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Written by Stephen Langfur
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Beth Shean

View from the Tell of Beth Shean: The death of Saul in context 

We climb the tell to a point on its north side, near a partial reconstruction of the Egyptian governor's mansion. From here we have a complete view around.
To the southwest are the mountains of Gilboa, stepping down into the Jezreel Valley. The very lowest step is Tel Jezreel, where Ahab and Jezebel had their winter capital, near Naboth's kerem (vineyard or olive grove). The Harod River, flowing below us, has its origin in a spring at the foot of Gilboa, where Gideon chose his 300 (Judges 7). Sighting up the Jezreel Valley, we are looking toward the pass at Megiddo, with Mt. Carmel to its right. North of Tel Jezreel, just across the valley, is the Hill of Moreh, where the Midianites were camping when Gideon's band sneaked up, and where later the Philistines camped when Saul stood at Jezreel in fear for his life. To the right of Moreh, closer in, is a rise of land that prevents us from seeing Mt. Tabor; just on the other side of it lies Ein Dor, where Saul consulted with a witch.


If we complete our turn, facing east, we see the Jordan, toward which the Midianites raced in panic on their camels, and Gideon called out the tribes of Israel to cut them down at the fords. Above are the heights of biblical Gilead, atop which, about twenty-five miles to the east, ran the King's Highway from Damascus to Arabia. On it, almost due east of us, was Ramot Gilead, where Omri and his descendants often fought the Arameans, trying to complete their grasp on the key to wealth and power.

Turning ESE (or enlarging the photo above right), we see a village on the place of ancient Pella, a Decapolis city where the Christians of Jerusalem took refuge during the First Revolt against Rome. If we now ascend to the first layer of hills (not the horizon), we are in the area of Jabesh Gilead, which figures in the story of Saul. 

The choice of Saul as king

Archaeological surveys indicate a marked decline in settlement through most of the land in the second half of the second millennium BC, followed by a sudden upsurge in the 12th century. Most of the new settlers had been semi-nomads, herders of small livestock, who now took up agriculture. Some of their communities developed into towns we associate with biblical Israel.

The "Israel" of these semi-nomadic settlers was at first a not-so-reliable confederacy of clans and tribes, each intent on keeping its independence. When a crisis arose, they depended upon the charisma of a leader to unite them, and the process took time. As long as their enemy was equally slow to mobilize, they could get by without a standing army, that is, without a human king.

The shift to human kingship was spurred by pressure from the Philistines (ca. 1050 BC). By then the Israelite settlers had put roots in the soil: they had something permanent they did not want to lose. What is more, unlike their earlier enemies, the Philistines did not need much time to mobilize. Based on the southern coast, they could strike quickly up through the territory of Benjamin on the Beth Horon ridge, which was part of the southernmost good link road between the western Trunk Road and the King's Highway.


The Israelites no longer had enough warning time to mobilize the tribes in the old manner. They chose, therefore, a human king who could tax their produce and maintain a standing army. It made geographical sense that he came from Benjamin, for this was the tribe on the link road where the Philistines first put the pressure. (See map above.)

Saul of Benjamin was a transitional figure. He started like the charismatic leaders before him: by rescuing people. When the Ammonites besieged the Israelites of Jabesh Gilead, they demanded that each man surrender his right eye. The men of Jabesh appealed to Saul, who made a raid across the Jordan and rescued them (1 Samuel 11).

After Saul's coronation, however, something goes wrong with him. Perhaps charisma and permanent kingship do not go easily together. The God who gives charisma can also take it away. In Saul's case, it was replaced by spells of madness. As the Bible puts it, he lost his earlier contact with God. The loss is explained in two ways: he did not wait for Samuel before performing a sacrifice, and he did not execute the Amalekite king as God had commanded (1 Samuel 13: 7-14 and 1 Samuel 15). Standing on Tell Jezreel, looking at the Philistines camped on the Hill of Moreh, the king knew he no longer had that contact.

The death of Saul

Having lost his contact with God, Saul sought to take counsel with the human source of his authority, Samuel. Here there was a catch, however: Samuel was dead. Undeterred, Saul and some of his officers disguised themselves and sneaked around the eastern side of Mt. Moreh to Ein Dor, to a witch. Here too was a catch, for Saul had banned witchcraft. Nevertheless, he persuaded the woman to "bring up" Samuel. And then we have 1 Samuel 28:9-25.

David, having fled from the jealous Saul and gathered a band around him, was by this time a Philistine vassal with his own city, Ziklag. He was therefore duty bound to join the Philistines in battle -- a sticky wicket, if he ever wanted to rejoin his people. Fortunately for him, however, the Philistines remembered where he came from and decided not to trust him. They sent him back to his town.

We take up the story again at 1 Samuel 31:1-13.

The word is brought to David in Ziklag. He sings this lament (2 Samuel 1:19-27):  

19“Your glory, Israel, is slain on your high places!

How the mighty have fallen!

20Don’t tell it in Gath.

Don’t publish it in the streets of Ashkelon,

lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice,

lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.

21You mountains of Gilboa,

let there be no dew nor rain on you, neither fields of offerings;

For there the shield of the mighty was vilely cast away,

The shield of Saul was not anointed with oil.

22From the blood of the slain,

from the fat of the mighty,

Jonathan’s bow didn’t turn back.

Saul’s sword didn’t return empty.

23Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives.

In their death, they were not divided.

They were swifter than eagles.

They were stronger than lions.

24You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,

who clothed you in scarlet delicately,

who put ornaments of gold on your clothing.

25How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!

Jonathan is slain on your high places.

26I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan.

You have been very pleasant to me.

Your love to me was wonderful,

passing the love of women.

27How are the mighty fallen,

and the weapons of war perished!”

2 Samuel 2:1 -  It happened after this, that David inquired of Yahweh, saying, “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” Yahweh said to him, “Go up.” David said, “Where shall I go up?” “To Hebron, he said."


The death of Saul left the tribes extremely vulnerable to the Philistines. David went to Hebron in his home tribe of Judah, whose people submitted to his kingship. 

After seven years the other tribes approached him and asked that he protect them as well. Hebron was too far south, though, and too Judah-bound, to serve as a satisfactory capital for a kingdom including the northern tribes. Then David's eyes lit upon a city that straddled the border between Judah and the north, belonging to no tribe: Jerusalem.