Archeology in Israel


Archeology in Israel


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Be'er Sheva

by Jacqueline Schaajje

Be'er Sheva was the southernmost border of the Israelite kingdom, as becomes clear from the Biblical saying "From Dan to Be'er Sheva." More to the south, the desert began, inhabited first by Canaanite peoples, then Philistines, later by the Nabateans and Arabs. The fortifications that are found in the ancient site at Tel Be'er Sheva testify to its ancient function to ward off intruders from the south.

Be'er Sheva was built on the bank of a wadi which was flooded by rain water in the winter. In the summer the water lay shallow under the ground level. According to archeologists, the site was occupied from the 4th millennium BCE. In 3000 BCE its first peoples moved away and it was only seasonally inhabited by nomads, among these were presumably the Biblical patriarchs - but no archeological traces have been found of them.

Some main stories in the Bible are about Be'er Sheva, beginning with Abraham. He was allowed to settle on the lands of king Avimelek, who ruled the land of Gerar. But they entered a dispute about a well which Abraham used but which had been taken by Avimelek's servants. Abraham dug a new well at Be'er Sheva and gave Avimelek seven lambs to enforce the oath to be peaceful towards each other. The well was dubbed Be'er Sheva (be'er means 'well' and sheva can be interpreted as 'seven' or 'oath.' - see Genesis 21:22-34).

After the death of Abraham, the dispute about the well began all over again, but was finally resolved as related in the Torah by his son Isaac. His servants dug a new well. Isaac built an altar in Be'er Sheva, as dedication to the Lord. (Genesis 26:23-33).

One generation later, Jacob had his famous dream about a stairway to heaven in the area of Be'er Sheva and afterwards decided to travel to Egypt after receiving a holy vision (Genesis 28:10-15 and 46:1-7).

In the 12th century BCE, the Israelites returned from Egypt and Be'er Sheva became the territory of the tribe of Shimon and then of Judah (Joshua 15:28 and 19:2). The prophet Elijah found refuge in Be'er Sheva after the wicked Jezebel ordered him killed (I Kings 19:3). The bad sons of the prophet Samuel judged in Be'er Sheva (I Samuel 8:2), and this caused the discontented Israelite people to demand their own king to rule them properly.

Saul, Israel's first king, built a fort on Tel Be'er Sheva that he used during the campaign against the Amalekites in the south (I Samuel 14:48 and 15:2-9). In the meantime the Philistines had become the enemy of Israel who threatened the border of Be'er Sheva constantly, until King David dealt with them effectively.

David also built a town. At the end of the 10th century it was destroyed, probably in the invasion of Israel by the Egyptian pharaoh Shishak in 925 BCE. In his temple in Karkak, Egypt, Be'er Sheva is mentioned as a conquered town by the name of Fort Abram.

From the 9th century BCE, Be'er Sheva was rebuilt and became prosperous. Its inhabitants practiced a heathen cult. One find, now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, is of a great horned altar which is made of hewn stones. This is contrary to the Biblical law which says that altars should be made of uncut stones (Deut. 27:5 and Joshua 8:3). The prophet Amos mentions Be'er Sheva in regard to idolatry (Amos 5:5 and 8:14). Probably during the religious reform of King Hezekiah the altar was destroyed and its stones were re-used (II Kings 18:4).

Altar in Be'er Sheva
Altar in Be'er Sheva

Be'er Sheva was completely destroyed in 701 BCE by the invasion of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. It was built up again but was merely a struggling village, which came to an end with the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 587 BCE. In later centuries the Persians built a fortress, followed by an Arab fort in the 7th - 8th centuries CE.

Later Be'er Sheva was completely abandoned, until the Turks built a new town on the present location of the modern city, which administrated southern Palestine from 1900. Be'er Sheva was also the scene of heavy battle in World War I against the British under General Allenby who took it in 1917. In Israel's Independence War, Be'er Sheva was the head quarters of the Egyptians, until they were ousted. After 1949 many Jewish immigrants settled there and it became the new capital of southern Israel.


The nice thing about Tel Be'er Sheva, which is located east of the present modern town, is that it has been completely restored. The archeological ruins are represented by everything below a white plaster line. Most remains are from the 8th century BCE, from the rule of king Hezekiah. Of the earlier phase, some carved rock dwellings remain, belonging to the earliest Israelite period (12th century).

The Israelite town was made of stone houses and was settled by about 400 Israelites, mainly military folk and civil servants who administered the kingdom. Lower class peasants lived in villages and farms outside the town.

The town had a round plan and was encircled by a mud-brick wall based on a stone ramp. These date from the 10th century BCE. The wall was rebuilt in the 9th century, in the form of a double wall with a space between them that was often used as living room or storehouses.

Gate in Be'er Sheva
Gate in Be'er Sheva

Next to the gate is the well, also dug in the 10th century BCE, but the scenery and the tamarisk planted next to it is reminiscent of older times and the story about Abraham. A light reflecting on the water shows its depth, 80 meters. In the 8th century it became a reservoir of rain water, which was collected from all over the town, dripping from roofs and courtyards into channels under the streets. The route of the main water channel can be followed by marked cobble-stones.

The water was hauled up from a very efficient water system, elsewhere in the town, which is like that in Hazor and likewise dates to the 8th century BCE. Steps lead down to the water level. The carriers had separate tracks for going down and going up.

The town is entered through the gate. There is first an outer gate and an open square, followed by a triple inner gate. The rooms on the sides were for guards.

Inside the town there is a small square. From this, two parallel streets lead circularly through the town. In the middle of the town there is an observation tower.

Also next to the gate are three large storehouses. In these, large numbers of pottery vessels and large jars were found. It was in the walls of these buildings that the horned altar was detected. Three of the four cornerstones had a horned point, and the fourth one had its horn broken off. Another stone also belonging to the altar had a serpent engraved on it. (A replica of the altar is found next to the ticket office.)

On the left is a large governor's palace, which has three large reception rooms. Smaller four-room houses, typical Israelite dwellings, are found in other places, with their backsides to the wall. They all have identical plans. Next to the wall is the main living room. There is also a room with an oven and stairs leading to the roof. The other two rooms are separated by pillars and are for storage.

Opposite the four-room houses is a cellar building. The depth of the building, which goes down to the bedrock, is sometimes explained by the destruction that king Hezekiah wrought when he broke down the heathen temple to which the horned altar belonged (II Kings 18:4).

Opposite the storehouses lie the remains of the Roman fort from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, which had smooth pavement.

Nahal Be'er Sheva

Outside Tel Be'er Sheva, but within the city limits of modern Be'er Sheva, an even older site was discovered, on both sides of Nahal (river) Be'er Sheva. Here lie remains of an older pre-historic civilization, dating 6000 years back. The inhabitants lived in round or oval subterranean dwellings which they dug into the soft loess soil of the river bank. The dwellings were accessed through tunnels leading down from a shallow pit. In these pits hearths were found, and grain silos, and they probably functioned as day shelters. Also some of the dwellings were used as storage cellars.

Archeologists believe that the dwellings were inhabited by nomads, who only used them in the winter. In the summer they migrated with their flocks of goats and sheep. Their diet consimainly of grains and pulses. Why they lived under the earth is not clear yet. It may have something to do with the high temperatures in the Negev. However, if the dwellings were only used in the winter that does not make sense.

Among the artifacts that were found in Nahal Be'er Sheva were primitive hand-made clay pottery, flint tools like axes, scrapers, knives and lances. The inhabitants also imported basalt stone, used for vessels, and copper from Jordan, which was also turned into weaponry. That the weapons were made on the spot is clear because rock anvils were found.

Also found were beautiful ivory figurines, measuring 30 centimeters. Some are thin and long, like Giacometti sculpture. Their faces had drilled holes and it is thought that real hair was inserted in them to make them more realistic.

Figurines from Be'er Sheva
Figurines in Be'er Sheva


from the November 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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