Today, Be’er Sheva (Beersheba) is a thriving city in Israel’s Negev desert, home to nearly a quarter million residents. This city has a long and storied Jewish history, dating back to the days of Abraham who negotiated treaties with the locals and lived there for decades.

Read on to learn the fascinating history and archeology of this city, from the era of Patriarchs to the present day.

In the Days of the Patriarchs

How Be’er Sheva, which means “well of oath” or “well of seven,” got its name is recounted in the Torah.

When local ruler Abimelech approached Abraham and initiated a peace treaty, Abraham mentioned that Abimelech’s servants had stolen a well that Abraham had dug. Abimelech pleaded ignorance. Abraham gifted him seven sheep, and they pledged peace to one another with the understanding that the well would be returned to Abraham. “Therefore, he named that place Be’er Sheva, for there they both swore.”1

Abraham and his family lived in the area for the next 26 years.2 After he left, the locals closed the well. Later, when his son Isaac came to the area, he also agreed to a peace treaty with Abimelech. His servants discovered his father’s well and reopened it,3 “… therefore, the city is named Be’er Sheva until this very day.”4

Isaac’s son Jacob stopped in Be’er Sheva on the way to Egypt. There, he offered sacrifices, and G‑d promised him that He would accompany him to Egypt.5

In the modern city of Be’er Sheva, there is a visitor center that is said to house Abraham’s well. Visitors to the center can learn about Abraham through a multimedia experience.

“Abraham's well” in Be'er Sheva's Visitor Center.
“Abraham's well” in Be'er Sheva's Visitor Center.

Between Judah and Simeon

When the Jewish nation returned to the Holy Land after their years of slavery followed by their desert sojourn, under Joshua’s leadership they conquered Be’er Sheva. Though technically in the territory of the tribe of Judah, the town of Be’er Sheva (among others) was assigned to the tribe of Simeon6 because “the portion of the children of Judah was too much for them; therefore the children of Simeon inherited in the midst of their inheritance.”7

Be’er Sheva remained in the possession of Simeon until King David’s reign, when the tribe of Judah became large enough to need it back.8

“From Dan to Be’er Sheva”

As the Jews settled the Land of Israel, they began to refer to the whole territory as ranging “from Dan to Be’er Sheva.” Dan was the northernmost town, and Be’er Sheva was the southernmost. It is found in the Tanach a total of eight times. For example, “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig-tree, from Dan even to Be’er Sheva, all the days of Solomon.”9 In several other places throughout Tanach, Be’er Sheva is used to describe a border.

Map of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, from Dan to Be'er Sheva.
Map of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, from Dan to Be'er Sheva.

Tel Be’er Sheva

About 15 minutes east of “Abraham’s well” and the modern city of Be’er Sheva is Tel Be’er Sheva National Park, designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. Located near the confluence of the Be’er Sheva and Hebron streambeds, the park contains relatively well-preserved ruins of the city from the era of Tanach, when it was continuously inhabited for about 500 years.10

View of Tel Be'er Sheva - Photo courtesy Seth Aronstam
View of Tel Be'er Sheva
Photo courtesy Seth Aronstam

The city is typical of the time period and similar to the fortified cities at Tel Gezer and Tel Lachish. It is oval in shape and surrounded by a thick wall that began as one solid wall and was later converted into a double casemate with chambers between the walls. The entrance to the city is through a massive city gate reinforced by guard towers.

Inside the gate is the city square – the only open area in the city. All the streets lead to this square. There is a peripheral street that is parallel to the city wall and several streets that cut across the city.

Just past the city square is the governor’s palace, consisting of an entrance corridor, two paved halls, residential units, a kitchen, and a storeroom. Other houses that line the city streets are smaller, with three or four rooms. One of the rooms was more of a courtyard, with a cooking area and steps leading to the roof. Another room served as a bedroom, and the other one or two were used for animals and storage.

The ancient city also contained three storehouses, each consisting of three long halls. Archeologists found hundreds of pottery vessels in these storehouses.

The city had an elaborate water system, designed to withstand a siege. It consisted of a 17-meter-deep stone-lined shaft, a reservoir hewn into the chalk rock and thickly plastered, and a winding feeder channel from the Hebron streambed.

Samuel’s Sons in Be’er Sheva

Be’er Sheva is mentioned as the place where the sons of Samuel the Prophet sat in judgment.11 This was not a good thing, according to scripture: “And his sons did not walk in his ways, and they turned after gain, and they took bribes and perverted justice.”12

Samuel’s sons’ attitude toward the responsibilities of judgment sits in stark contrast with that of their father. Samuel was a dedicated leader who traveled around the country, resolving disputes and providing leadership and guidance. His children, on the other hand, stayed home in Be’er Sheva, the very southern end of the land, insisting that whoever needed their help could travel to them. In doing so, it is explained, they not only inconvenienced the majority of the nation but also made more money, as the distance created more business for their scribes and court officials.13

It is thus no surprise that the elders of the Jewish people approached Samuel and asked him to appoint a king who would rule over them instead.14

City gate. One of its chambers was likely used by judges.
City gate. One of its chambers was likely used by judges.

Elijah the Prophet in Be’er Sheva

Another mention of Be’er Sheva in Tanach follows the story of Elijah the Prophet’s confrontation with idol-worshiping prophets on Mount Carmel in the northern Kingdom of Israel. When the evil Queen Jezebel found out about it, she threatened to put Elijah to death.

Together with his attendant, Elijah escaped all the way south to Be’er Sheva in the Kingdom of Judah. There, he left his attendant behind and went out to the desert to have time alone with G‑d.15

The modern intertwined with the ancient: a train passing by the ruins of Tel Be'er Sheva; camel pasture near electric poles; the Negev desert in the background.
The modern intertwined with the ancient: a train passing by the ruins of Tel Be'er Sheva; camel pasture near electric poles; the Negev desert in the background.

In the Prophecies of Amos

A lesser-known mention of Be’er Sheva is found in the Book of Amos, which records the words of Amos, a prophet from the town of Tekoa in the Kingdom of Judah, whom G‑d sent to prophesy in the Kingdom of Israel.

At the time, the Kingdom of Judah was ruled by King Uzziah, and the Kingdom of Israel was ruled by King Jeroboam II.16 The Kingdom of Israel was enjoying power and prosperity under King Jeroboam’s 41-year reign,17 during which he expanded his kingdom’s territory.18

Unfortunately, the kingdom’s economic success had an adverse effect on its residents’ moral conduct. Instead of taking care of the poor, as the Torah mandates, the elites took advantage of the less fortunate members of their community in order to enrich themselves further.

In his prophecy, Amos rebukes the Kingdom of Israel for turning away from G‑d and turning “justice to wormwood.”19 He urges the people, “Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate.”20

These exhortations are prefaced by a call to leave idolatry behind and return to G‑d:

But seek not Bethel, neither come to Gilgal, nor pass Be’er Sheva, for Gilgal shall be exiled, and Bethel shall become naught.21

Bethel at the time was a known seat of idolatry, where one of the golden calf temples was located. But why Be’er Sheva?

Some explain that people passed through Be’er Sheva on the way to Bethel.22 Others say that because Be’er Sheva was a border town, as we see from the phrase “from Dan to Be’er Sheva,” false prophets instructed the people to set up altars for idol worship there.23

Later, Amos again mentions Be’er Sheva:24

Those who swear by the sin of Samaria and say, “As your god lives, O Dan,” and “As the road to Be’er Sheva exists,” shall fall and no longer rise.

In 1973, a group of archeologists headed by Yohanan Aharoni discovered stones from a dismantled altar, dated to the period of the two Jewish kingdoms, at Tel Be’er Sheva.25 Perhaps this was one of the idolatrous altars that the Prophet Amos alludes to in his mention of Be’er Sheva.

The elaborate water system at Tel Be’er Sheva, which was used in the days of Kingdom of Judah.
The elaborate water system at Tel Be’er Sheva, which was used in the days of Kingdom of Judah.

During the Second Temple Era and Beyond

After returning from the Babylonian exile, Jews resettled the territory of the Kingdom of Judah, including the city of Be’er Sheva.26

Tel Be’er Sheva continued to be occupied during the Second Temple era and for some time after the Temple’s destruction.27

King Herod built a large fortress at Tel Be’er Sheva. The fortress included a bathhouse whose plastered pools can still be seen at the tel.

One of the Herodian pools at Tel Be'er Sheva.
One of the Herodian pools at Tel Be'er Sheva.

Later, the area was conquered by the Romans, who erected a diamond-shaped fortress.

At some point during the Roman or Byzantine period, Tel Be’er Sheva was abandoned, and a new city was established and subsequently abandoned in the area of modern Be’er Sheva.

The modern city of Be’er Sheva was founded under Ottoman rule around 1900.

Today, Be’er Sheva is a thriving Israeli city that still retains its deep historic roots.