Beersheba, Bible city, archaeology

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Jacob, Michelangelo, Sistine chapel

Jacob's story

Ancient clay model of a sacrificial altar

Ancient altars

Roaring sacrificial flames

Ancient sacrifice












Beersheba: what happened there

  • Abraham staked a claim to water rights: 'sheba' is covenant, 'be'er' is a well. The town was on the main caravan route

  • Joshua gave this territory to the tribe of Simeon

  • Beersheba marked the southern boundary of Judah

  • A 'horned' altar was excavated there

Abraham and Beersheba

Beersheba was known as 'the place of many wells'. It is in a hot dry part of the world, but it has underground springs that let people dig a well and get water even when surface moisture has dried up.

WaterBeersheba is first mentioned as the place where Abraham, ancestor of the Jewish people, made an agreement or covenant with the Philistine king Abimelech of Gerar (Genesis 21). Abraham dug a well there, and Abilelech swore as a witness that Abraham had done so - thereby acknowledging that Abraham owned the rights to the precious water. The name of the town is a play on the Hebrew words be'er meaning 'well', and sheva meaning 'oath'.

Isaac and Rebecca, and then Jacob and Rachel, also lived there (Genesis 26, 28, 46). 

Beersheba: Aerial view of Tel Sheba, the earthen mound on which ancient Beersheba stood

Aerial view of Tel Sheba, the earthen mound on which ancient Beersheba stood

Beersheba: A model of the ancient city of Beersheba showing various precincts, the walls, and the massive entrance gates

A model of the excavated city-fortress of ancient Beersheba


The Seven Wells of Beersheba

Another tradition has it that the name means "Seven" (sheba) "wells" (be'er), the number dug by Abraham and Isaac. The many wells in the town seem to bear this out. The two different traditions regarding the origin of the town's name have somehow been combined and in any case, both emphasize the connection with Abraham. 

A solitary tamarisk tree in a landscape

A lone tamarisk tree in the western Negev Desert

Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at a nearby high-place (Gn. 21:33) and called it El-Olam, a name very reminiscent of the Canaanite divinity later superseded by Yahweh. This is probably the sanctuary to which Amos referred (8 :14) as "the way of Beersheba", at which God was believed to have appeared to Isaac to confirm the promise made to Abraham. Jacob also sacrificed there to the God of his fathers.

Beersheba was at the southern edge of the good agricultural land in ancient Palestine, and was the southern extremity of Israelite territory - the phrase 'from Dan to Beersheba' was defined Israelite lands from north to south.

The Horned Altar

Beersheba: The 'horned altar' of Beersheba as it was reconstructed, with figure of a girl 

The 'horned altar' of Beersheba, with figure of a girl 
showing the scale of the blocks of stone

When archaeologists were excavating at Beersheba, they found several large, carefully shaped stones incorporated into the town walls. These dated back to the late eighth century BC. When the stones were reassembled they formed a cubical altar with four tapered projections or 'horns'. One of the stone blocks had a snake carved on it. The top stones were blackened, suggesting burnt sacrifices. The altar may have been dismantled at the time of King Hezekiah's religious reforms in the 8th century BC.

Beersheba: Map of ancient Israel showing the position of BeershebaThere have been various theories about why the altar had the projecting 'horns'. The most practical reason would be that the high corner stones provided a point of leverage for the ropes necessary to hold down a struggling animal as it was being sacrificed. This practical solution for the corner stones does not seem to have occurred to archaeologists.

Veneration of Beersheba

The ancient Israelites venerated Beersheba because of its association with the Patriarchal Epics, and the nearby high-place remained an important sanctuary for the Israelites for many generations. In the period of the monarchy pilgrimages were still made there, although unorthodox or idolatrous practices made the shrine an object of suspicion and hostility to the prophets, (Amos 5:5; 8:14).

History of Beersheba

Beersheba: Excavated buildings on the site, probably from the latter part of the

Excavated buildings on the site, probably 
from the latter part of the 8th century, the time of King Hezekiah

When Joshua invaded Canaan and allocated land to each tribe, Beersheba was included in the territory doled out to the tribe of Simeon. The significance of the site is reflected in the phrase, "from Dan to Beersheba", meaning from end to end of Palestine. Beersheba was the southernmost religious, administrative and judicial centre for the country, as well as being the centre for the peoples of the northern Negeb. 

In view of its importance, Beersheba was well fortified and must have been surrounded by a wall. The site of the ancient town must, therefore, be sought in a tel or mound. Today it is generally agreed that the original Beersheba was at the place now known as Tel-es-Saba, three miles to the east of the present Arab town. 

Beersheba was resettled by Jews after they returned from the great Exile (Neh. 11:27, 30). Following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Romans fortified the place and stationed a garrison there as a frontier post against the Nabateans, whose main towns lay to the south, east and west of Beersheba.

For the stories of Bible people who lived at Beersheba, see


See other fascinating links between 
Archaeology and the Bible



  Bible Study Resource: Beersheba, northernmost city of Israel: Abraham, the Seven Wells, the Horned Altar

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