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Beer-sheba of the Patriarchs, Ze’ev Herzog, BAR 6-06, Nov-Dec 1980.

Tel Beer-sheba aerial view

The findings of archaeologists sometimes seem to confirm the Biblical text. At other times, the excavation results present a problem.

Perhaps the best known case of the latter is Jericho. Most scholars date the Israelite conquest of Canaan to the Late Bronze Age, to a time (13th century B.C.) when, according to Jericho excavator Kathleen Kenyon, there was no settlement at Jericho, let alone a city whose walls could be trumpeted down. According to the Bible, the next city to fall to the Israelites, was Ai. There is a problem in this case too. Professor Joseph Callaway, who excavated Ai, found no settlement from that period.

We have encountered a somewhat similar problem at Beer-shebaa with respect to the Patriarchal Age. The problem is even more complicated because scholars disagree wildly as to the date of the Patriarchal Age.

The well-known American scholar, William F. Albright, placed the Patriarchal Age in what archaeologists call MBI or Middle Bronze I. He was supported by the famous Hebrew Union College archaeologist, Nelson Glueck. They reasoned, largely on the basis of Glueck’s surface surveys done in the area south of the Biblical Negev, that the patriarchal stories preserve descriptions of conditions in the Negev which correspond only to archaeological remains from MBI. Albright dated this period from the 21st to 19th centuries B.C.

This view has now been almost totally abandoned because the Biblical references to the Patriarchal Age reflect an urban civilization with frequent allusions to kings and cities: Bethel, Gerar and Hebron appear prominently in the patriarchal narratives, and a number of other cities are mentioned too. Because there appear to have been no towns in Palestine in MBI, it is no longer tenable to regard this period as the Patriarchal Age. Many scholars have now shifted the date of the Patriarchal Age to MBII (c. 19th to 16th centuries B.C.). In the Bible the patriarchs are portrayed as pastoralists on the fringes of an urban society. According to many scholars, the urban society of MBII fits this picture admirably.

However, a number of other dates, both later and earlier, have also been defended, and two important books1 have recently suggested that there was no Patriarchal Age, that the stories were composed during the Israelite monarchy or even the exilic period without reference to historical fact.

It is fair to say that there is no more perplexing question among Biblical scholars than the date of the Patriarchal Age2—there is even a question as to whether such an age ever occurred. It is into this maelstrom that we must now introduce the evidence from Beer-sheba.

As reflected in patriarchal narratives, Beer-sheba is the most important center in the Negev during this period. Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba (Genesis 22:19). Abraham and Abimelech entered a covenant at Beer-sheba (Genesis 21:32). Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Beer-sheba (Genesis 21:33). The Lord spoke to both Isaac and Jacob at Beer-sheba (Genesis 26:23; Genesis 46:1). Beer-sheba is also the site of some famous wells: Abraham’s well at Beer-sheba was seized by Abimelech’s men (Genesis 21:25). Isaac’s servants dug a well at Beer-sheba also (Genesis 26:25).

Tel Beer-sheba, the site of the ancient city, is located on a hill overlooking the Wadi Beer-sheba about two and one half miles east of the modern city of Beer-sheba. The mound itself covers only two and one half acres.

Beer-sheba was excavated during eight seasons (1969–1976) by a team from Tel-Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology under the direction of the late Professor Yohanan Aharoni. Most of the dig was devoted to uncovering the great, fortified, Israelite city dating to the United Monarchy of King David (his reign being dated from 1000 B.C.) and, later, to the kingdom of Judah (980–701 B.C.). This period of time is called Iron Age II by archaeologists.

During Iron Age II, Beer-sheba was a rich and powerful urban city, surrounded by a massive circular wall containing an impressive gate through which one passed into the city. A circular street parallel to the wall allowed easy access to the carefully planned metropolis. Large storehouses to the right of the city gate accommodated commercial activity. An imposing governor’s residence looked out on a plaza inside the gate. Cultic centers provided for the city’s religious needs.

In this article, however, we are interested in the Beer-sheba of earlier periods. During the last three seasons of excavation (1974–1976), an effort was made to go below Beer-sheba of Iron Age II to find patriarchal Beer-sheba. A considerable part of the site was dug down to bedrock in order to find the earliest settlements at Beer-sheba. This effort revealed four earlier occupational strata (Strata VI through IX) which I am pleased to describe for BAR readers in the first published summary of this phase of our excavation.

I must tell you at the outset that these strata cover the 250 to 300 years immediately prior to the fortified Israelite city of the United Monarchy—from about 1250 B.C. to about 1000 B.C. Essentially the pre-urban occupation of the site was found. There was, however, nothing from an earlier period except a few Chalcolithic (4th millennium B.C.) sherds: no evidence was found of habitation at Beer-sheba before about 1200 B.C. (the beginning of Iron Age I) which is several hundred years after the latest date scholars proposed for the Patriarchal Period.

The Iron I settlements at Beer-sheba were preserved mostly on the southeastern slope of the mound, the lowest part of the natural hill underlying the tell. To prepare for the construction of the later, fortified, Israelite (Iron Age II) city, during the latter part of King David’s reign, the top of the hill was leveled. This not only gave a solid base for the new city, but also destroyed almost all earlier remains. The southeastern part of the mound where the topography was lower escaped such destruction.

Although we dug from Stratum VI down to Stratum IX (and then hit bedrock) I shall describe the strata in reverse order—from the lowest and earliest stratum to the latest and highest.

The earliest occupation at Beer-sheba (Stratum IX) was represented only by seven large pits about 22 to 25 feet in diameter. The pits are irregular in shape though most may be described as roughly round. Some of the pits are almost 10 feet deep: These we assume were used as granaries. Other pits, between three and four feet deep, were used for habitation.

The best preserved dwelling pit consists of three separate areas. A cave cut into the conglomerate rock which formed the side of the pit provided partial shelter from the elements. Niches cut into the rock at the rear of the cave contained two storage jars (one of whose lid was still on) which had been left in the niches. A second area which effectively enlarged the cave was formed by a wall in the middle of the pit and extending part of the way across it. This wall and the natural rock wall opposite it on the other side of the pit could have supported a roof built of beams, branches and clay. Although the cave floor was paved with rounded limestone slabs, the floor of the area behind the wall, on the side away from the cave, was raised by fill, creating a kind of terrace. The occupants came to the terrace, no doubt, to escape the oppressive heat in the lower parts of the pit or to catch the afternoon breeze. The pit’s third dwelling area, in addition to the terrace and roofed areas, was probably an open court. There the floor was even lower than in the cave.

Several accumulated layers of ashen soil on the court floor contained large quantities of pottery sherds, pieces of charred wood and many bones, indicating that the pit had been used for the long period of time.

A lengthy corridor-like trench had been cut adjacent to this dwelling pit: An opening was cut into the corridor creating an entrance into the dwelling pit. One end of the corridor led to another dwelling pit.

We think that the entire settlement of this stratum covered about 2,990 sq. yds., approximately the area of half a football field. If so, it probably contained about 20 dwelling pits and 10 granaries and would have housed from 100 to 140 people.

Stratum IX was not destroyed by violence. It was abandoned then reused, new structures were added to the old. The pottery leads us to believe this stratum had been occupied in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.

In Stratum VIII, which dates to the 11th century B.C., we found houses for the first time. The pit dwellings continued to be used, although with a raised floor, in most of the area in which they were built.

The houses of Stratum VIII had mud brick walls built on a stone foundation. A typical house of this stratum measured about 44 feet by 25 feet. It had only the internal wall along the back of the house creating a broad room about 9 feet wide and 25 feet long which was apparently the dwelling room. The remainder of the house was an open courtyard. This appears to be a variation of the later 4-room Israelite house which also had a broad room in back, but in which the remainder of the house was divided into three long rooms. In the later Israelite house only the middle room was used as an open courtyard.

Like Stratum IX, Stratum VIII was abandoned rather than destroyed. The pottery suggests that the same people who lived in Stratum VIII built Stratum VII at the end of the 11th century B.C. Stratum VII was the first fortified settlement at Beer-sheba.

Prior to building the settlement of Stratum VII, a substantial leveling operation was carried out during which the pits of the previous strata were filled. The new settlement shows a first attempt at planned development. About halfway down the slope, a chain of houses was built, each house sharing its side walls with its neighbors. The backs of the houses formed a fortification wall around the city. The houses were entered from inside the settlement further up the hill.

The dwellings were typical Israelite 4-room houses composed of the broad room in the back from which three long rooms (often subdivided) extended. The broad rooms of the ring of houses adjacent to one another, formed a kind of casemate wall around the settlement. That was exactly what the builders had intended.

This casemate-like fortification formed of the back rooms of houses also appears elsewhere. A group of similarly fortified settlements has been found in surveys and excavations in the central Negev mountains, south of Beer-sheba.3 The sites of Hatira, Refed, Har-Boqer and also Atar Haroah4 seem to share a similar planning concept with Beer-sheba VII. Based on the chronology and stratigraphy of Beer-sheba VII it is possible now to date the Negev sites with similar plans to the late eleventh B.C.

This type of casemate-like fortification probably was the prototype for the true casemate walls of the Iron Age II period. However, in terms of town planning, there is a major difference between the true casemate wall which surrounds a “fortified-city”, and the arrangement of houses we found in Beer-sheba Stratum VII which we call a “fortified-settlement”. In fortified-settlements the houses are the dominant unit: the defensive aspect is a result of the arrangement. In the true fortified-city, the city-wall is the dominant unit, preplanned in a continuous line, to which houses are often secondarily attached.

Settlements fortified with a ring of houses, like Beer-sheba, had different town plans from later cities with true casemate walls. The center of the fortified settlement at Beer-sheba and other similar sites was a large open courtyard without structures, other than the ring of houses; additional houses were also built outside the ring. In the later fortified-cities protected by true casemate walls, houses were built over the entire central part of the site, and none were built outside the wall. And, finally, the tendency in fortified-cities was to build a water system within the walls, while in a fortified-settlement the water system was left outside a ring of houses.

The foundation walls of Stratum VII were made of uncut boulders collected from wadis (dry river beds). The rocks were placed in two or three lines in each course, and cemented to each other by a clay mortar and small stones. The superstructure was mud brick.

The dwellings were typical Israelite 4-room houses composed of the broad room in the back from which three long rooms (often subdivided) extended. The broad rooms of the ring of houses adjacent to one another, formed a kind of casemate wall around the settlement. That was exactly what the builders had intended.

This casemate-like fortification formed of the back rooms of houses also appears elsewhere. A group of similarly fortified settlements has been found in surveys and excavations in the central Negev mountains, south of Beer-sheba.3 The sites of Hatira, Refed, Har-Boqer and also Atar Haroah4 seem to share a similar planning concept with Beer-sheba VII. Based on the chronology and stratigraphy of Beer-sheba VII it is possible now to date the Negev sites with similar plans to the late eleventh B.C.

This type of casemate-like fortification probably was the prototype for the true casemate walls of the Iron Age II period. However, in terms of town planning, there is a major difference between the true casemate wall which surrounds a “fortified-city”, and the arrangement of houses we found in Beer-sheba Stratum VII which we call a “fortified-settlement”. In fortified-settlements the houses are the dominant unit: the defensive aspect is a result of the arrangement. In the true fortified-city, the city-wall is the dominant unit, preplanned in a continuous line, to which houses are often secondarily attached.

Settlements fortified with a ring of houses, like Beer-sheba, had different town plans from later cities with true casemate walls. The center of the fortified settlement at Beer-sheba and other similar sites was a large open courtyard without structures, other than the ring of houses; additional houses were also built outside the ring. In the later fortified-cities protected by true casemate walls, houses were built over the entire central part of the site, and none were built outside the wall. And, finally, the tendency in fortified-cities was to build a water system within the walls, while in a fortified-settlement the water system was left outside a ring of houses.

The foundation walls of Stratum VII were made of uncut boulders collected from wadis (dry river beds). The rocks were placed in two or three lines in each course, and cemented to each other by a clay mortar and small stones. The superstructure was mud brick.

Although we uncovered only five of the houses in the ring, we have reconstructed the entire ring containing 18 houses. The inner court of the settlement measured about 80 feet by 160 feet. The city’s entrance was on the south. Two rooms, probably protective towers, projected outside the settlement’s outer line on either side of the gate.

Why did the residents of Stratum VII feel it necessary to fortify this settlement? As I previously noted, similar fortification systems had sprung up throughout the Negev at about this time. The most likely explanation for these fortifications is that the settlements were threatened by the powerful Amalekites who dominated the Negev during the early part of King Saul’s reign (1 Samuel 15). Beer-sheba, which was on the southern border of the fledgling Israelite kingdom, was probably fortified by King Saul at the end of the 11th century B.C. during wars against the Amalekites.

Although Beer-sheba appears in the patriarchal narratives as the most important settlement in the Negev during the period before the Israelite monarchy, Beer-sheba appears from excavation results to have been more like a small village consisting of a few dwelling pits and houses. Another ancient site, known today as Tel Masos, lies 8 miles east of Beer-sheba and was far more impressive than Beer-sheba during the same period. To begin with, Masos, an enormous area forty times larger than Beer-sheba, was far better built. There is also evidence of its having had widespread trade connections.

The excavator of Tel Masos, Aharon Kempinski (following a suggestion of Yohanan Aharoni) contends that Tel Masos should be identified with Biblical Hormahb and that the city was settled peacefully by the southern tribes of Israel. If this were true, Beer-sheba would have to be regarded as a minor satellite of Masos.

A more probable suggestion has recently been made by Professor Moshe Kochavi of Tel Aviv University. Kochavi has suggested that Tel Masos is not Israelite at all but is rather Ir-Amalek, the city of the Amalekites. If this is true—and it seems quite likely—then Beer-sheba of Strata IX—VIII was simply a small Judean village on the southern border, just across from Israel’s strongest enemy, the Amalekites. This easily explains why a fortified settlement was built at Beer-sheba in Stratum VII in the late 11th century B.C. At the time King Saul, in the course of his wars against the Amalekites, would have needed to fortify his settlements near the enemies’ cities. It follows that, after Saul defeated the Amalekites, he would have built a series of fortified settlements further to the south to protect Israel against future Amalekite incursions, and those we find at Hatira, Refed, Har-Boqer and Atar Haroah.

Stratum VI at Beer-sheba must be understood in the context of Stratum V which was a royal urban center built by King David in the latter part of his reign.5. King DaviIn Stratum VI, the line of houses that had protected the settlement against the Amalekites in Stratum VII was neglected and even dismantled; the back rooms of some houses were removed and the remaining rooms were subdivided. There was no attempt to plan the town.

In Stratum VI, only one new building of any substance was constructed: a three room house with a broad room in back and the large space in front divided into two rooms by a row of pillars. One room was an open court, the other was used for storage. Stairs led up to a flat roof.d’s city was a carefully planned town covering the entire mound. Preceding it was a short-lived city of Stratum VI. This settlement was a puzzle until we interpreted it in the light of Stratum V.

We finally decided that Stratum VI could be interpreted only as a camp for the construction of Stratum V. When King David decided to build a royal urban center at Beer-sheba to replace King Saul’s fortified settlement of Stratum VII, the Stratum VII population had to be evacuated and a large-scale leveling operation undertaken. The lowest part of the mound was filled, the top part was removed, building stones were gathered and transported, and hundreds of thousands of clay bricks were manufactured. The single sizeable structure which we excavated in Stratum VI was probably built for the Commander of the Works. Most of the work force lived in tents or huts outside the mound. Perhaps some supervisors squatted in the abandoned houses of Stratum VII and quickly built subdividing walls to create temporary quarters. Probably the area of Stratum VII and Stratum VI was the last part of the city built in Stratum V, and the very last part of Stratum VI to be used for Stratum V was the Commander’s house.

Having brought the story back to the Beer-sheba of King David, we may now return to the question of the Patriarchal Age at Beer-sheba. If the Patriarchal Age is represented at all at Beer-sheba, it must be the very modest villages of Strata IX and VIII from the 13th to 11th centuries B.C. In the former, the dwellings were pits; in the latter there were some houses, in addition to the reused dwelling pits. In Stratum VII the fortified ring of houses defended the settlement against the Amalekite threat during King Saul’s reign. Stratum VI was the building camp for King David’s royal urban city which was Stratum V. So the only possible Patriarchal Age settlement is Strata VIII and IX. Except for a few Chalcolithic potsherds, there is no evidence whatever of any earlier habitation at Tel Beer-sheba.

How can we explain this apparent contradiction between the archaeological evidence and the historical tradition preserved in the Bible?

One way is by rejecting the historicity of the Biblical tradition. Indeed, some scholars have used evidence from Beer-sheba to support their view that there was no Patriarchal Age, that the Biblical stories are aetiological—that is, composed during the Israelite monarchy for the purpose of creating a history for the new state.

Another possibility is to reject the identification of Tel Beer-sheba with the site of Biblical Beer-sheba. But Tel Beer-sheba is the only fortified mound in the vicinity of Roman and modern Beer-sheba, and its modern Arabic name, Tell es-Saba, preserves a clear linguistic element of Beer-sheba. So this is not a very likely explanation.

Another explanation, first offered by Yohanan Aharoni, is to move the Patriarchal Age forward to the 13th or 12th century B.C., the dates of Stratum IX and VIII. In other words, the patriarchal stories concerning Beer-sheba should he regarded as originating at the end of the second millennium B.C. during the so-called settlement period. This is the explanation to which I incline.

A final suggestion relates to an ancient well which has been located in the center of the eastern slope of the mound just outside the ring of houses that fortified the city in Stratum VII. The well, uncovered in excavations, is obviously a very ancient one and is located in a very unusual place: It was cut on the hill and not lower down in the wadi. Therefore it had to be four times deeper than a well dug at the base of the hill. The shaft of this well on the hill was hewn from solid rock and the upper part is strengthened by a stone lining. We believe this well was dug during the period of Stratum VIII or IX, and therefore provides additional evidence regarding the dating of the Patriarchal Age at Beer-sheba. That none of the walls built on the site were cut by the well establishes that it was incorporated into the very first settlement and that, in later phases, the houses were built at locations relative to the existence and use of the well. We attempted to clean the well and examine the debris deposited in it. Technical problems prevented us from going deeper than about 100 feet and reaching the well’s earliest deposits.

Unfortunately, we cannot conclusively settle the many questions regarding the existence or the dating of the Patriarchal Age on the basis of the evidence from Beer-sheba. For that we must await the vast accumulation of evidence from sites throughout the Near East. But it is tempting to conclude that this well was—whether in the 13th century B.C. or at some earlier time—the “Well of the Oath” where Abraham and Abimelech made their covenant (Genesis 21:32).

(The study summarized in this article was carried out during the academic year 1977/1978 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia where the author spent his sabbatical leave from the Institute of Archaeology at Tel Aviv University. Dr. Herzog wishes to express his appreciation to the Oriental Studies department and the Ancient History Program for their kind hospitality and the Penn-Israel program of the University of Pennsylvania whose contribution made possible this research.)

1.John Van Seters, Abraham in History and Tradition, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1975. T. L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives, Berlin and New York, 1974.

2.See also: Nahum M. Sarna, “Abraham in History,” BAR 03:04; John Van Seters, “Dating in Patriarchal Stories,” BAR 04:04; William H. Stiebing, Jr., “When Was the Age of the Patriarchs?” BAR 01:02.

3. See: Ze’ev Meshel, History of the Negev in the Time of the Kings of Judah, Ph.D. Dissertation, Tel Aviv, Israel, 1974 [Hebrew].

4. Rudolph Cohen, “Atar Haroah,” Atiqot 6, 1970, pp. 6–27.

5. See “King David as Builder,” BAR 01:01.

a. Beer-sheba is sometimes spelled Beer-sheva because that is the way it is pronounced in modern Hebrew. We use “b” instead of “v” because it is the customary spelling of the English Bible.

b. Numbers 14:45, Numbers 21:3; Deuteronomy 1:44; Judges 1:17; 1 Samuel 30:30.

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