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The history and archaeology of Tel Be’er Sheva

Tel Be'er Sheva archaeological site (Photo: Shutterstock)

Tel Be’er Sheva is an archaeological site in southern Israel that is believed to be the location of the ancient biblical Beersheva. However, some scholars identify it with the biblical Sheba ("Sheva") mentioned in the Book of Joshua 19:2.

Tel Be’er Sheva is a UNESCO World Heritage site that lies east of modern Beersheva and west of the new Bedouin town of Tel Sheva, known in Arabic as “Tell es-Seba.” The area around the site has been preserved as Tel Be’er National Park and is accessible to visitors.

In biblical times, Beersheva signaled the southern border of the Kingdom of Israel, as noted by a phrase that appears in Judges 20:1 a total of nine times, “from Dan to Beersheva.” The term refers to the area settled by the tribes of Israel, from the north to the south. However, scholars today believe that some military and economic Israelite influence reached probably till Ezion-Geber (modern Eilat), far in the south and deep into the Edomite territory, during King Solomon's time in the 10th century B.C. Beersheva was located within the territory associated with the tribe of Simeon.

Present-day Beersheva, the modern town built to the west of the ancient Tel, is the largest Israeli city in the Negev Desert region and holds many major institutions such as Ben-Gurion University.

Further south, beyond biblical Beersheva, the desert was first inhabited by Amalekites and Midianites, and later, by Nabateans and Arabs. The remains of fortifications found at Tel Be’er Sheva attest to the strategic need to ward off intruders from the south. 

The ancient city (the Tel) was built near two main river valleys (wadis): The Beersheva and Hebron rivers, which flooded during the winter months and were left with shallow underground water during the dry summers. Archaeologists date the first settlement in the area to the fourth millennium B.C,. during the Chalcolithic period.

By 3000 B.C. and forward till the Iron Age, ancient Beersheva’s first inhabitants had left the Tel (the archaeological hill), and the area would be inhabited seasonally by nomads, likely including the biblical patriarchs, although no archaeological record remains can be seen at the Tel. For this reason, some scholars identify the 'Beer-Sheva' from the Bronze Age period – or the time of Abraham and Isaac – as another site, probably located in the valley and under the modern city of Beersheva. Some remains of this period may have been found there, including water wells. This likely means that the archaeological hill, Tel Be’er Sheva, was inhabited during the Israelite (Iron Age) period only (see explanations forward).

The Bible explains how Abraham (who lived probably around 2000 - 1550 B.C) settled on territory controlled by King Abimelech, the king of Gerar (Genesis 20:1-16; 21:22-34). After a dispute over a well used by Abraham’s servants, the patriarch ordered a new well be dug at Beersheva and gave Abimelech seven lambs to enforce an oath of peace between each other. The well was called “be’er sheva” (be’er, meaning “well,” and sheva, meaning “seven” or “oath”). A similar dispute after Abraham’s death involved his son Isaac, whose servants built a new well.

While excavating the area, Yohanan Aharoni (1969 - 1975) and Ze’ev Herzog from Tel Aviv University (1976), found several ancient water systems/wells dating to the early Israelite settlement. 

The first fortified settlement at the site of Tel Be’er Sheva is dated to the time of the Judges in the 11th century B.C., before or just at the beginning of the United Monarchy of Saul and/or King David. The main layers and buildings excavated are dated to the 9th century B.C., during the rule of the Kingdom of Judah.

It is thought that the city was probably destroyed by Sennacherib around 700 B.C., and then abandoned for about 300 years. Afterwards, there is evidence of early Persian, Hellenistic and Roman habitations, followed by an Arab presence. 

Efforts have been made to uncover the earliest strata of settlers, and four of the earliest strata were uncovered at the bedrock level. The earliest settlement at Tel Be’er Sheva, during the Iron Age (Stratum IX), or 12th and 11th centuries B.C., comprised about 100 to 140 people. 

The construction of houses can be seen for the first time on Stratum VIII, which dates to the 11th century. Between 1993 and 1995, Herzog uncovered the town’s water system, from the Iron Age (Israelite period). This system, via secret tunnels, collected running waters from the flooded Hebron River during the winter, into hidden underground reservoirs located under the city. Today, visitors can see the water reservoir's mortar (currently dry), which holds the fingerprints of the workers, dated to more or less 2,800 years ago.

The city contains the main elements needed to be connected to a typical biblical Iron Age (Israelite) city from the 10th to 7th centuries B.C: A four-chamber gate with a drainage channel, a city square for market and judging (e.g. Ruth 4:1-11), a casemate wall, some four-room houses and a big underground water system to provide water to the city in case of siege. Some of those elements can be found and compared with other cities settled at some periods by the Israelites, such as Tel-Gezer, Megiddo, Jerusalem, Hazor, Khirbet-Qeiyafa, and others. Most of these architectural finds at Tel Be’er Sheva are dated to the 9th century B.C.

There is a famous well located at the entrance gate of the Iron Age city of Tel Be’er Sheva, but the well is not dated to the Bronze Age (Abraham's time). The depth is about 70 meters (230 feet). The well of Abraham's time should be somewhere else in the valley and may not actually be located on the Tel (as mentioned above). The well located at the gate is mainly dated to the Iron Age and was most probably used to keep good relations, to control and overview the nomadic population that would come to the well, instead of allowing them to enter inside the city walls.

Of special interest at Tel Be’er Sheva is a large horned altar, the first-ever to be unearthed in Israel, which was reconstructed with original, carved stones found hidden and sealed in a specific room, probably during the 8th century B.C. On the side of the altar, is carved a line that seems to depict a snake. Altars with horns at each of their corners are mentioned frequently in the Bible (Lev.4:7, 18, 25; Ex. 29:12, 30:2; 1 Kings 1:50, 2:28), and remind us of the custom in ancient Israel to let a criminal or a fugitive remain alive temporarily once he succeeds to hold the horns of the altar. This altar is on exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The altar implies the likely presence of a temple room, which may have been the center of an ancient cult likely to have been destroyed during the reforms of King Hezekiah during the 8th century B.C. (2 Kings 18:1-4 and 2 Chronicles 29-32). An interesting comparison with the small temple or shrine of Tel Arad, which had also been obliterated during this period, could be done. The Tel-Arad shrine was likely an altar to God, or a kind of syncretist religious belief, before King Hezekiah's reform.

According to Genesis 26:25, God appeared to Isaac at Beersheva and built an altar, and ordered his servants to dig a well. However, we should refrain from assuming that the altar with four horns mentioned earlier is Isaac's altar. This is because the altar with four horns belongs to the Iron Age, whereas Beersheva, associated with Isaac's time in the Bronze Age, would likely have been situated further down the Tel, in the valley.

Another fascinating historical event occurred at Tel Be’er Sheva on Oct. 31, 1917, involving a significant confrontation between the British ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Cavalry and the Ottoman army. This encounter ultimately resulted in a decisive victory for the British forces. Modern Beersheva holds an ANZAC cemetery, to commemorate fallen soldiers, and a museum commemorating the 1917 heroic fight.


The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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