Beit Shemesh (Heb. בֵּית שֶׁמֶשׁ; "the house [temple] of [the sun-god] Shemesh"), is the name of a number of places mentioned in the Bible.
(1) A city in the Shephelah on the northern border of the tribe of Judah, between Chesalon and Timnah (Josh. 15:10). Beit Shemesh appears on the list of cities of the tribe of Dan (Josh. 19:41, as Ir-Shemesh), but it was apparently never actually conquered by it (Judg. 1:35, if the identification of Harheres with Beit Shemesh is correct). In the list of levitical cities, it is mentioned as belonging to the tribe of Judah (Josh. 21:16; I Chron. 6:44). Beit Shemesh was located close to the border of Philistia, and the archaeological excavations there have shown that in the period of the Judges, the Philistines exerted a strong influence on the city. The Samson narratives all take place in the vicinity of Beit Shemesh; his birthplace, Zorah, lay just to the south of it, and the Philistine city Timnah is to the west of it. It has even been suggested that the name Samson itself (Heb. Shimshon) indicates a connection with the city. When the Philistines returned the "Ark of God," which they had captured at the battle of Eben-Ezer, on an ox-driven cart, it was sent along the road that led straight from Ekron to Beit Shemesh (I Sam. 6). In the period of the monarchy, the city was part of Solomon's second administrative district, which included the former cities of the territory of Dan (I Kings 4:9). The war between Amaziah and Jehoash,
Beit Shemesh is identified with Tell al-Rumayla, astride the Wadi al-Ṣarār (biblical Sorek Valley?) on one of the major highways connecting Jerusalem with the seacoast (the modern Jerusalem-Tel Aviv railroad follows this ancient route). The site was excavated by D. Mackenzie (1911–12) and E. Grant (1928–33); G.E. Wright assisted in analyzing the results. The excavations revealed that the first city (stratum VI) of Beit Shemesh was established toward the close of the third millennium B.C.E. (end of the Early Bronze Age). The next city (stratum V), dating to the Hyksos period (c. 1750–1550 B.C.E.), is characterized by a high level of development. This Middle Bronze Age city was fortified by a massive wall with insets and offsets and towers. In the southern part of the wall, a strong gate was discovered with the entrance between two guardrooms, a style typical of the period. The city continued to flourish in the Late Bronze Age (stratum IV, c. 1550–1200 B.C.E.). In this stratum plastered water cisterns, installations for the manufacture of bronze, numerous imported vessels from the Aegean area and Egypt, an inscription in the Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet, and an ink-inscribed ostracon in early Canaanite-Phoenician script were found. The following stratum (III) dates to the period of the Judges (Early Iron Age). This city shows signs of a decline in the material culture as is also evident in other sites from this period. The decline, however, did not affect the metal industry, which continued to operate at its previous high level. The abundance of Philistine pottery found in this stratum is proof of the strong influence of the Philistines in the area during this period. The destruction of the city by fire in the second half of the 11th century B.C.E. was a result of the wars with the Philistines that preceded the establishment of the monarchy. The city was rebuilt (stratum IIa) sometime in the tenth century and was surrounded by a casemate wall – the typical fortification of Israelite cities in the period of the united monarchy. The large store house and granary erected in the city confirm the biblical description of the important administrative role held by Beit Shemesh.
Settlement at Beit Shemesh continued until the end of the First Temple period (strata IIb and IIc). The last city was unfortified. Between IIb and IIc there appears to have been some interruption in the occupation of the site, which may explain the absence of Beit Shemesh from the detailed city list of Judah, where it would be expected to appear in the Zorah-Azekah district (Josh. 15:33–36). Scholars disagree as to whether the date of this gap in the history of Beit Shemesh should be ascribed to Pharaoh Shishak's campaign in c. 924 B.C.E. or to the capture of the city by Jehoash, king of Judah, in the eighth century. In Roman times the settlement moved to nearby Ayn Shams, which preserves the ancient name. Talmudic sources describe Beit Shemesh as a small village (Lam. R. 2:2; etc.) and Eusebius (Onom. 54:11–13) accurately locates it 10 miles from Eleutheropolis (Bet Guvrin) on the road to Nicopolis (Emmaus).
Plan of the excavations at Beit Shemesh. Courtesy, Mosad Bialik, Jerusalem.
(2) A Canaanite fortress town listed as part of the inheritance of Naphtali (Josh. 19:38) but not settled by the tribe in the early stages of the Israelite occupation of the country (Judg. 1:33). It was most likely located in the northern part of Upper Galilee, where remains of strong Canaanite settlements have been discovered. Some scholars identify it with the Beit Shemesh of Issachar ((3) below) and accordingly place it in Lower Galilee on the border between Issachar and Naphtali.
(3) A city in the territory of Issachar, apparently close to the northern border of the tribe (Josh. 19:22). Khirbat Sheikh al-Shamsāwī in the southern part of the valley of Naphtali may preserve the ancient name. Some scholars, however, identify it with al-ʿUbaydiyya, farther east near the Jordan River, on the assumption that it is identical with (2) above.
(4) The city On-Heliopolis in Egypt whose temple to the Egyptian sun-god Re is mentioned in Jeremiah's prophecies against the nations (Jer. 43:13; cf. Isa. 19:18). It is the presentday el-Matariyeh, east of Cairo.
In the vicinity is the modern town of Beit Shemesh. Its beginnings go back to the village of Hartuv, founded in 1895 by Jews from Bulgaria who bought the land from a training farm set up 12 years earlier by the English Mission of Jerusalem which had tried unsuccessfully to convert Jerusalemite Jews working there. Hartuv made little progress due to its isolation
Beit Shemesh grew to serve as an urban center providing community and commercial services to 60 rural settlements. The city had two large industrial areas, but some of its residents commuted to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It numbered 10,000 inhabitants in 1969 and received municipal status in 1991. In the mid-1990s the population was approximately 20,900 and by 2002 the fast-growing city had increased its population to 53,400, 50% among them under the age of 21. It occupied an area of 20 sq. mi. (50.5 sq. km.). In this latter period the city absorbed many new immigrants, mainly from the former Soviet Union. The majority of them were secular and their presence in the city led to a degree of cultural-religious tension. The Ramat Beit Shemesh suburb south of the city attracted a religious population, including many English-speaking immigrants.
[Efraim Orni / Shaked Gilboa (2nd ed.)]
(1) Press, Ereẓ, 1 (1951), 104–5; EM, 2 (1965), 110–8 (includes bibliography). (2) Y. Aharoni, Hitnaḥalut Shivtei Yisrael ba-Galil ha-Elyon (1957), 52, 74–5. (3) Abel, Geog, 2 (1938), 282–3; Aharoni, Land, index. (4) EM, 1 (1965), 147; 2 (1965), 119. WEBSITE: www.betshemesh.muni.il.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.