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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 (Wikipedia)
Ancient City of Beersheba (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)

Beit She’an

Israel

Beit She'an

Colonnaded street leading to tell at Beit She’an (Seetheholyland.net)

Beit She’an offers the most extensive archaeological site in Israel, with some of the best-preserved ruins in the Middle East, but its memory will forever be linked to one of the most ghoulish events in the Bible.

On nearby Mount Gilboa in 1004 BC, the army of King Saul, Israel’s first king, was defeated by the Philistines and Saul’s three sons were killed. To avoid capture, the wounded Saul fell on his sword.

The triumphant Philistines took the bodies of Saul and his sons and fastened them to the wall of Beit She’an. They put Saul’s armour in their temple.

David, who was to succeed Saul as king, composed a memorable lament over the tragedy, with the recurring line “How the mighty have fallen . . . ” (2 Samuel 1:17 – 27).

Beit She’an is about 13 kilometres south of the Sea of Galilee. Its location at the strategic junction of the Jezreel and Jordan valleys made it a coveted prize for conquerors.

Beit She'an

Columns toppled by the AD 749 earthquake at Beit She’an (Kasper Nowak)

Apart from the Philistines, its rulers included Egyptians, Israelites (though the Canaanite inhabitants initially rebuffed them), Greeks and Romans.

In the Roman period — under the name of Scythopolis — it was the leading city of the Decapolis and the only one of these 10 semi-autonomous cities west of the Jordan River.

From the 4th century until it was destroyed by an earthquake in 749, the formerly pagan city was a flourishing Christian centre, with a bishop and several churches.

 

City’s population grew to 40,000

Beit She’an began on the flat-topped hill that stands behind the ruins of the Roman-Byzantine city. This ancient tell, 80 metres high, contains 18 levels of occupation down to the first settlers around 4000 BC.

Beit She'an

Ruins of Beit She’an from the tell, with modern town in background (Steve Peterson)

In Roman times the inhabitants moved to the flat area at the foot of the hill. Here the city expanded to around 150 hectares in area, with wide colonnaded streets leading to elegant shops with marble facades and mosaic floors.

The population of Scythopolis grew to 40,000 and the linen it produced made it one of the leading textile centres of the Roman empire. Centuries later it became a centre for processing cane sugar.

Excavations have revealed:

•  A three-tiered theatre for dramatic performances, seating 7000 people.

•  An amphitheatre holding 6000, where gladiatorial contests entertained soldiers of the Sixth Legion which was based here.

•  A huge bath and gym complex with swimming pools and halls heated by hot air from furnaces. Its public toilets had channels underneath with running water.

Beit She'an

Remains of Roman theatre at Beit She’an, which seated 7000 people (Seetheholyland.net)

•  A Roman basilica that served as a courthouse and administrative centre.

•  A nymphaeum, an elaborate monumental building with a decorative fountain.

•  A mosaic of Tyche, the Roman goddess of good fortune, wearing the walled city of Scythopolis as a crown and holding the horn of plenty in her hand.

 

Circular church replaced temples

On the summit of the tell, a steep climb obtains a sweeping panorama of the ruins below, the Jordan and Harod valleys and Mount Gilboa.

Beit She'an

Very public toilets at Beit She’an (Seetheholyland.net)

Here a great circular church, with a cloister around an open court, replaced the earlier Canaanite and Philistine temples during the Byzantine era.

Among the other churches in the lower city, one was dedicated to Procopius, a local martyr. Its location is unknown, but remains of other church buildings have been found and a striking red cross can be seen on the plaster wall of a niche in a bathhouse, probably used as a baptistry.

The modern town of Beit She’an has encroached on some of the ancient ruins. One of these is the Monastery of the Lady Mary, founded in 567 and named after a donor, perhaps the wife of a Byzantine official.

This complex — not usually open to the public — contains a series of rooms with beautiful mosaic floors. The mosaic in the central hall of the chapel depicts animals such as lions, camels, boars and ostriches around a zodiac illustrating the months of the year.

Interestingly, the remains of Jewish and Samaritan synagogues have been found along with churches from the time when Scythopolis was a Christian city. And after a Muslim army conquered the city in 634 and renamed the city Baysan, Christians and Muslims lived together until the disastrous earthquake of 749.

Beit She'an

Cross on wall identifies a probable baptistry at Beit She’an (Seetheholyland.net)

In Scripture

Canaanites of Beit She’an resist Manasseh: Judges 1:27

Philistines fasten Saul’s body to Beit She’an wall: 1 Samuel 31:10

 

 

Administered by: Israel National Parks Authority

Tel.: +972-4-658-7189

Open: Apr-Sept 8am-5pm (except Friday 8am-4pm); Oct-Mar 8am-4pm (except Saturday 8am-5pm). Last entry to site one hour before closing time.

 

References

Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Kochav, Sarah: Israel: A Journey Through the Art and History of the Holy Land (Steimatzky, 2008)
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: Where happy explorers go to dig”, Jerusalem Post, May 30, 2011
Vamosh, Miriam Feinberg: Beit She’an: Capital of the Decapolis (Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority, 1996)

 

External links

Beit She’an (Jewish Virtual Library)
Beit Shean, Archaeology in Israel (The Jewish Magazine)
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