Beersheba – the Southern Border of the Kingdom of Judah – באר שבע

Tel Beer Sheva, the mound of biblical Beersheba, is located in the northern Negev, several kilometers east of the present-day city of Be'er Sheva. The Arabic name of the mound, Tell es-Sab'a, preserves the biblical name; the archeological finds support its identification with biblical Beersheba.

The ancient town was built on a low hill on the bank of a wadi (dry river-bed), which carries floodwater during the winter months. A close-to-the-surface aquifer along the wadi ensured the year-round supply of water.

Beersheba is first mentioned in the biblical account of God's revelation to the patriarchs (Gen. 26:23-25; 46:1) and its name is derived from the Hebrew word shevu'a (oath) or shiv'a (seven) as elaborated in Gen. 21:31 and 26:33. Beersheba symbolized the southern boundary of the Land of Israel, as in the phrase from Dan to Beersheba. (Judges 20:1; 1 Samuel 3:20; and 1 Kings 5:5)

A large area of the site was excavated between 1969 and 1976, producing several layers of the remains of settlement, including fortified towns of the early Israelite period and the monarchic period of Judah, covered by remnants of small fortresses dated from the Persian to the Roman periods.

The earliest remains of settlement at Beersheba are a number of rock-hewn dwellings (12th-11th centuries BCE) and a 20 m.-deep well supplying fresh water to the inhabitants of the first permanent unfortified settlement of Israelites of the Tribe of Simon. (Joshua 19:2)

By the end of the 11th century BCE, a fortified settlement was established at Beersheba with the houses built close to one another on the hill's summit, forming an outer, circular defensive wall with only a narrow opening for a gate. The houses opened inwards, towards a central square, where livestock was kept.

In the mid-10th century BCE, during the monarchic period, the first large fortified city was established at Beersheba, to serve as the administrative center of the southern region of the kingdom. Its area extended over some 10 dunams (2.8 acres) of the hill's summit. It was a planned city, fortified by a solid wall of mudbrick on stone foundations. The city gate, with a four-chambered gatehouse, is typical of Israelite military architecture of that period. The plan of this city, on broad lines, was preserved throughout the next 300 years, during which time it was rebuilt several times.

In the 9th century BCE, a new city wall was erected on the remains of the previous one. The new casemate wall was composed of two parallel walls with a narrow space between them which was divided into small rooms, creating living and storage spaces within the wall.

The uppermost layer of the mound revealed the 8th century BCE city of Beersheba, a remarkable example of provincial town planning and indicative of the importance of the city for the defense of the southern border of the Kingdom of Judah at the end of the monarchic period. The area of the walled city was divided into quarters; peripheral, circular streets followed the course of the city wall and a main street cut through the center of the town; and all the streets met at the square inside its gate. A planned drainage system was constructed beneath the streets to collect rainwater into a central channel, which carried it under the city gate and outside into the well. An impressive water system was also constructed in the northeast of the city, within the wall, with a stone staircase leading down to a water chamber cut deep into the rock. This sophisticated system assured a regular water supply even in times of long siege.

In the eastern part of the city stood a complex of three pillared structures covering an area of 600 m2. This served as the city's storehouse, as is evident from its ground-plan, its location near the city gate and from the hundreds of pottery vessels, including many large storage jars, found there. Next to the city gate also stood the governors palace, with many rooms and three large reception halls. Most of the dozens of houses in the city were built uniformly, with four rooms, one of which served as a courtyard. They were located along the streets and, in the houses abutting the city wall, one room was built into the narrow space in the casemate walls.

The population of Beersheba in the 8th century BCE is estimated at 400-500, including officials and soldiers of the army of Judah stationed in Beersheba, the regional capital of the south.

A large horned altar was uncovered at the site. It was reconstructed with several well-dressed stones found in secondary use in the walls of a later building. This altar attests to the existence of a temple or cult center in the city which was probably dismantled during the reforms of King Hezekiah. (1 Kings 18:4)

The city of Beer-sheba was destroyed by King Sennacherib of Assyria, during his campaign against Judah in 701 BCE. During the 7th century BCE a small settlement existed on the site, its poor and sparse construction indicative of royal neglect; it came to an end when the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah in 587-6 BCE.

*The site was excated by Y. Aharoni and the last season by Z. Herzog, on behalf of Tel Aviv University.