Beth Shemesh (1 Samuel 6)

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The city to which the Philistines returned the ak of the covenant, Beth Shemesh, was a prominent site in the Shephelah near their  border with Israel. Located at the modern village of Ain Shemesh (which preserves the ancient name), there are six major occupation levels at this site. The earliest (stratum VI) is meager and dates to the Early Bronze Age. Stratum IV is a fortified Canaanite settlement from Middle Bronze Age II that was completely destroyed sometime during the second half of the sixteenth century B.C. In the centuries following Israel’s conquest of the land, Beth Shemesh’s location along a major route as well as its proximity to the Philistine plain, made the city vulnerable to attack. Stratum IV dates roughly from the fifteenth through thirteenth centuries B.C. This would have been the city that was allotted to Judah and designated as a Levitical city (Joshua 15:10, 21:16). A few inscriptions in Ugaritic cuneiform and Hebrew Phoenician, as well as a hoard of Jewelry, were found there. This city was completely destroyed. The stratum that follows (stratum III) is rather a large but unplanned village that dates to Iron I (the late judges period). It, too, was violently destroyed, possibly by Philistines.

The next city, stratum II, lasted throughout the entire monarchic period until the fall of Judah in 586 B.C., although the city seems to have suffered in the invasion led by Pharaoh Sheshonk (Biblical Shishak, 1 Kings 14:25) in the late tenth century B.C. The city suffered major destruction in Sennacherib’s campaign in 701 B.C., and little was left of it when it was finally destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C.

Recent excavations of stratum II have revealed a gate, a city square and a large public building. In addition, a huge underground reservoir was hewn inside the city, with a storage capacity sufficient to outlast a three month siege. In about 800 B.C. Beth Shemesh was the scene of a battle between the armies of Israel and Judah, in which king Jehoash of Israel carried off king Amaziah as prisoner (2 Kings 14:11-13, 2 Chronicles 25:21-23). In the days of king Ahaz Judahite weakness allowed the Philistines to temporarily capture the city (2 Chronicles 28:18). A large number of royal seal impressions from the time of king Hezekiah indicates that Beth Ahemesh was an important supply centre during his time.

The portrait of Beth Shemesh in 1 Samuel 6 accords well with archaeological finds. The city at that time boarded a powerful Philistine population but was itself Israelite. Excavation at stratum III, foe example, reveals a city that was fundamentally Canaanite but used Philistine bichrome pottery (decorated in two colours), attesting to the influence of the neighbouring Philistines.


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