David and I are once again in Israel, the “Beautiful Land,” as the prophet Daniel described it.
An Unexpected Adventure
So Dave and I were looking at a map of archaeological sites in the Negev, southern Israel, ancient Judah’s territory, and we saw that Tel Beit Shemesh was near us. “Wonderful,” we said. “Let’s go see Beit Shemesh!”
But, this Tel is not part of the National Park system. It is a partially excavated area by a busy road, with the excavator’s entrance gated and locked, since they were not there, digging. The more interesting part of the excavation was on the other side of the busy road, with a serious fence around it, and signs in Hebrew that looked very much like “keep out” notices.
So, Dave and I parked our car in the shade of a nearby tree on a side road, and hiked up the hill to that part of the Tel that seemed open to visit. Glad we wore our boots!
With no signs to help us understand what we were seeing, and no pathway to show us where the entrance would have been in antiquity, we used our imaginations and spun a tale that followed the Bible’s narrative.
Territory of Judah
The first mention of Beth-Shemesh (as it is written in the Hebrew scriptures) is found in Joshua’s description of the area God gave to the tribe of Judah for their inheritance. As you read through Joshua 15, you can trace each boundary line on the map and see which towns and geographical landmarks distinguish Judah’s land.
… and the boundary circles west of Baalah to Mount Seir, passes along to the northern slope of Mount Jearim (that is, Chesalon), and goes down to Beth-shemesh, and passes along by Timnah …Joshua 15:10 (NRSV)
(There was another Beth Shemesh in northern Israel that landed in Issachar’s inheritance, and yet another in Naphtali’s territory, but that is not part of today’s story.)
Cities Allotted to the Levites
Remember that Jacob had prophesied over his sons Levi and Simeon that they would be divided and scattered throughout Israel. Simeon’s tribe ended up sharing territory that was surrounded by Judah’s land and the tribe ended up eventually being absorbed into Judah.
The Levites, however, had shown their true loyalty and faithfulness to God in the Golden Calf incident. God gave them God’s Own Person as their personal inheritance, and also granted cities to the tribe of Levi throughout Israel—a very different way than expected for Jacob’s prophecy of “scatter them in Israel” to be fulfilled.
One of the cities given to the Levites was Beth-Shemesh.
These towns and their pasturelands the Israelites gave by lot to the Levites, as the Lord had commanded through Moses.
Out of the tribe of Judah and the tribe of Simeon they gave the following towns mentioned by name, which went to the descendants of Aaron, one of the families of the Kohathites who belonged to the Levites, since the lot fell to them first.
… Beth-shemesh with its pasturelands …Joshua 21:8-9, 13, 16 (NRSV)
This is an important detail when reading the story that made Beth-Shemesh famous.
The Ark of the Covenant Captured
During the first five hundred years of Israel’s history in Canaan, there were regular conflicts, skirmishes, and outright battles with the five Philistine city-states lined along the southern coast of the Levant. Israelites had to trade with the Philistines in order to have their iron implements repaired, or to procure new iron because the Philistines were able to smelt iron and the Israelites did not yet have that technology.
God had promised Israel that the land occupied by the Philistines was rightfully Israel’s, to be part of the promised inheritance God had spoken of in the wilderness. But the Philistines were far too strong for the Israelites to conquer.
So, instead, they fought.
During a series of these battles, Israel was being badly beaten, and could not understand why God was not giving them the victory.
When the troops came to the camp, the elders of Israel said, “Why has the Lord put us to rout today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the covenant of the Lord here from Shiloh, so that he may come among us and save us from the power of our enemies.”
So the people sent to Shiloh and brought from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who is enthroned on the cherubim. The two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.1 Samuel 4:3-4 (NRSV)
It is significant that Eli’s two sons accompanied this procession, because they were corrupt priests who had no fear of God, brazenly stole the best of what the people brought as offerings to God.
Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.
The sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord, for they treated the offerings of the Lord with contempt.1 Samuel 2:12-13, 17 (NRSV)
Young Samuel’s first assignment from God was to tell the old high priest who had raised him that God’s patience with Eli’s two reprobate sons had run out.
… all the members of your household shall die by the sword. The fate of your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, shall be the sign to you: both of them shall die on the same day.1 Samuel 2:33-34 (NRSV)
As you have already guessed, bringing the Ark of the Covenant into battle with Hophni and Phinehas at the helm was a military disaster.
The Philistines slew the two wicked priests and captured the Ark, utterly demoralizing the people.
Toppled Idol, Terror, and Tumors
Thinking they had captured Israel’s God, imprisoned either within the Ark, or riding invisibly upon the mercy seat of the Ark, they brought this sacred object into the temple of Dagon. They placed the Ark by Dagon, most likely at the foot of their idol where, symbolically, God would be vassal to the Philistine god.
But each morning when the people entered their temple, the idol of Dagon was toppled over, until one day, the idol’s head and hands had been broken off and lay on the threshold.
The hand of the Lord was heavy upon the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and struck them with tumors, both in Ashdod and in its territory.1 Samuel 5 (NRSV)
The Philistines living in Ashdod realized they had to get rid of the Ark of the Covenant, but each new Philistine town that received the Ark also received God’s wrath in the form of terror and tumors. This went on for seven months. Before long, no Philistine city was willing to house the Ark.
God Chooses Beth-Shemesh
Finally, in desperation, having called their diviners together for wisdom and counsel, the Ark was loaded onto a cart filled with gold as a guilt offering, and pulled by two milk cows. The diviners’ final instruction was to
Then send it off, and let it go its way. And watch: if it goes up on the way to its own land, to Beth-shemesh, then it is [God] who has done us this great harm; but if not, then we shall know that it is not his hand that struck us; it happened to us by chance.”1 Samuel 6:8-9 (NRSV)
The people of Beth-Shemesh were all Levites of the extended family of Aaron, and they were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley by their town. They were they perfect choice to look up, see the Ark of the Covenant, and know what to do.
On cue, with no one driving,
the cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there.
A large stone was there; so they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord.
The Levites took down the ark of the Lord and the box beside it in which were the gold objects and set them on the large stone. Then the people of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and presented sacrifices on that day to the Lord.
When the five lords of the Philistines saw it, they returned that day to Ekron.1 Samuel 6:13-15 (NRSV)
If the name Beth-Shemesh is feeling familiar, as though you only recently saw it somewhere, you did! This is where King Jehoash captured King Amaziah, who later fled to Lachish but was assassinated by his own administration.
That story is the final mention of Beth-Shemesh in the scriptures.