Ancient Bible city of Hebron: Bible archaeology

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Abraham as he may have looked

Abraham's story

Sacrifice of Isaac, detail from Caravaggio painting

Isaac's story

Sarah: elderly woman with baby

Sarah's story

King Herod, as portrayed in the TV series 'Rome'

King Herod

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Hebron: what happened there

  • Abraham bought the Field of Machpelah as a burial plot for his family. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are all buried there

  • David was anointed at Hebron as King of Israel. It was his capital for the first seven years of his reign

  • Joab killed Abner here, and Absalom raised the banner of revolt against his father David

  • King Herod built a lavish tomb over the Cave of Machpelah.

The Tomb of Abraham and Sarah

According to the Bible, Hebron is the burial place of Abraham and Sarah. Genesis 23:17-21 tells the story of Abraham's purchase of a cave, the Cave of Machpelah, for a tomb in which he and his descendents could be buried. He paid an exorbitant amount, so that his descendants would have the right of burial there forever. And indeed Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were laid there to rest; so were the matriarch Rebecca and Jacobís wife Leah

Hebron: Painting of the burial of Sarah

The Burial of Sarah

Recent excavations have uncovered a 9ft-thick city wall and fortified tower that dates to the Middle Bronze period, circa 1700 BC. Scholars say this is about the time when, according to the biblical story, Abraham came to the city.

Between the tower and the city wall, archaeologists have unearthed two stone-walled rooms that they believe date back to the period of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose 12 sons became the founders of the 12 tribes of ancient Israel. Artifacts found in the rooms include silver jewelry, bronze axe heads, two scarabs and the handle of a dagger.

David's Capital

Hebron: 1937 photograph of the Upper Pool of David at Hebron

The Upper Pool of David, from a 1937 photograph. This may be the site of 
the  'pool of Hebron' over which David hanged the assassins of Ishbosheth

Hebron was King David's first capital city of Judah - see David's story at  Bible People: David. It was also the site of David's anointing as King of all Israel (11 Samuel 5:1-3). The city reached its zenith in the early part of David's reign, serving as his capital for the first seven and a half years of his rule over Judea (II Samuel 2:1-4).

But some years after he came to power he established his new capital at Jerusalem, which was more centrally located and easier to defend. But Hebron was still important. It was still regarded as a political and religious centre throughout the period of the monarchy. It became a Levitical city, that is a city for priests and Levites, as well as a haven of refuge.

It was at Hebron that the fearsome army general Joab killed Abner ben-Ner, and Absalom raised the banner of revolt against his father (11 Sam. 15:7-10). Rehoboam fortified Hebron, as well as many other places in the Judean mountains (II Ch. I I :10). It also served as an important administrative centre in the later period of the monarchy. Seals bearing the inscription ImIk hbrn  (to the king of Hebron) have been found stamped on jars in many sites in Judah.

After the Exile

Hebron: The Tomb of the Patriarchs as it is today

The Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron

Hebron: Pilgrims pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs

The lower sections of the Tomb date from the time of Herod the Great

Jews settled in Hebron after their return from the Babylonian Exile (Nehemiah 11:25). In the early period of the Second Temple, the Edomites occupied the southern part of Judea, including Hebron. The Hasmoneans later wrested it from them, destroyed it, and burned down its walls (Ant. Bk. 12, 8:6). Herod erected many buildings in Hebron, including an imposing structure over the Cave of Machpelah with an outer wall modelled on that of the Temple Mount. It was made of huge blocks of stone, characteristic of the best Herodian masonry. 

A prominent church and monastery were later built in Hebron and the site became a centre of pilgrimage for Christians. The Arabic name of Hebron, "al-Khalil", meaning "the friend of God", is a significant indication of the reverence in which Abraham's name is held by Moslems. Abraham is revered as the original founder of the three great religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

Hebron: Early photograph of Hebron

Early 20th century photograph of Hebron

Hebron: Topographical map showing the location of Hebron in relation to other major cities and land formations

 


King David and Hebron (extra information)

The Second Book of Samuel opens with David's lament over Saul and Jonathan and David's move to Hebron, the tribal and cultic centre of Judah and close to Bethlehem, David's birthplace.
At Hebron, David was anointed king over Judah (II Sam. 2:4). In the interim, Saul's commander Abner had crowned Saul's son Ishbaal (Ishbosheth) king of northern Israel at Mahanaim (II K. 2:8-10). After Saul's defeat and death, the Philistines appear to have recognized two separate vassal kingdoms in western Palestine: the area which David ruled from Hebron and the northern territory which acknowledged Ishbaal (2:9). After some desultory fighting, David defeated Ishbaal, apparently without any intervention by the Philistines. With Ishbaal dead, the northern tribes of Israel accepted David's leadership and, by the eighth year of his reign, he felt himself strong enough to make a bid for independence and the unity of his kingdom.

Ground plan of the Jerusalem area as it was at the time of King David

The citadel of Jebus (Jerusalem) at the time of King David

Between Judea and the larger part of the kingdom of Saul, lay the mountain enclave of Jerusalem still occupiedby the Canaanite clan of the Jebusites. While this remained, political and military control of a united Palestine was impossible. David attacked Jerusalem, the hero of the battle being his commander, Joab. By creating a diversion within the city he enabled David and his men to break through its defences and capture the stronghold.
Jerusalem became the personal territory of the king, held by right of conquest by David and his personal army. It was outside the general political organization of the country and was, quite literally, "the City of David", an urban city-state, in direct succession to the Jebusite regime. As such, it was not identified with the southern tribes like Hebron, nor with the northern state of Israel. Instead it was neutral ground from which David could reign over a united "People of Israel".
Judean and Israelite settlers joined the original inhabitants of Jerusalem, all of them acknowledging David as king and accepting his retinue of courtiers and mercenary soldiers. To put the seal on his position, David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem in a great ceremony (II Sam. 6:1-19), thereby establishing his royal residence as the religious as well as the political and military capital of the new integrated state of Judah and Israel.

 


THE STORY OF HEBRON

The foundation of this important and ancient city of Palestine is mentioned in the Old Testament in a unique manner: "And Hebron was built seven years before Zoan of Egypt" (Nu. 13:22). The date of the foundation of Zoan, which served as the capital of the Hyksos, can be calculated from extra-biblical sources as circa 1720 BC. It may therefore be assumed that Hebron was built at the beginning of the Middle Bronze (Canaanite) Age 11, which coincides with the Hyksos period. This estimate is also borne out by the frequent mention of Hebron in the Patriarchal Epics (Genesis 13:18; 35:27, and elsewhere), as the Patriarchal period also coincides with that of the Hyksos.

The Canaanite Period

Indications of Canaanite occupation of Hebron occur several times in the Old Testament. One such tradition is the account of Abraham's purchase of the Field of Machpelah in Hebron from Ephron the Hittite (Gn. 23:17-20). The Cave of Machpelah later became the burial-place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.
The Old Testament also notes that Arba, father of the Anak clan, lived in Hebron and that the whole family was destroyed by Joshua when he conquered the Judean mountains (Jos. 11 :21-22). Kiryat Arba, the other name of Hebron, is thought to be derived from the name of the father of the Anakites. Talmudic tradition, however, attributes the name to the four patriarchal couples who were buried at Hebron, while modern research leans towards the view that "Arba" refers to the four separate quarters that make up Hebron. One of the quarters, Mamre, is mentioned in the Old Testament (Gn. 13:18; 35:27).
During the Conquest, King Hoham of Hebron joined the Southern Canaanite coalition led by Adoni-Zedek, King of Jerusalem. The coalition was defeated by Joshua at Gibeon, and Hebron was later awarded to Caleb ben Jephuneh (Jos. 10:3; 15:13; Jud. 1:20). In I Ch. 2:43, the names of four clans claiming descent from Caleb, 'father' of Hebron, are mentioned. Prof. B. Mazar favours the view that each of these clans lived in one of the quarters of Kiryat Arba.

During the Monarchy

Hebron reached its zenith in the early part of David's reign, serving as his capital for the first seven and a half years of his rule over Judea (II Sam. 2:1-4). Subsequently, Jerusalem was made the capital of the united kingdom. Hebron was also the site of David's anointing as King of all Israel (II Sam. 5:1-3). In deference to the tombs of the Patriarchs within its boundaries, Hebron continued to be regarded as a political and religious centre throughout the period of the monarchy. It became a Levitical city, i.e. a city for priests and Levites, as well as a haven of refuge.
It was at Hebron that Joab killed Abner ben-Ner, and Absalom raised the banner of revolt against his father (II Sam. 15:7-10). Rehoboam fortified Hebron, as well as many other places in the Judean mountains (II Ch. 11 :10). It also served as an important administrative centre in the later period of the monarchy, as can be gathered from the seals bearing the inscription "lmlk hbrn" = (to the king of Hebron) found stamped on jars in many sites in Judah.

Post-Exilic and Roman Period

Jews settled in Hebron after their return from the Babylonian Exile (Nehemiah 11:25). In the early period of the Second Temple, the Edomites occupied the southern part of Judea, including Hebron. The Hasmoneans later wrested it from them, destroyed it, and burned down its walls (Antiquities Book 12, 8:6). Herod erected many buildings in Hebron, including an imposing structure over the Cave of Machpelah with an outer wall modelled on that of the Temple Mount. It was made of huge blocks of stone, characteristic of the best Herodian masonry. Herod also erected other buildings in the Mamre quarter.

The remaining section of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, showing the huge blocks of stone

Huge blocks of stone formed the base of the Temple Mount, built by Herod the Great. 
Similar stones were used at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron


Though Hebron's position in the Great War with Rome was insignificant, it continued to be revered because of the Patriarchal Tombs (Josephus, War of the Jews, Book 4, 9:7). It was occupied in 68 AD by Shimon Bar Giora, leader of the Zealots, and later razed by the Romans (War of the Jews, Bk. 4, 9:9).

Scant Archaeological Evidence

The present site of Hebron is on four hills: At Muhawer, Nimrah, Jabal al Ja'barah, and Jabal ar-Rumaidah. As yet (this was written in 1964) no systematic excavations of the town have been carried out; there is no unanimity as to the location of Hebron and its quarters in Old Testament times. Nevertheless, there is a strong presumption, based on a number of potsherds from the Iron Age, that the town first stood on Jabal ar-Rumaidah. Among the sites uncovered on that hill was one of a tomb containing pottery dating from the Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1700 BC), which seems to fit in with the literary materials bearing on the age of Hebron.

The Cave of Machpelah

According to tradition, the site of the Cave is at Haram el-Khalil in the eastern part of modern Hebron. The Cave, which is sacred to Moslems, is surrounded by an enclosure or "Haram" measuring sixty by thirty-three metres, and a building whose foundations date to the time of Herod. After the Arab conquest, the Cave of Machpelah was covered by a synagogue. Following the Crusades, the Arabs banned the entry of non-Moslems. Those few who have entered report the presence of a blocked cave under the sealed enclosure.

Mamre and Abraham's Tent

The place where Abraham pitched his tent (Gn. 13 :18; 18:1) is near Hebron. Apparently the location has been shifted a number of times because of its association with an ancient oak tree. During Herod's reign and for a long time thereafter, one such tree existed north of Hebron at Ramat-el-Khalil. The site of the tent at Mamre was probably fixed during this period, as Herod built a rectangular enclosure of magnificent masonry there at the same time that he erected the "Haram". The site was rebuilt as a pagan centre with a great market-place during the Hadrianic era. It was chiefly remembered by Jews as the place where, after the Bar Kochba War, thousands of their co-religionists were sold into slavery for less than the price of cattle.
A prominent church and monastery were later built in Hebron and the site became a centre of pilgrimage for Christians. The Arabic name of Hebron, "al-Khalil", meaning "the friend of God", is a significant indication of the reverence in which Abraham's name is held by Moslems. Abraham is revered as the original founder of the three great religious traditions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.

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