Visit the Beth Shemesh Web Site at: http://www.indiana.edu/~overseas/flyers/betshem.html
By Steve Weitzman
Associate Professor, Religious Studies
Indiana University, Bloomington
Nearly three thousand years ago, in the eighth century B.C.E., the ancient Israelite city of Beth Shemesh was destroyed by the Assyrian empire. The event did not make any headlines then. But it is doing so now thanks to Indiana University (IU) students who have been helping to excavate Beth Shemesh over the last five years.
In 1994 IU associate professor Steve Weitzman began an overseas studies program with Israeli archaeologists Zvi Lederman and Sholomo Bunimovitz. The program has been bringing IU students to Israel every summer for three weeks of excavations, study and travel. The dig itself began in 1990.
In the very first year of the program, IU students uncovered a long series of steps that lead down into an underground chamber. The entry to the chamber had been blocked up with hundreds of pounds of rocks and dirt, perhaps by those who destroyed the city. The chamber itself turned out to be a massive, underground water cistern that sustained the city in times of attack, one of the most impressive engineering feats in Israel in that period.
The cistern's construction was so complex that the people of Beth Shemesh probably had help in building it. The directors of the dig believe that help came from the kingdom of David centered in Jerusalem, the kingdom that produced much of what would later be called the Old Testament. IU students have found other evidence suggesting that Beth Shemesh played an especially important role in state formation in the kingdom of Judah, a role that seems to have had something to do with its location.
Beth Shemesh was a border town located between Israel and the Philistines who probably migrated to the area from the Aegean world. Israel had to protect itself against the Philistines who threatened them in much the same way their distant cousins, the Greeks, were threatening the famous city of Troy in the same period. One way in which the Israelites did so, it appears, was to build up the city of Beth Shemesh, giving it the means to withstand attack. Troy was defeated and Beth Shemesh was not. It survived until it was destroyed by a much more powerful enemy, the Assyrians, from Mesopotamia.
Of course, Troy had Homer to preserve its memory. Beth Shemesh is not the subject of epic, but it has left its mark on literary history. The stories of Samson, the famous biblical strongman, are set in the area of Beth Shemesh. The site of the dig overlooks his supposed birthplace, and the name Samson is related to the word "Shemesh," (= sun), suggesting some kind of association.
The dig has shed light on the Samson saga by revealing the complicated relationship between the Israelites and the Philistines. They were rivals, but just as in the Samson story where Samson marries a Philistine, they seem to have had other kinds of interaction as well, even commingling to some extent. The Samson saga is regarded by modern biblical scholar as legendary indeed, it shares a number of motifs with the Greek myths of Hercules, but thanks to the efforts of IU students, we are learning more and more about the historical reality behind the story.
Beth Shemesh might also tell us something about the religious life of ancient Israel. "Beth Shemesh" means "House of the Sun." It was probably named for a temple to the sun once located in the city long before Israel arrived on the scene. No such temple has been found, but this last summer (2000), students found a bowl with the Hebrew word "holy" on it, an exceedingly rare find. That, together with a biblical story claiming that the famous Ark of the Covenant was once kept at Beth Shemesh, suggest that the city may have had some cultic role in Israelite culture, but more precise conclusions will have to await future excavation.
In the summer of 2001, Indiana University will return for a sixth season. Individuals wishing to participate as students through Indiana University's overseas studies program should visit its Website at: http://www.indiana.edu/~overseas/flyers/betshem.html.
This program awards four academic credits from Indiana University. Individuals wishing to participate as private volunteers should contact its Israeli director, Zvi Lederman at firstname.lastname@example.org.