Ancient city of Beersheba – Bible Study Resource

Abraham battles for water

The ancient city of Beersheba is famous because of where it was, not what it did. Dan in the north and Beersheba in the south – ‘from Dan to Beersheba’ was the land of the Bible.

Beersheba lay at the southern tip of ancient Israel, the last piece of fertile land before the forbidding Negev Desert. Here, desert travellers watered their animals before the blistering heat of the desert.

Without water, you died. Indeed, Beersheba is first mentioned in a story about water rights – a continual source of anxiety.  Abraham, head of one of the Hebrew tribes that wandered over the land looking for pasture, was traveling through land controlled by the local king Abimelech of Gerar (Genesis 21:25-31).

Beersheba, southern city just north of the Negev desertThere was a dispute over a valuable well, and Abraham made a bargain with Abimelech: he would dig a well in the dry river bed and pay a tribute of sheep and oxen for the privilege of using the water; he also made a one-off payment of seven ewe lambs.

This sealed the agreement between the two men, giving Abraham a permanent supply of water in land he did not actually own. Abraham could water his flocks whenever he wished. It was ‘his’ well – the Hebrew word be’er means ‘well’, and sheva means ‘promise’. Before he left the area, Abraham planted a tamarisk tree.

 Ancient people used stories to record ownership and inheritance. The Bible contained records for the Jewish people: contracts for water rights and land tenure, and inheritance agreements. Many of the Bible stories served this  purpose.

25 Then Abraham complained to Abimelech about a well of water that Abimelech’s servants had seized.
26 But Abimelech said, “I don’t know who has done this. You did not tell me, and I heard about it only today.”
27 So Abraham brought sheep and cattle and gave them to Abimelech, and the two men made a treaty.
28 Abraham set apart seven ewe lambs from the flock,
29 and Abimelech asked Abraham, “What is the meaning of these seven ewe lambs you have set apart by themselves?”
30 He replied, “Accept these seven lambs from my hand as a witness that I dug this well.”
31 So that place was called Beersheba, because the two men swore an oath there. Genesis 21:25-33.

A lone tamarisk tree

A lone tamarisk tree

Isaac and water rights – again

Isaac, Abraham’s son, had made a similar pact about water with the same king (or his son, the meaning in the Bible is not clear). But there was trouble ahead.

Isaac was extraordinarily successful at whatever he did. His crops flourished, his flocks grew, and he began to amass considerable wealth. But his success proved his downfall, since the local herdsmen thought he was using more than his fair share of available water resources. He was asked to leave, presumably with the threat of violence if he did not go. He went.

Later on he returned. When he did, he found that the wells dug by his father had been filled with stones and earth, and thereby made useless. Undeterred, he set about restoring them, and in the process restored his own fortunes as well.

Shepherd and flock in an arid landscape

23 From there he (Isaac) went up to Beersheba.
24 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.”
25 Isaac built an altar there and called on the name of the Lord. There he pitched his tent, and there his servants dug a well.
26 Meanwhile, Abimelech had come to him from Gerar, with Ahuzzath his personal adviser and Phicol the commander of his forces.
27 Isaac asked them, “Why have you come to me, since you were hostile to me and sent me away?”
28 They answered, “We saw clearly that the Lord was with you; so we said, ‘There ought to be a sworn agreement between us’-between us and you. Let us make a treaty with you
29 that you will do us no harm, just as we did not molest you but always treated you well and sent you away in peace. Now you are blessed by the Lord.”
30 Isaac then made a feast for them, and they ate and drank.
31 Early the next morning the men swore an oath to each other. Then Isaac sent them on their way, and they left him in peace.
32 That day Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well they had dug. They said, “We’ve found water!”
33 He called it Shibah, and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba.
Genesis 26:23–33

Old photograph of Abraham's well at Beersheba

Isaac’s son Jacob offered sacrifice to Yahweh at Beersheba, but so did the followers of fertility religions.

1 So Israel set out with all that was his, and when he reached Beersheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac.
2 And God spoke to Israel in a vision at night and said, “Jacob! Jacob!” “Here I am,” he replied.
3 “I am God, the God of your father,” he said. “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there.” Genesis 46:1–3

You can read about the different types of sacrifice at Ancient Altars and the Ceremony of Sacrifice.

Reassembled ancient altar

When archaeologists were excavating at the ancient site of Beersheba, they found

  • several large, carefully shaped stones set into the town walls, dating back to the late 8th century BC
  • the stones, when they were reassembled, formed a cubical altar with four tapered projections or ‘horns’ (see above)
  • one of the stone blocks had a snake carved onto it – snakes were common symbols of rebirth in Middle Eastern religions
  • the top stones of the altar 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. When this happened, the stones were not smashed, but recycled. Waste not, want not.

There have been various theories about why the altar had projecting ‘horns’. The most common is that they had a symbolic meaning – cows, bulls and calves were common symbols of the fertility gods. Think of the story of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32.

Two separate areas would have been needed at a sacrificial altar:

  • one to slaughter the animal
  • another to burn it as an offering.

The same area could not be used for both actions, since the amount of blood flowing from the animal would saturate the ground, making fire impossible. So while the reconstructed stones appear to have been an altar, it is not clear what the altar’s exact purpose was.
It shows, however, is that worship of the fertility gods continued for centuries after people began to turn to Yahweh as their god.

The city of Beersheba

What was the city like? The top layer of excavations at Beersheba shows it as it was in the 8th century BC. This is the city Elijah saw when he fled from the wrath of Jezebel, after the murder of her priests of Baal.

1 Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.
2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there. I Kings 19:1-3

It was a remarkable city, laid out in separate quarters with orderly streets following the inside of the city wall and a main street through the town center. All these streets met in a square inside the main city gate – obviously the main meeting place. There was

  • a palace for the governor near the city gate, with three large reception halls
  • a drainage system for rainwater, channeling it into wells or outside the city
  • a communal cistern or well with a stone staircase going down into the foundation rock; this meant the city always had fresh water
  • storehouses for grain and oil collected as taxes from the surrounding countryside.
A model of the ancient city of Beersheba, showing the different areas for the city palace,

A model of the ancient city of Beersheba, with palace, warehouses, and houses of officials and servants. It was an administrative center for the  country, and a bolt-hole during invasion.

Aerial view of Beersheba excavations

Aerial view of Beersheba excavations

Most of the houses in Beersheba had four sections, one of which was a courtyard. All the houses were accessible via narrow streets. They would have seemed very small to us – rooms could only be as wide as the beams that supported the roof. They were also stuffy, since there was a minimum of windows. There was of course no glass in the windows: lattice work and shutters covered the openings.

Stairs or a wooden ladder led up onto a flat roof, which was used as an outdoor room partly shaded by woven matting. This space and the courtyard were the main work areas, since they were the only well-lit places. Tasks performed here included

  • spinning and weaving
  • food preparation
  • sleeping
  • drying food or textiles.

The houses was crowded with people at all times of the day and night. There was virtually no privacy – anything a person did, no matter how intimate, was done in the presence of others.


Bible Study Guide

'From Dan to Beersheba' map

Map of ancient Israel, showing the city of Dan in the north and Beersheba in the south

Here are some activities for a Bible Study Group

‘This Land Is Mine’

Read the story of Abraham and his acquisition of water rights at Beersheba – you’ll find the Bible text above.
Write a short story about the acquisition of your own home: develop a ‘sacred story’ for future generations of your family:

  • make a point-form summary of the events you remember best
  • try to include some element that would make the story unique to your own family
  • flesh out the story with more details
  • involve all the main members of your family if possible.

Worshipping False Gods

The 1st Commandment forbids us to worship false gods : ‘Thou shalt not worship false gods before Me.’ But all too frequently we do. What other gods do you worship? Money? Youthful looks? Your job? A perfect body? See Top ten ways to Hell for some ideas.

  • Name your own false gods. Write a short description of the ‘god’, and why you worship it so much.
  • Imagine that you have to wean yourself off this god. How would you do it?

Disappointed?

Samuel was disappointed in his two sons – read the text from I Samuel 8:1-3:

1 When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as judges for Israel.
2 The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba.
3 But his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.

  • How do you accept the fact that your children, or your parents, may not be all you hoped for?
  • Do you accept them anyway? Or ask more of them?
  • Do you have the same high expectations of yourself?

Share your response to these questions with a friend, or spend some quiet time thinking about the answers.

Extra Bible references to Beersheba

The southern boundary marker of ancient Israel, Judges 20:1 1 Samuel 3:20; 2 Samuel 3:10
Jacob went out from Beersheba towards Haran, Genesis 28:10
In the inheritance of Judah, Joshua 15:20, 28:2, 2 Samuel 24:7
Afterwards assigned to Simeon, Joshua 19:2, 9; 1 Chronicles 4:28
Became a place of worship of the fertility gods, Amos 5:5; 8:14

Jephthah’s Daughter

The Book of Judges deals with the first two or three centuries after the entry of the tribes of Israel into Canaan, when they were led first by Joshua and then by a series of ‘judges’, perhaps better described simply as ‘leaders’. This period takes place at the beginning of the Iron Age in the Middle East, and coincides with a great movement of peoples in the Middle East which involved the downfall of the Minoan, Hittite and Mycenaean empires.

Jephtah’s unfortunate background

Judges 11:1-3

1 Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a harlot. Gilead was the father of Jephthah. 2 And Gilead’s wife also bore him sons; and when his wife’s sons grew up, they thrust Jephthah out, and said to him, “You shall not inherit in our father’s house; for you are the son of another woman.” 3 Then Jephthah fled from his brothers, and dwelt in the land of Tob; and worthless fellows collected round Jephthah, and went raiding with him.

Jephtah becomes an admired leader

Judges 11:4-11

Early Greek body armor; Jephtah and his men were not as well armed as this4 After a time the Ammonites made war against Israel. 5 And when the Ammonites made war against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to bring Jephthah from the land of Tob; 6 and they said to Jephthah, “Come and be our leader, that we may fight with the Ammonites.” 7 But Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “Did you not hate me, and drive me out of my father’s house? Why have you come to me now when you are in trouble?” 8 And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “That is why we have turned to you now, that you may go with us and fight with the Ammonites, and be our head over all the inhabitants of Gilead.” 9 Jephthah said to the elders of Gilead, “If you bring me home again to fight with the Ammonites, and the LORD gives them over to me, I will be your head.” 10 And the elders of Gilead said to Jephthah, “The LORD will be witness between us; we will surely do as you say.” 11 So Jephthah went with the elders of Gilead, and the people made him head and leader over them; and Jephthah spoke all his words before the LORD at Mizpah.

Jephtah’s Vow

Judges 11:29-36

29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manas’seh, and passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. 30 And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD, and said, “If thou wilt give the Ammonites into my hand, 31 then whoever comes forth from the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the LORD’s, and I will offer him up for a burnt offering.” 32 So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the LORD gave them into his hand. 33 And he smote them from Aro’er to the neighborhood of Minnith, twenty cities, and as far as Abel-keramim, with a very great slaughter. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.

Jephtah Greeted by his Daughter, Erasmus Quellinus

Jephthah Greeted By His Daughter. Erasmus Quellinus (1607-1678). Oil On Panel.

34 Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances; she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter. 35 And when he saw her, he rent his clothes, and said, “Alas, my daughter! you have brought me very low, and you have become the cause of great trouble to me; for I have opened my mouth to the LORD, and I cannot take back my vow.” 36 And she said to him, “My father, if you have opened your mouth to the LORD, do to me according to what has gone forth from your mouth, now that the LORD has avenged you on your enemies, on the Ammonites.”

Jephtah’s Daughter Prepares to Die

Judges 11:37-40

The lament of Jephtah's daughter, George Hicks

The Lament of Jephtah’s Daughter by George Elgar Hick

37 And she said to her father, “Let this thing be done for me; let me alone two months, that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my companions.” 38 And he said, “Go.” And he sent her away for two months; and she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains. 39 And at the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had made. She had never known a man. And it became a custom in Israel 40 that the daughters of Israel went year by year to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in the year.

Human sacrifice in the Bible

People in the Bible accuse their enemies of child sacrifice but the Bible only records one instance where a Jewish hero killed his own child as a human sacrifice.

In the Book of Judges, a soldier called Jephtah swears to God that if God gives him victory in battle, he will sacrifice the first creature that meets him when he returns home.

Alas, it is his only child, a daughter, who runs out to greet him. Jephtah keeps his promise, but his action is heavily condemned in the Bible. He sacrifices the nameless daughter, and in doing so becomes one of the great tragic figures of the Bible – as does his daughter.

The other famous Bible story involving child sacrifice is about Abraham and his son Isaac. Abraham is commanded by God to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, and nearly does so. Jephtah's daughter runs out to meet him, painting by Quellinus The Bible tells us nothing about Abraham’s internal struggle or horrified misgivings about the act, or the terror and trauma experiences by Isaac.

This story is held up by modern God-attackers as proof that God is not good but evil, and that Abraham was a fool for worshipping Him. Not so. The story is not about human sacrifice, but about our faith in God’s ultimate wisdom, even when we do not understand it at all and cannot see any sense in what is happening around us. We accept what we believe is God’s plan for us, and keep on living our lives as best we can.

These are the only two examples of human sacrifice in which the Jewish people participate.

Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac

Foreigners and human sacrifice

But the Bible has several mentions of human sacrifice being carried out by enemies of the Jewish tribes. We hear for example that Josiah defiled a religious sanctuary in the valley of Hinnom because he believed that girls and boys had been sacrificed there (2 Kings 23:10). Hinnom was enemy territory, and the Bible accuses the Hinnomites of immolating their children in fire.

The Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem; this is where Josiah found the religious altars on which he believed boys and girls were sacrificed

The Valley of Hinnom south of Jerusalem; this is where Josiah found the religious altars on which he believed boys and girls were sacrificedThe king of Moab, a country bordering the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, gave his eldest son as a burnt offering.

When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom; but they could not. Then he took his first born son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land. (2 Kings 3:27). 

The Bible also implies that the Ammonites offered child sacrifices to Moloch, god of fire.

Who was killed, and why?

Part of an obelisk from Carthage shows a man holding a child. Archaeologists say it is a priest taking a child to be sacrificed. Why? It merely shows a man holding a child – like Christian images of St Joseph and the child Jesus. How can this be evidence of child sacrifice?

In fact, an actual human sacrifice is only ever mentioned when an enemy is supposed to have done it – which makes the evidence unconvincing, to say the least.

Part of an obelisk from Carthage shows a man holding a child. Archaeologists say it is a priest taking a child to be sacrificed. Why? It merely shows a man holding a child – like Christian images of St Joseph and the child Jesus. How can this be evidence of child sacrifice?

The only really convincing argument to support the practice of human sacrifice is the fact that the Bible repeatedly forbids it. The Bible rarely forbids something unless it is evil and already happening. It never forbids us to float in the air or eat rainbows, for example, because no-one does it.

In history and archaeology

Archaeologists are fascinated by the idea of human sacrifice. The Carthaginians are said to have practiced it, but the accusation was made by the Romans who were their enemies, and so the evidence is unreliable. Modern-day archaeologists claim that burial urns containing the burnt remains of children show that these children were human sacrifices – despite cremation being the normal form of burial for Carthaginians, and there being a high infant and child  mortality rate. So the idea that Carthaginians, or indeed any ancient society, practised human sacrifice should be treated with caution.

Did it really happen?

To modern readers child/human sacrifice seems like the ultimate blasphemy. Certainly the Bible condemns the practice. But it is possible. After all, it would have been the supreme expression of devotion to a cause, if a parent gave a child more precious to them than their own life. But the Bible only records one example where a Jewish man did it: the incident where Jephtah sacrificed his much loved only daughter. Another near-sacrifice occurs in the story of Abraham and his son Isaac.

Bible References to Human Sacrifice

Deuteronomy 12:31, 18:10
Leviticus 18:21, 20:2-5
2 Kings 3:27, 16:3, 21:6, 23:10
Jeremiah 19:5, 32:35

Bible Text for Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac

Genesis 22:1-19

1 Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied.
2 Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”
3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and saddled his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about.
4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.
5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together,
7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?” “Yes, my son?” Abraham replied. “The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.
11 But the angel of the LORD called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied
Gold and lapis statue of a ram, from the Death Pit at Ur12 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”
13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.
14 So Abraham called that place The LORD Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the LORD it will be provided.”
15 The angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven a second time
16 and said, “I swear by myself, declares the LORD, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,
17 I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies,
18 and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”
19 Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba.

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