The ark returned by the Philistines by cow and cart.

More than one Beth Shemesh is referenced in Scriptures, with our focus in this article resting solely on the most prominent one, namely the town that was 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of Jerusalem in the valley of Sorek. It was on the northern border of the tribal area of Judah, yet (at least initially) belonged to Dan.1 Notably, Beth Shemesh was also near the western border area with territory held by the Philistines.

Joshua 15:10, 12b Then it curved westward from Baalah to Mount Seir, ran along the northern slope of Mount Jearim (that is, Kesalon), continued down to Beth Shemesh and crossed to Timnah. ... These are the boundaries around the people of Judah by their clans. (NIV)

Judah subsequently gave this border town to the Levites as a priestly city.

Joshua 21:9, 13-16 9 From the tribes of Judah and Simeon they allotted the following towns by name ... 13 So to the descendants of Aaron the priest they gave Hebron (a city of refuge for one accused of murder), Libnah, 14 Jattir, Eshtemoa, 15 Holon, Debir, 16 Ain, Juttah and Beth Shemesh, together with their pasturelands - nine towns from these two tribes. (NIV)

Beth Shemesh features prominently in one Biblical account. As part of God's judgment against Eli's sons (Hophni & Phinehas) - as prophesied to Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-21) - the Philistines had captured the ark (1 Samuel 4:1-12) and taken it to their coastal cities.

1 Samuel 5:1-6:20 After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then they carried the ark into Dagon's temple and set it beside Dagon. 3 When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained. 5 That is why to this day neither the priests of Dagon nor any others who enter Dagon's temple at Ashdod step on the threshold. 6 The Lord's hand was heavy upon the people of Ashdod and its vicinity; he brought devastation upon them and afflicted them with tumors. 7 When the men of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, "The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy upon us and upon Dagon our god." 8 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and asked them, "What shall we do with the ark of the god of Israel?" They answered, "Have the ark of the god of Israel moved to Gath." So they moved the ark of the God of Israel. 9 But after they had moved it, the Lord's hand was against that city, throwing it into a great panic. He afflicted the people of the city, both young and old, with an outbreak of tumors. 10 So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. As the ark of God was entering Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, "They have brought the ark of the god of Israel around to us to kill us and our people." 11 So they called together all the rulers of the Philistines and said, "Send the ark of the god of Israel away; let it go back to its own place, or it will kill us and our people." For death had filled the city with panic; God's hand was very heavy upon it. 12 Those who did not die were afflicted with tumors, and the outcry of the city went up to heaven.

6:1 When the ark of the Lord had been in Philistine territory seven months, 2 the Philistines called for the priests and the diviners and said, "What shall we do with the ark of the Lord? Tell us how we should send it back to its place." 3 They answered, "If you return the ark of the god of Israel, do not send it away empty, but by all means send a guilt offering to him. Then you will be healed, and you will know why his hand has not been lifted from you." 4 The Philistines asked, "What guilt offering should we send to him?" They replied, "Five gold tumors and five gold rats, according to the number of the Philistine rulers, because the same plague has struck both you and your rulers. 5 Make models of the tumors and of the rats that are destroying the country, and pay honor to Israel's god. Perhaps he will lift his hand from you and your gods and your land. 6 Why do you harden your hearts as the Egyptians and Pharaoh did? When he treated them harshly, did they not send the Israelites out so they could go on their way? 7 "Now then, get a new cart ready, with two cows that have calved and have never been yoked. Hitch the cows to the cart, but take their calves away and pen them up. 8 Take the ark of the Lord and put it on the cart, and in a chest beside it put the gold objects you are sending back to him as a guilt offering. Send it on its way, 9 but keep watching it. If it goes up to its own territory, toward Beth Shemesh, then the Lord has brought this great disaster on us. But if it does not, then we will know that it was not his hand that struck us and that it happened to us by chance." 10 So they did this. They took two such cows and hitched them to the cart and penned up their calves. 11 They placed the ark of the Lord on the cart and along with it the chest containing the gold rats and the models of the tumors. 12 Then the cows went straight up toward Beth Shemesh, keeping on the road and lowing all the way; they did not turn to the right or to the left. The rulers of the Philistines followed them as far as the border of Beth Shemesh. 13 Now the people of Beth Shemesh were harvesting their wheat in the valley, and when they looked up and saw the ark, they rejoiced at the sight. 14 The cart came to the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh, and there it stopped beside a large rock. The people chopped up the wood of the cart and sacrificed the cows as a burnt offering to the Lord. 15 The Levites took down the ark of the Lord, together with the chest containing the gold objects, and placed them on the large rock. On that day the people of Beth Shemesh offered burnt offerings and made sacrifices to the Lord. 16 The five rulers of the Philistines saw all this and then returned that same day to Ekron. 17 These are the gold tumors the Philistines sent as a guilt offering to the Lord-one each for Ashdod, Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath and Ekron. 18 And the number of the gold rats was according to the number of Philistine towns belonging to the five rulers - the fortified towns with their country villages. The large rock, on which they set the ark of the Lord, is a witness to this day in the field of Joshua of Beth Shemesh. 19 But God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy2 of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the Lord. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the Lord had dealt them, 20 and the men of Beth Shemesh asked, "Who can stand in the presence of the Lord, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?" (NIV)

A view from the area of Beth Shemesh looking towards the direction from which the ark would have come (1 Samuel 6:12)
The circular platform dates to a much later period.

The ark did not remain at Beth Shemesh and was taken to Kiriath Jearim (1 Samuel 6:21-7:2). Later still, Beth Shemesh was in the second district of Solomon, specifically mentioned as one of the cities ruled by a regional governor. Solomon's specific interest in this city is likely due to its large and fertile growing area for wheat (1 Samuel 6:13).

1 Kings 4:7-9 Solomon also had twelve district governors over all Israel, who supplied provisions for the king and the royal household. Each one had to provide supplies for one month in the year. 8 These are their names: Ben-Hur - in the hill country of Ephraim; 9 Ben-Deker - in Makaz, Shaalbim, Beth Shemesh and Elon Bethhanan; (NIV)

Another significant event associated with Beth Shemesh took place during the time of the divided kingdom.

2 Kings 14:8, 11-15 Then Amaziah [king of Judah] sent messengers to Jehoash son of Jehoahaz, the son of Jehu, king of Israel, with the challenge: "Come, meet me face to face." ... 11 Amaziah, however, would not listen, so Jehoash king of Israel attacked. He and Amaziah king of Judah faced each other at Beth Shemesh in Judah. 12 Judah was routed by Israel, and every man fled to his home. 13 Jehoash king of Israel captured Amaziah king of Judah, the son of Joash, the son of Ahaziah, at Beth Shemesh. Then Jehoash went to Jerusalem and broke down the wall of Jerusalem from the Ephraim Gate to the Corner Gate - a section about six hundred feet long. 14 He took all the gold and silver and all the articles found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace. He also took hostages and returned to Samaria. (NIV)

The town of Beth Shemesh dates back to the time of Abraham. It came under Egyptian control during the period of the Hyksos (circa 1700-1550 B.C.) and was fortified during this period. The city was destroyed by fire perhaps as early as 1500 B.C. (some say by the Egyptians, but this may date to the beginning of the Israelite conquests circa 1400 B.C.). The site shows a subsequent period of prosperity until about 1200 B.C. The Israelites definitely controlled the site from 1200 B.C. to 586 B.C. but there is strong evidence of a Philistine influence for the first two centuries of this period. The city was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar during his campaign of 588-587 B.C. and was never rebuilt.


Ruins at Beth Shemesh

Notice the large walls of what was once a significant city

End Notes

1. Beth Shemesh is likely the same as Ir Shemesh mentioned in Joshua 19:41 as a town of Dan. The tribe of Dan was unable to take control of much of the area given to it and subsequently left the area for further north (see Joshua 19:41 and our article on the city of Dan).

2. The NIV's number of 70 here is most likely correct, even though many Hebrew manuscripts and the Septuagint state 50,070. The ancient size of Beth Shemesh, in this period, was such that the larger number is high unlikely.

It is possible that this is a copyist's error from antiquity, something that can easily be done with Hebrew numbers. Scholars note that the Hebrew text is unusual in that the seventy appears before the fifty thousand and a normally expected character is missing if it was intended to be a compound number. First century historian Josephus uses seventy in his history of the period (Antiquities of the Jews 6.1.4).

An alternate, and likewise probable, explanation is given by the authors of the footnotes of the English Standard version...

The puzzling Hebrew text "seventy men, fifty thousand men" (ESV footnote) may possibly mean "seventy men, i.e., five people out of every thousand" (or "every clan"). If this is the correct meaning, then the population of the city would have been 14,000 people (or 14 clans). (ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version®)

Certainly any translator leaving it as 50,070 is using a dubious rendering and needs to explain why the text uses phraseology not normally utilized with compound numbers. It is legitimate to footnote it and raise these questions.

A spring-time photo at Beth Shemesh, with a local bird and many flowering plants