(bee' uhr-sshee' baw) Beer-sheba and its surrounding area factors significantly in the Old Testament from the earliest sojourns of the patriarchs (Genesis 21:1;
Genesis 26:1) to the return of the Hebrew exiles with Nehemiah (Nehemiah 11:27,Nehemiah 11:30). Since it was an important crossroad to Egypt in the geographic center of the dry, semi-desert region known as the Negeb, Beersheba also served as the administrative center of the region. Settlement of the Beersheba area began before 3000 B.C.
Abraham and a nearby king, Abimelech, swore to protect Abraham's right to the water of this region (Genesis 21:22-33). Abraham then named the place “Beer-sheba,” meaning “well of the oath” or preferably “well of the seven,” referring to seven lambs involved in the agreement. Here he called on the Lord (Genesis 21:33) and lived for some time (Genesis 22:19). The Lord confirmed His promises with Isaac at Beer-sheba (Genesis 26:23-25), where Isaac renamed his father's well “Shibah.” A well is found today outside the ruins of biblical Beer-sheba (Tell es-Sabaspgr), however, it cannot be the patriarchal well since it is dated much later, around the twelfth century. Isaac also lived in the area of Beer-sheba, and his son Jacob left there for Haran to seek a wife (Genesis 28:10). A crossroad to Egypt, Beer-sheba was a stopping place for Jacob many years later when he was encouraged by the Lord to continue on to Egypt where Joseph was awaiting him (Genesis 46:1-5). Because of these patriarchal events at Beer-sheba, it is thought that the city eventually and unfortunately became a pilgrimage destination for idolatry later during the monarchy (Amos 5:5;
Joshua gave Beer-sheba to the tribe of Judah (Joshua 15:28), and then to the tribe of Simeon whose territory lay within Judah's boundaries (Joshua 19:1-2,Joshua 19:9). Samuel's sons Joel and Abiah were unfair judges in Beer-sheba right before the monarchy began with Saul (1 Samuel 8:1-3).
Beer-sheba is mentioned idiomatically twelve times to indicate the northern and southern extremes of Israel, “Dan to Beersheba” (2 Samuel 24:2,
1 Kings 4:25). This type of phrase served to speak of Israel in its entirety and its unity; for instance, in its resolve to punish the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 20:1) and its recognition of Samuel as a true prophet (1 Samuel 3:20). This idiom also served to show the extent of the reforms of three southern kings: Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 19:4, “Beer-sheba to mount Ephraim”), Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 30:5, “Beer-sheba even to Dan”), and Josiah (2 Kings 23:8, “from Geba to Beer-sheba”).
Archaeology has shown Beer-sheba to be the administrative center of the Negeb by uncovering its large commercial storerooms and fortifications which were superior to the lesser cities in the area. The fortifications were inadequate, however, against the Assyrians who sacked the city and left in ruins until the Persian period. After the punitive Exile of Judah, the people returned to Beer-sheba and its surrounding satellite towns with Nehemiah in the fifth century (Nehemiah 11:27,Nehemiah 11:30).
As the “gateway to the desert,” Beer-sheba was in a precarious place climatically, which is the backdrop of two person's prayers concerning death. Hagar pleads at a distance not to see her son die (Genesis 21:14-16), and Elijah prays for death in the desert rather than at the order of Queen Jezebel (1 Kings 19:3-4).
Daniel C. Fredericks