Beersheba, meaning, “well of the oath” is the largest city in the Negev desert in southern Israel. “So that place was called Beersheba,because the two men swore an oath there.” (Genesis 21:31) These men were Abraham and Abimelek, the polytheistic king of Gerar who wanted to take Sarah as his wife. Abraham swore an oath that he would not falsely deal with the king and his descendants and Abimelek agreed Abraham could live on the land and returned the well that his servants had seized. Beersheba may also mean, “well of seven” because Isaac dug seven wells in the land, the last being recorded in Genesis 26.
The city is mostly connected with Abraham and Isaac, although it is also mentioned in other books of the Old Testament. In Genesis 26, Isaac “went up to Beersheba. That night the Lord appeared to him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bless you and will increase the number of your descendants for the sake of my servant Abraham.’” (26:23-24) After this, Isaac built an altar there and dug one of the seven wells.
“So Israel set out with all that was his, and when he reached Beersheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.” (Genesis 46:1) Whilst there, God called out to Israel saying, “Jacob! Jacob … I am God, the God of your father … Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. I will go down to Egypt with you, and I will surely bring you back again. And Joseph’s own hand will close your eyes.” (46:2-4) This was the final time God spoke directly to Jacob. He and his family had left Canaan because of the famine and God encouraged Jacob to go to his son Joseph in Egypt.
When the land was divided up between the tribes of Israel, Beersheba became the territory of both the tribes of Simeon and Judah. The towns belonging to Judah are listed in Joshua 15 and Beersheba is recorded as one of the southernmost towns. The tribe of Simeon’s territory lay within the territory of Judah, which is why some of the towns belonged to both tribes, as recorded in Joshua 19. “Their inheritance lay within the territory of Judah. It included: Beersheba (or Sheba) … thirteen towns and their villages.” (Joshua 19:1-6)
Beersheba is next mentioned in the First Book of Samuel. “And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognised that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord.” (1 Samuel 3:20) In chapter 8, Samuel, who was getting old, appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders. “The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba.” Unfortunately, they were dishonest men and used their power to gain money and pervert justice. As a result, a king was chosen to rule over Israel: King Saul.
Throughout 1 and 2 Samuel, Israel is usually measured “from Dan to Beersheba,” however, the next significant event involving the city does not appear until the first book of Kings. “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, everyone under their own vine and under their own fig tree.” (1 Kings 4:25) This time of peace was short-lived and life became unsettled under the rule of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. The prophet Elijah fled to Beersheba after Jezebel ordered him killed. Beersheba was a safe enough area for Elijah to leave his servant whilst he fled into the wilderness asking God to end his life. (1 Kings 19) God, of course, had more plans for the prophet and did not grant his wish. Soon after this event, Elijah found Elisha who would become his servant.
During the reign of King Jehoshaphat of Judah, the people of Beersheba had adopted sinful lifestyles and religions. Fortunately, the king “went out again among the people from Beersheba to the hill country of Ephraim and turned them back to the Lord, the God of their ancestors.” (1 Chronicles 19:4) Jehoshaphat appointed judges throughout the land to help keep the people faithful to the Lord. “Consider carefully what you do, because you are not judging for mere mortals but for the Lord, who is with you whenever you give a verdict. Now let the fear of the Lord be on you. Judge carefully, for with the Lord our God there is no injustice or partiality or bribery.” (19:6-7)
The final time the city of Beersheba is mentioned in the Bible is in the Book of Amos. The prophet Amos mentioned the city as an example of idolatry. Amos repeats the words of the Lord to the people of Israel. Many towns and cities had fallen in the eyes of the Lord and “ turn justice into bitterness and cast righteousness to the ground.” (Amos 5:7) The Israelites were encouraged to “Seek me and live” and not to “journey to Beersheba”. (5:4-5) Amos 8:14 threatens that if they follow the ways of Beersheba, they will be destroyed. “As surely as the god of Beersheba lives’ they will fall, never to rise again.”
Before the Israelite era, the city of Beersheba had been destroyed and rebuilt many times. Evidence of metal tools found in caves suggests the area had been inhabited since the 4th millennium BC. The Biblical Beersheba may have been slightly to the east of the modern Beersheba, which is where the ruins of an abandoned town have been discovered. Judging from the age of the stone used, the Israelites were living in Beersheba from the 10thcentury BC. The land was easily supplied with water, evidenced by the number of wells discovered in the area; no doubt some of these could be the ones dug by Abraham and Isaac.
From 539 – 332 BC, the Persians who built a citadel occupied Beersheba. There is little known about the city between this era and the Roman period where it served as a front-line defence against attacks on Roman territory. Records from 4thcentury AD reference Beersheba as a large village with a Roman garrison. Later, Byzantine Greeks inhabited the city, however, they abandoned the destroyed city during the Muslim conquest of the Levant in the first half of the 7thcentury.
The Biblical Beersheba no longer existed but during the Ottoman era, Beersheba was rebuilt, however, as archaeological evidence suggests, to the west of the original city. Present-day Beersheba is located on the edge of the Negev desert, approximately 75 miles from Jerusalem. It is susceptible to flooding during the winter from water that flows from the Hebron Valley. The water is mostly underground, hence the wells, however, the vast quantities that pour in can easily overflow. The temperature is generally high, averaging between 21 and 34 degrees Celsius (71 – 94 F) and it only rains during the winter months.
The population of Beersheba is rapidly growing with over 200,000 inhabitants. The city is larger than Tel Aviv and is predicted to have a population of 340,000 by 2030. Beersheba has a premier football team and basketball club, plus has become Israel’s national chess centre. Even children at nursery school are taught how to play chess.
Over time, Beersheba has been twinned with fifteen other towns and cities. Just in case you are interested, here they are. Have you been to any?
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon