Beth Shean in the Bible and Archaeology

The story of the death of King Saul as told by archaeology and the Bible

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2012.—Ed.

Beth Shean in the Bible and Archaeology

The imposing tell of Beth Shean. In the Bible the city plays an important role following the death of King Saul and as a major Israelite administrative center. Excavations over the past century have revealed what archaeology (and the Bible) can—and can’t—tell us about the site’s history. Photo: Gaby Laron, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The most famous episode featuring Beth Shean in the Bible follows the death of King Saul on Mt. Gilboa:

The Philistines came to strip the slain, and they found Saul and his three sons lying on Mt. Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped him of his armor … They placed his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they impaled his body on the wall of Beth Shean. When the men of Jabesh-Gilead heard about it—what the Philistines had done to Saul—all their stalwart men set out and marched all night. They removed the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shean and came to Jabesh and burned them there. Then they took the bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and they fasted for seven days (1 Samuel 31:8–13; cf. 1 Chronicles 10:8–12).

Archaeology seeks to uncover an even broader picture of a site’s past. In the Bible, Beth Shean is a major administrative center in Solomon’s kingdom, but excavations show that the site was an important one long before (and after) the kings of Israel reigned over it. Even so, can archaeology and the Bible corroborate the same historical event?

Herod’s desert fortress on the mountaintop of Masada was made famous as the site of the last stand between the besieged Jewish rebels and the relentlessly advancing Romans at the conclusion of the First Jewish Revolt. In the free ebook Masada: The Dead Sea’s Desert Fortress, discover what archaeology reveals about the Jewish defenders’ identity, fortifications and arms before their ultimate sacrifice.

Multiple excavations at Beth Shean in the past century have revealed a 6,000-year history of settlement at the site. Located near the intersection of two well-traveled ancient routes, Beth Shean proved to have important strategic value as early as the fifth millennium B.C.E., when it was first settled. Civilizations rose and fell at the site throughout the Chalcolithic period and Bronze Age. Some of the most impressive finds at Beth Shean came from the Late Bronze Age, when Egyptian pharaohs ruled over much of Canaan and used Beth Shean as a crucial administrative center to rule over its vassal kingdoms.

Unfortunately, due in part to later Roman and Byzantine construction at the base of the mound, excavators have not yet revealed any portion of the Beth Shean city wall from the 11th century B.C.E., when the Biblical story about King Saul’s death most likely occurred. And although the city was certainly occupied at this time, there is no evidence of a Philistine presence at the site then. So archaeology has not confirmed the Bible’s stories, but it has shed light on an even richer past at Beth Shean.

For more about the death of King Saul and the aftermath at Beth Shean in the Bible, as well as the extent to which archaeology and the Bible agree about Beth Shean’s past, read “Was King Saul Impaled on the Wall of Beth Shean?” by Amihai Mazar in Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2012.

BAS Library Members: Read “Was King Saul Impaled on the Wall of Beth Shean?” by Amihai Mazar as it appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on February 23, 2012.


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  • Camelia says

    Very good

  • ilan says

    I take it they cut off Sauls head as a kind of jab at the Israelites for the death of Goliath whose head was cut off. I probably would have been more humiliating to leave Saul his head so Philistine passerby could mock and scorn.

    My question is where was David in all this. He surely could have snuck up behind the Philistine army with his large contingent and mounted a rear flank attack and try to help the one he called the “annointed one of God” in his severest trial. In fact it might have boosted morale umpteen points.

    Or was he hoping for exactly this turnout and his poem was more about Jonathan the King who was now out of his way in a bid for the throne?

    • EddieHaskell says

      Achish had been kind to David and given him the town of Ziklag to use as a base. The other Philistine Kings had Achish send David and his men away, before the battle, as they feared what you are suggesting. I don’t believe it would have been ethical or honorable for David to mount a sneak attack. Saul had made his bed, and would have to lie in it.

  • Nige says

    ——- “Beth Shean proved to have important strategic value as early as the fifth millennium B.C.E., when it was first settled.” — If you use BCE (Before Common Era) you are denying Christ and removing Him from history! This is shameful and wrong on a site about Bible matters – you ought to be well aware of this.

    • DENNIS says

      Biblical ARCHEOLOGY Review covers more than just Christian timelines. BCE & CE are simply alternate designations for the timeline that was adopted in Europe and eventually became common usage through colonization. Just about all countries use multiple primary and secondary calendars. For example, these secular United States use the common one as primary and a secondary one that starts in 1776 with 2017 being 241 A.I. (After Independence). Moslem countries use a primary calendar that started on July 27, 621 so today, August 31, 2017, is the 8th day of the 12th month of 1438 A.H. (After Hegira). Israel also uses the Hebraic calendar so today is the 9th day of the 6th month of A.M. 5777 (A.M. stands for Anno Mundi). Since the science of archeology needed a common dating schema, the one most commonly used was adopted, but without the single religion designation. For universal scientific use the CE & BCE designations are correct and BAR is a periodical with a focus on a minor area of the science of archeology. The articles are written by archeologists and they use the standard archeological dating. All that said however, the “C” in BCE & CE could stand for “Christian” for your purposes; after all how many really know that “A.D.” is an abbreviation for a couple of Latin words or even know the words meaning? How many know that writing 2017 A.D. is incorrect, that it should be A.D. 2017?

    • Mike says

      And also, BAR is not a Christian magazine. (Nor is it opposed to the faith of Christianity.) It is not published and edited by a man of Christian (or even Jewish?) faith. It is published by a man who admires and is fascinated by Jewish and Christian history and archeological history.

      I wish BAR was a Christian magazine and that its editor was a Christian, but it and he are not.

      As another respondent points out, we Christians can take CE as “Christian Era.”
      And yes, it is shameful that the secular portion of the scientific community rejects Christ.

  • GENE says


    [Asked [of God]; Inquired [of God]].

    1. A Benjamite descended from Jeiel (presumably also called Abiel) through Ner and Kish (1Ch 8:29-33; 9:35-39; see ABIEL No. 1); the first divinely selected king of Israel. (1Sa 9:15, 16; 10:1) Saul came from a wealthy family. A handsome man, standing head and shoulders taller than all others of his nation, he possessed great physical strength and agility. (1Sa 9:1, 2; 2Sa 1:23) The name of his wife was Ahinoam. Saul fathered at least seven sons, Jonathan, Ishvi, Malchi-shua, Abinadab, Ish-bosheth (Eshbaal), Armoni, and Mephibosheth, as well as two daughters, Merab and Michal. Abner, evidently King Saul’s uncle (see ABNER), served as chief of the Israelite army.—1Sa 14:49, 50; 2Sa 2:8; 21:8; 1Ch 8:33.

    The young man Saul lived during a turbulent time of Israel’s history. Philistine oppression had reduced the nation to a helpless state militarily (1Sa 9:16; 13:19, 20), and the Ammonites under King Nahash threatened aggression. (1Sa 12:12) Whereas Samuel had faithfully judged Israel, his sons were perverters of justice. (1Sa 8:1-3) Viewing the situation from a human standpoint and, therefore, losing sight of Jehovah’s ability to protect his people, the older men of Israel approached Samuel with the request that he appoint a king over them.—1Sa 8:4, 5.

    Anointed as King. Thereafter Jehovah guided matters to provide the occasion for anointing Saul as king.

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