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Beersheba

Israel

The patriarch Abraham pitched his tent and dug a well at Beersheba, a wilderness location identified in the Scriptures as the southern limit of the Promised Land.

Beersheba

Ancient well outside Tel Beersheba’s city gate (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

More than 1000 years before Christ, God had called Abraham, originally from Mesopotamia, to leave his family and possessions and journey to a new land — with the promise that his descendants would become a great nation.

At Beersheba Abraham’s well, on which he depended to water his flocks, was seized by servants of the king of the Philistines, Abimelech.

Abraham complained to Abimelech and struck an oath with the Philistine king, giving him seven ewe lambs for affirming that Abraham had dug the well. To symbolise the covenant affirming his ownership of the well, Abraham planted a tamarisk tree and “called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God”. (Genesis 21:25-33)

The name Beersheba (also called Beersheva and Be’er Sheva) means “well of the oath” or “well of the seven [lambs]”. (In Hebrew, the word sheva or sheba means both seven and oath.)

Beersheba

Abraham’s Well at Beersheba in mid-1900s, its stones grooved by ropes (© Matson Photo Service)

Whenever the writers of Scripture wanted to speak of all Israel from north to south, they would use the expression “from Dan [the northern-most city] to Beersheba” (for example, 1 Samuel 3:20).

 

Setting for many biblical events

Beersheba, on the northern edge of the barren Negev desert and about 75 kilometres south of Jerusalem, features in several other events of Bible history:

•   Abraham and his wife Sarah evicted her slave-girl Hagar and Hagar’s son Ishmael (fathered by Abraham) to wander in the wilderness. But God promised Hagar he would also make Ishmael’s descendants a great nation. (Genesis 21:8-21)

•   It was from Beersheba that Abraham journeyed with his son Isaac to Mount Moriah at Jerusalem, where God had ordered him to sacrifice the boy as a burnt offering. (Genesis 22:1-19)

Beersheba

Abraham with his family and flocks (József Molnár, Hungarian National Gallery)

•   Isaac, who built an altar to the Lord at Beersheba, also had a dispute with the Philistines over water, and he too resolved it in a covenant with Abimelech. (Genesis 26:18-31)

•   Isaac’s son Jacob stole the birthright from his brother Esau while the family camped at Beersheba (Genesis 27:1-40). Fleeing from Esau, Jacob had a dream about angels on a ladder reaching up to heaven (Genesis 28:1017)

•   When the elderly Israel (formerly Jacob) was on his way to Egypt, he stopped at Beersheba to offer sacrifice to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to him “in visions of the night” and encouraged him on his journey. (Genesis 46:1-7)

 

Ancient settlement contains a well

Of the several wells in and around Beersheba, one known as Abraham’s Well is on the southern edge of the old town, where Ha’azmaut Street joins Hebron Road. It is 26 metres deep.

Beersheba

Excavated ancient city at Tel Beersheba (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

Nearby is the site of a colourful Bedouin market that has operated each Thursday since 1905.

But the ancient settlement from biblical times was located at Tel Beersheba, some 4 kilometres east of the city, on highway 60.

This World Heritage Site also contains a well — dated to the 12th century BC, the time of the patriarchs, and an impressive 69 metres deep — just outside the city gate.

Archaeological excavations have uncovered public buildings, private houses, stables, and a large and impressive water system and reservoir. Extensive reconstruction in mudbrick has been done.

Beersheba

Reconstructed altar at Tel Beersheba (David Q. Hall)

Also on display is a replica of a horned altar, whose hewn stones were found reused on the site. It obviously belonging to an unlawful cult, because it does not comply with the law that an altar should be of “stones on which you have not used an iron tool” (Deuteronomy 27:5).

The altar was probably one of those broken up during the religious reforms of King Josiah (2 Kings 23:8).

The burgeoning modern city of Beersheba is peopled largely by Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia and other countries. But the past is always present: Redevelopment of the bus station in 2012 uncovered remains of a Byzantine city, including two well-preserved churches.

 

In Scripture:

Abraham makes a covenant with the Philistines: Genesis 21:25-33

Hagar and Ishmael are sent into the wilderness: Genesis 21:8-21

Isaac makes a covenant with the Philistines: Genesis 26:18-31

Jacob steals Esau’s birthright: Genesis 27:1-40

Israel receives a vision on his way to Egypt: Genesis 46:1-7

King Josiah destroys Beersheba’s high places: 2 Kings 23:8

References

Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Stiles, Wayne: “Sights and Insights: Last stop and a point of departure”, Jerusalem Post, May 26, 2011

 

External links

Beersheba (Near East Tourist Agency)
Beersheba (Wikipedia)
Beersheba — the Southern Border of the Kingdom of Judah (Jewish Virtual Library)
Tel Be’er Sheva (BibleWalks)
Beersheba (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Excavations at Beersheba Bus Station Expose the Heart of the Byzantine City (Bible History Daily)

Tombs of the Patriarchs

West Bank

 

Tombs of the Patriarchs

Tombs of the Patriarchs at Hebron (Seetheholyland.net)

The Tombs of the Patriarchs in the West Bank city of Hebron is the burial place of three biblical couplesAbraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah.

The second holiest site in Judaism (after the Western Wall in Jerusalem), it is also sacred to the other two Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Islam.

It was the patriarch Abraham who bought the property when his wife Sarah died, around 2000 years before Christ was born. Genesis 23 tells how Abraham, then living nearby at Mamre, bought the land containing the Cave of Machpelah to use as a burial place. He paid Ephron the Hittite the full market price — 400 shekels of silver.

Today the site is the dominant feature of central Hebron, thanks to the fortress-like wall Herod the Great built around it in the same style of ashlar masonry that he used for the Temple Mount enclosure in Jerusalem.

Tombs of the Patriarchs

Cenotaph of Abraham in Tombs of the Patriarchs (Eric Stoltz)

Herod left the interior open to the sky. The ruins of a Byzantine church built inside the wall around 570 were converted by Muslims into a mosque in the 7th century, rebuilt as a church by the Crusaders in the 12th century, then reconverted into a mosque by the sultan Saladin later in the same century.

Most of the enclosure is now roofed. Inside, six cenotaphs covered with decorated tapestries represent the tombs of the patriarchs. The actual burial places of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are in the cave beneath, to which access is not permitted.

 

Scene of God’s covenant with Abraham

Set in the Judean Mountains about 30 kilometres south of Jerusalem, Hebron stands 930 metres above sea level, making it the highest city in Israel and Palestine. It is also the largest city in the West Bank, with a population in 2007 of around 165,000 Palestinians and several hundred Jewish settlers, and is known for its glassware and pottery.

Tombs of the Patriarchs

City of Hebron, with Tombs of the Patriarchs at left (Marcin Monko)

It was near Hebron that God made a covenant with Abraham, that he would be “the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4).

Abraham had pitched his tent “by the oaks of Mamre” (Genesis 13:18), 3 kilometres north of Hebron, at a site now in the possession of a small community of Russian Orthodox monks and nuns.

Here Abraham offered hospitality to three strangers, who told him his wife Sarah — then aged 90 — would have a son (Genesis 18:10-14).

When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, about 700 years after Abraham, the men he sent to spy out the land of Canaan returned from the Hebron area with a cluster of grapes so heavy that two men carried it on a pole between them — an image that is now the logo of the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

Later, King David ruled Judah from Hebron for seven and a half years before moving his capital to Jerusalem.

Emulating Abraham’s hospitality, early Muslim rulers of Hebron provided free bread and lentils each day to pilgrims and the poor.

Complex is in three sections

Tombs of the Patriarchs

Herod’s stonework on Tombs of the Patriarchs (Seetheholyland.net)

Herod’s mighty wall around the Tombs of the Patriarchs avoids the appearance of heaviness by clever visual deceptions. Each course of stone blocks is set back about 1.5 centimetres on the one below it, and the upper margin is wider than the others.

The corners of the edifice — called Haram al-Khalil (Shrine of the Friend [of God]) in Arabic — are oriented to the four points of the compass.

Inside, amid a confusing mix of minarets, domes, arches, columns and corridors of various styles and periods, the complex is divided into three main sections, each with the cenotaphs of a patriarch and his wife.

The main entrance, to the Muslim area, is up a long flight of steps beside the northwest Herodian wall, then east through the Djaouliyeh mosque (added outside the wall in the 14th century) and right to enter the enclosure.

Straight ahead, in the centre of the complex, are octagonal rooms containing the cenotaph of Sarah and, further on, the cenotaph of Abraham. Each of these domed monuments has a richly embroidered cover, light green for Sarah and darker green for Abraham.

Tombs of the Patriarchs

Cenotaphs of Rebekah and Isaac (Seetheholyland.net)

In a corner just past Abraham’s room, a shrine displays a stone said to bear a footprint left by Adam as he left the Garden of Eden.

A wide door between these two cenotaphs leads to the Great Mosque, containing the cenotaphs of Isaac (on the right) and Rebekah. The vaulted ceiling, supporting pillars, capitals and upper stained-glass windows are from the Crusader church.

Ahead, on the southeastern wall, a marble-and-mosaic mihrab (prayer niche) faces Mecca. Beside it on the right is an exquisitely carved minbar (pulpit) of walnut wood. It was made (without nails) in 1091 for a mosque in Ashkelon and brought to Hebron a century later by Saladin after he burned that city.

Next to the pulpit, a stone canopy covers the sealed entrance to steps descending to the burial Cave of Machpelah.

Directly across the room, another canopy stands over a decorative grate covering a narrow shaft to the cave. Written prayers may be dropped down the shaft.

Tombs of the Patriarchs

Minbar (pulpit) in Great Mosque in Tombs of the Patriarchs (Seetheholyland.net)

Entry to the Jewish area is via an external square building on the southwestern wall. This building houses a Muslim cenotaph of Joseph, one of Jacob’s sons (though Jews and Christians believe he was buried near Nablus).

Inside are synagogues and the cenotaphs of Jacob and Leah, each in an octagonal room. (Jacob’s beloved second wife, Rachel, is remembered at the Tomb of Rachel, on the Jerusalem-Hebron road north of Bethlehem).

Site and city are divided

Friction between Jews and Muslims at Hebron dates back to a 1929 riot in which Arab Muslims sacked the Jewish quarter and massacred 67 of its community.

More recently, in 1994 a Jewish settler entered the Tombs of the Patriarchs during dawn prayers and shot 29 Muslim worshippers (the mihrab still bears bullet marks).

Since then, Jews and Muslims have been restricted to their own areas of this divided site, except that each faith has 10 special days a year on which its members may enter all parts of the building. Pilgrims and tourists may enter both areas.

Tombs of the Patriarchs

Israeli soldier guarding Jewish synagogue in Tombs of the Patriarchs (Seetheholyland.net)

The city of Hebron is also divided into two zones. The larger part is governed by the Palestinian Authority. The remainder, including the town centre and market area, is occupied by Jewish settlers and under Israeli military control.

 

In Scripture

Abram settles by the oaks of Mamre at Hebron: Genesis 13:18

God makes a covenant with Abram and changes his name: Genesis 17:3-5

Three strangers pay a visit to Abraham: Genesis 18:1-16

Abraham haggles with God over the future of Sodom: Genesis 18:17-33

Sarah dies and Abraham buys the Cave of Machpelah: Genesis 23:1-20

Abraham dies and is buried with Sarah: Genesis 25:7-10

Joshua attacks Hebron and kills its inhabitants: Joshua 10:36-37

David is anointed king over Judah at Hebron: 2 Samuel 2:1-4, 11

 

Administered by: Islamic Waqf Foundation

Tel.: 972-2-222 8213/51

Open: Usually 7.30-11.30am, 1-2.30pm, 3.30-5pm; Muslim area closed on Fridays, Jewish area closed on Saturdays. Passport checks apply and it is wise to check the security situation before visiting (the Christian Information Centre in Jerusalem suggests telephoning 02-2227992).

 

References

Beitzel, Barry J.: Biblica, The Bible Atlas: A Social and Historical Journey Through the Lands of the Bible (Global Book Publishing, 2007)
Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Chadwick, Jeffrey R.: “Discovering Hebron: the City of the Patriarchs Slowly Yields Its Secrets”, Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2005
Dyer, Charles H., and Hatteberg, Gregory A.: The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (Moody, 2006)
Eber, Shirley, and O’Sullivan, Kevin: Israel and the Occupied Territories: The Rough Guide (Harrap-Columbus, 1989)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Shahin, Mariam, and Azar, George: Palestine: A guide (Chastleton Travel, 2005)

 

External links

Hebron (BiblePlaces)
Hebron (VisitPalestine)
Tombs of the Patriarchs, Hebron (Sacred Destinations)

Jacob’s Well

West Bank

 

Jacob’s Well, where Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink and offered her “living water”, lies in the crypt of a modern Greek Orthodox church at Nablus in the West Bank.

Jacob's Well

Mouth of Jacob’s Well (Seetheholyland.net)

It is often considered the most authentic site in the Holy Land — since no one can move a well that was originally more than 40 metres deep.

Jewish, Samaritan, Christian and Muslim traditions all associate the well with Jacob.

The location, at the entrance to a mountain pass between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, is 2km east of Nablus. It is near the archaeological site of Tell Balata — thought to be the biblical Shechem — and about 63km north of Jerusalem.

It was at Shechem that the patriarch Jacob bought “the land on which he had pitched his tent” (Genesis 33:19).

The Samaritan woman reminded Jesus that Jacob “gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it”. He told her he was the promised Messiah, and she and many residents of her village believed in him. (John 4:5-42)

 

Samaritan woman venerated as martyr

Access to Jacob’s Well is by entering the Church of St Photina and descending stairs in front of the iconostasis to the crypt.

Photina (Svetlana in Russian) is the name Orthodox tradition has given to the Samaritan woman. She is venerated as a martyr who was flayed alive and thrown down a well in Rome by the emperor Nero.

Jacob's Well

Interior of Church of St Photina (Seetheholyland.net)

A masonry structure surrounds the mouth of the well. On it stands a metal-framed pulley with a coil of rope long enough to reach the water.

A neck section about 50cm across and 1.2 metres deep opens into a shaft about 2.5 metres in diameter, hewn through solid rock.

Though the Samaritan woman told Jesus “the well is deep” (John 4:11), measurements of the depth have varied over the years, due to accumulation of debris (and stones dropped by curious visitors).

A depth of more than 40 metres recorded in 1935 had reduced to something over 20 metres by the 21st century. In ancient times the well was sunk much deeper, probably twice as far.

At times Jacob’s Well has been dry in summer.

 

Samaria was a ‘no-go’ area

Because of friction between Jews and Samaritans, the territory of Samaria was usually a “no-go” area for Galileans travelling to or from Jerusalem.

Jacob's Well

Icon of Jesus and Samaritan woman, in Church of St Photina (Seetheholyland.net)

The Gospel of Luke (9:51-55) tells of a Samaritan village that refused to receive Jesus because he was going to Jerusalem (on that occasion two of his disciples wanted to bring fire from heaven down on the village).

Samaritans have their origins in Judaism but, as the woman at the well pointed out to Jesus (John 4:20), they worship on Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem.

They also regard Moses as the only prophet and accept only the first five books of the Old Testament (the Books of Moses, or the Torah).

The Samaritans at one time numbered in the hundreds of thousands but by 2007 only 700 remained, living mostly at Mount Gerizim and near Tel Aviv.

 

Succession of churches on the site

Pilgrims’ writings refer to Christian veneration of Jacob’s Well from the 3rd century. The earliest source, the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux, mentions a bath (presumed to be a baptistry) that took its water from the well.

Jacob's Well

Church of St Photina at Jacob’s Well (Tiamat / Wikimedia)

A cruciform church built around 380 was the first of a succession of churches erected over the well. One of them appears in the 6th-century Madaba mosaic map.

In 1860 the Greek Orthodox Church acquired the property and began restoring the crypt. Construction of a new church was hindered by the 1917 Russian Revolution, which halted Russian funding, and by an earthquake in 1927.

The present church, completed in 2007, is modelled on a basilica from the Crusader era. In an attractive setting of trees and pot plants, it is well-lit, spacious and airy — a contrast to older Orthodox churches in the Holy Land.

Framed icons in modern style and bright colours are fixed to walls and ceilings, rather than being rendered on to these surfaces.

 

Place of conflict and violence

Nablus was an arena of conflict between militant Palestinians and the Israel Defence Force during the Second Intifada, between 2000 and 2005, but has since rebuilt itself as an industrial and commercial centre.

Jacob’s Well has also been a site of contention and violence. In 1979 a Zionist group claimed it as a Jewish holy place and demanded that crosses and icons be removed. A week later the custodian, Archimandrite Philoumenos, was butchered to death in the crypt and the church was desecrated. No one was ever convicted of his murder.

Jacob's Well

Remains of Archimandrite Philoumenos in Church of St Photina (© vizAziz)

The remains of Archimandrite Philoumenos are venerated in the right-hand chapel of the Church of St Photina.

North of Jacob’s Well is a related site, Joseph’s Tomb. This white-domed tomb is believed to be where the bones of Jacob’s son Joseph were buried after being brought back from Egypt (Joshua 24:32).

 

In Scripture: Jesus and the woman at the well: John 4:5-42

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Church

Tel.: 972-2-2375123

Open: 9am-1pm, 2pm-5pm; ring the bell

 

 

References

Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

The Geographical, Historical & Spiritual Significance of Shechem (Biblical Studies Foundation)
Here is Jacob’s Well (The Madaba Mosaic Map, Franciscan Cyberspot)
Samaritans (Wikipedia)
The Samaritan Update (The-Samaritans.com)

 

 

Tomb of Rachel

West Bank

 

Tomb of Rachel

Women at Rachel’s Tomb (© Judy Lash Balint)

The death of Rachel, beloved wife of the patriarch Jacob, is remembered on the Jerusalem-Hebron road north of Bethlehem. The tomb, a small building with a white dome, is now hidden behind a long bunker-like structure with guard towers and barbed wire. The access road is hemmed in by high concrete walls.

The book of Genesis recounts that Jacob and his family were travelling from Bethel when Rachel was about to deliver her second child:

“When she was in her hard labour, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son’.” (Genesis 35:17) But Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, and Jacob erected a pillar at her grave.

Over the years, the Tomb of Rachel has been a place of pilgrimage for Jews, especially women unable to give birth. A Jewish tradition says Rachel’s tears have special powers, inspiring those visiting her grave to ask her to cry and intercede with God.

The tomb with its dome and olive tree became a Jewish symbol, appearing in thousands of publications and on the covers of Jewish holy books.

 

Venerated by three faiths

Tomb of Rachel

Men in prayer at Rachel’s Tomb (© Bethlehem University)

There is disagreement over the actual place where Rachel was buried. Some maintain it was further north, near the present village of A-Ram.

Nevertheless, the site of the Tomb of Rachel on the edge of Bethlehem has been venerated for centuries by Jews, Muslims (who claim it as an Islamic site) and Christians.

All three faiths have had a hand in its construction.  The earliest construction over the tomb, a square building with arches and a dome, was erected by the Crusaders. Previously the place seems to have been marked by a small pyramid.

 

Tomb has been fortified

Tomb of Rachel

Armour-plated bus at entrance to Rachel’s Tomb (© Judy Lash Balint)

The Ottoman Turks allowed only people of their own faith to enter the tomb after they expelled the Crusaders. But in 1841 Sir Moses Montefiore obtained the keys for the Jews and was given permission to restore the tomb.

The tomb has been the scene of fighting between Palestinian and Israeli forces and in 1997 the building was heavily fortified.

When Israel’s separation barrier was erected, its high concrete walls cut Rachel’s Tomb off from the rest of the West Bank. Access for visitors is available only from Jerusalem. Men and women have separate visiting areas.

The present tomb consists of a rock draped with velvet. Eleven stones on it represent Jacob’s 11 sons who were alive when Rachel died.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Fields

Field of Ruth

Herodium

In Scripture:

The death of Rachel: Genesis 35:16-20, 48:7

Administered by: Israel Ministry of Religious Affairs

Tel.: 1888-2-2762435

Open: All day, every day, except for Shabbat and religious holidays, and from 10.30pm to 1.30am Sun-Thurs.

 

 

References

Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Mosdos Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb Institute)
Rachel’s Tomb (The Friends of Rachel’s Tomb)
Rachel’s Tomb (Wikipedia)
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