Midianites in Judges 7 – and end at the Jordan River just east of Bet She’an.

Continuously Settled for 6000 Years

As you stand on top of the Tel, you can look in several directions and see the two valleys where they meet, the ancient and modern cities of Bet She’an and follow the Jordan down south to Jericho.  According to Biblical accounts, archaeology and ancient Egyptian writings, the site has been almost continuously settled for 6000 years, starting with the Chalcolithic period, 4500 to 3500 BC, when the town was an important stop for caravans and a center of Egyptian rule, until the present time.

Tel Contained Ruins of 18 Cities

Tel Bet She'an
Tel Bet She’an

The three hundred-foot high tel at Bet She’an is the highest Tel in Palestine. Archaeologists have identified eighteen different levels of occupation in the Tel, indicating that this was one of the oldest cities in Palestine. Bet She’an is one of the cities conquered by Egypt after a battle near Megiddo in 1468 BC that resulted in 350 years of Egyptian rule.  Excavations have unearthed ruins from this time period in the Tel that verify the city’s importance as an administrative center during the Egyptian rule.

Biblical Land Allotted to Manasseh

Bet Shean call outWhen the Israelites entered the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for 40 years, Bet She’an and the surrounding towns were allotted to the tribe of Manasseh. However, fearing the iron chariots of the Canaanite inhabitants, the Israelites failed to drive the Canaanites out of Bet She’an, according to the Biblical account of Joshua 17, and much of the tribe’s land allotment remained under Canaanite control until the reign of King Solomon.

Biblical Account of King Saul

Bet She'an
Bet She’an

In the 11th century, during a battle with the Philistines, Saul and his three sons, including Jonathan, were killed on nearby Mount Gilboa in the Harod Valley.  The Philistine victors carried their decapitated bodies to Bet She’an and hung them on the city wall to humiliate the Israelites.  The men of nearby Jabesh-gilead, an Israelite city, hearing of this travesty, marched through the night, and  according to the Biblical account in 1st Samuel chapter 31, brought their bodies back to Jabesh-gilead where they burned them and buried the ashes.

Solomon Enlarges the City

During King David’s reign in the 10th century, the city was burned to the ground in battles with the Philistines and was later rebuilt by his son, Solomon when he enlarged the Israelite kingdom and made Bet She’an, along with Megiddo, administrative centers of his rule.  The account of 1st Kings, chapter 4, confirms that Bet She’an was finally conquered four hundred years after Joshua brought the Israelites into the Promised Land.  Soon after that, when the Israelite nation split into the North and South kingdoms, the Assyrians captured the Northern kingdom in 732 BC and destroyed Bet She’an down to its foundations.

Renamed Scythopolis

During the 3rd century BC, when the Greek empire ruled Palestine, a new city named Scythopolis emerged on top of the ruins and to the north of the Tel. An earthquake, around 363 BC damaged the city, but Bet She’an or Scythopolis was reconstructed and continued to thrive through the centuries. Scythopolis was an important Greek city during that empire’s occupation but during Maccabean wars and rule of the Hasmonaens, the city was wrested from Greek control and from that time until the Roman conquest, remained an important Jewish city in the Galilee region.

Capitol of the Roman Decapolis

Bob and Cleo in the entrance to the amphitheatre
Bob and Cleo in the entrance to the amphitheatre

In 64 BCE the city was taken by the Romans, rebuilt, and made the capital of the Decapolis, a league of ten cities located east of the Jordan River that were centers of Greco-Roman culture. This new Roman city was established south of the ancient Tel and included wide paved streets, large public structures, markets, and residential areas.

4th Century Christian Population

In the 4th century AD, the city became a stronghold of Christianity with a majority of the population followers of Christ.  In 749 AD the city and the entire region of Palestine was shaken by a massive earthquake which left Bet She’an and many other cities in ruins until modern times.  The destructive force and magnitude of the earthquake is still in evidence as you view and walk by dozens of massive columns toppled over in the same direction.

Archaeological Finds

Among the archaeological finds from this era are a huge (1 1/2 acres) Byzantine bath house, a Roman temple and colonnaded streets paved with basalt stones. The most impressive of the ruins is the Roman Theater, which was constructed around the year 200 AD.  Built to accommodate roughly 8,000 people, the theater has a stone stage and was used for dramatic productions.

Rich in Bet She'an by columns toppled in earthquake
Rich in Bet She’an by columns toppled in earthquake

Modern Bet She’an

The excavations at Tel Bet She’an began in 1933 and continued through 1996.  Similar to the archaeological digs at Tel Megiddo, a deep cut was made in the mound to determine the number of layers, cities and artifacts that made up the mound of Tel Bet She’an.  Today the modern city of Bet She’an has a population of 15,000 and is surrounded by several kibbutzim.  The fertility of the land and the abundance of water led Jewish sages to say of the city, “If the Garden of Eden is in the land of Israel, then its gate is Bet She’an.”

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