Part of the territory allotted to the Levites, the biblical town of Beit Shemesh was settled by Israelites in the 11th or 10th century B.C.E. There were already Jews living there when, during a battle with the Israelites, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant. But when they realized that the ark brought them nothing but trouble, the Philistines decided to return it to the Israelites and sent it to Beit Shemesh.
While Beit Shemesh was important enough for mention in the Scriptures nearly two dozen times, in January and early February the ancient biblical site takes on the look of a nature reserve. Indeed, just now it is covered with blood-red anemones, a flower that the early Greeks thought was created out of vengeance, or tears.
Europeans were suspicious of the anemone and thought the lovely flower carried diseases. They believed that even the air around the anemone was poisonous and people customarily held their breath while running through a field of anemones. And the English once believed that the anemone possessed magical properties. They recommended that their countrymen pick the earliest anemone they saw, and keep it as a charm against pestilence. It was carefully wrapped in silk and carried as an amulet or charm about the person.
Walking paths full of flowers crisscross Tel Beit Shemesh (House of the Sun), whose higher portion is full of Byzantine remains that include ruins from a large, fortified monastery. At a much lower level, however, visitors can view walls and buildings that belonged to the well-fortified Israelite town. Not fortified well-enough, however, for Beit Shemesh was apparently destroyed by the Assyrians in 701 BCE.
The tel covers about 28 dunams and is located above the Sorek valley. Visitors standing on the tel near the Israelite remains can picture the Holy Ark, sitting atop a cattle-drawn cart, traveling from the Philistine town of Ekron in the west through the Sorek Valley to Beit Shemesh. Just as you stand here, so would the people of ancient Beit Shemesh have stood, watching the Holy Ark as it approached the town.
“Then the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left. . . Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock.” (1 Samuel 6 -14).
Unfortunately, some of the townspeople were too curious for their own good. Seventy of them were smitten with a plague, punishment for having “looked into the ark of the Lord.” (1 Samuel 6:19). Justifiably upset, the citizens of Beit Shemesh sent the ark elsewhere – to Kiryat Yearim.
Beit Shemesh, which controlled the northern approach to Judah, was at one time of great strategic importance. It was also prosperous enough to have been one of 12 chosen to provide food for King Solomon and his immense family (1 Kings 4:9).
But Beit Shemesh has another claim to fame as well: it was here that a battle took place between Amazia, King of Judah, and Jehoash the king of Israel.
It seems that after Amazia defeated 10,000 Edomites, he was feeling pretty arrogant. So he challenged Jehoash, the King of Israel to a fight. Using an interesting parable about a Lebanese thistle and a Lebanese cedar, Jehoash tried to talk him out of what he believed would end up in disaster for Judah.
When Amazia wouldn’t listen to reason, Jehoash attacked. “So Jehoash king of Israel went up; and he and Amaziah king of Judah looked one another in the face at Beth-shemesh. . .” Judah was routed by Israel and “every man fled to his home.” Every man that is, but Amazia, whom Jehoash took prisoner (2 Kings 4:11-13).
Among the findings at Tel Beit Shemesh was a bowl dating back to the 8th century B.C.E. Archeologist Gabi Barkay believes that the letters aleph, bet and kaph, chiseled onto the bowl after it was fired, may refer to the word ahiha, or “your brother.” Since the word “brother” is used often in the Bible to refer to other Israelites, he feels that it could have been a bowl in which Jews frequenting a worship site would leave food for the poor.
A large, cross-shaped underground water reservoir was discovered beneath the city. While it is fascinating to visit, like the rest of the tel it is not fenced in and there are no railings. It is also pitch black, so anyone entering must have a flashlight and should tread carefully – especially after it rains.
Contemporary Beit Shemesh boasts a wonderful garden with sculptures that bring biblical stories to life. Called Gan Golan, it is located right in the middle of the city and dedicated to Golan Peli, an officer in the Israel Defense Forces’ armored corps who was killed 22 years ago this month.
The sculptures are built of iron and rock, representing, among other themes, the wagon and cows hauling the Ark of the Lord to and from Beit Shemesh, David playing his harp, and Moses holding the Ten Commandments.
For directions on how to find the tel, or Gan Golan, write to us at: Israeltravels@gmail.com
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is an experienced private tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.