The story of the death of King Saul as told by archaeology and the Bible
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?
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.
Become a member of Biblical Archaeology Society, and gain All Access with your membership today
The BAS Library includes online access to more than 9,000 articles by world-renowned experts and 22,000 gorgeous color photos from…
Plus, you get access to so much more from your All-Access pass:
Biblical Archaeology Review print edition:
Enjoy our current issues in the convenient, time-tested, paper magazine format…
Biblical Archaeology Review digital edition:
Stay on top of the latest research! You get …
All of this rich and detailed scholarship is available to you—right now—by becoming an All-Access member.
That’s right: when you join as an All-Access member, you get a ticket to four decades of study, insight and discovery. Why not join us right now and start your own exploration?
Whether you’re researching a paper, preparing a sermon, deepening your understanding of Scripture or history, or simply marveling at the complexity of the Bible – the most important book in history—the BAS All-Access pass is an invaluable tool that cannot be matched anywhere else.
You'll get to experience all the discoveries and debate in beautiful clarity with Biblical Archaeology Review, anytime, anywhere! And the Library is fully searchable by topic, author, title and keyword, and includes curated special collections on topics of particular interest.
The All-Access membership pass is the way to explore Bible history and biblical archaeology.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.