With mountains framing the horizon, Beth-shan is the garden land of the north. Its fertile, green pastureland and strategic position helped to make it an ideal dwelling place throughout Israel’s centuries of history. Yet it was here that one of the most tragic scenes in the Bible took place.

Once there lived “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites” (1 Samuel 9:2–31:13 NIV). His name was Saul, a man who was the people’s choice for a king. After a haunted life, King Saul killed himself during a battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa (31:1– 6).

Upon finding Saul’s body, his enemies beheaded him and hung his body, along with the bodies of his sons, on the walls of Beth-shan. Their armor was placed as a victory offering in the temple of Ashtaroth, and Saul’s head was taken to the temple of Dagon (1 Chronicles 10:8–10). When messengers hurried to Philistia “to carry the good news to the house of their idols and to the people” (1 Samuel 31:9), the reports of the humiliation of Saul and his sons spread throughout Israel. At night a courageous band of men from Jabesh-gilead, a town east of the Jordan whose inhabitants Saul had once delivered, went to Beth-shan, recovered the bodies, and carried them back for proper burial.

King David’s intense grief over the death of the Lord’s anointed and the loss of his best friend produced one of the most beautiful laments in all literature:

“Your beauty, O Israel, is slain on your high places!
How have the mighty fallen! . . .
. . . Saul and Jonathan, beloved and pleasant in their life,
And in their death they were not parted;
They were swifter than eagles,
They were stronger than lions.”
(2 Samuel 1:19, 23)

In New Testament times, Beth-shan was renamed Scythopolis (“city of the Scythians”)—linking it with Greek culture. The Round Temple dominated the center of the city, with an area paved with white limestone and an inscription to honor Emperor Marcus Aurelium Antoninus and to the worship of Dionysis, the god of wine. An ancient amphitheater used for gladiatorial contests was called an arena, Latin for sand, because of the sand spread on the floor to absorb the blood.