Beer Sheva is mentioned in the biblical text 30 times. Many of those mentions are part of important biblical narratives such as the story of Abraham sending away Hagar and Jacob and sons setting out to Egypt. A good number of other mentions list Beer Sheva as the southern reach of the territory of the Land of Israel – “from Dan to Beer Sheva” is a frequent refrain.
So, where is this important ancient city? One candidate is within the modern city of Beer Sheva, named after the ancient city, whose name was preserved for hundreds of years by locals who called it Bir esSeba. Excavation of this site has been difficult as it sits under the modern city.
Another option is outside today’s modern city. This location is marked by an impressive tel and is the site of the Tel Beer Sheva National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ancient walls, wells, an extensive administrative center and a typical First Temple Period water system have been excavated there.
To complicate matters, Joshua 19 mentions another town belong to the tribe of Shimon, Sheva. Could one of these two locations be Sheva, and the other Beer Sheva?
According to excavation done at Tel Beer Sheva in the 1970’s by Yohanan Aharoni and Zeev Hertzog of Tel Aviv University, there is nothing on the tel which predates the 12th century BCE. As no site has yet been found which would be a good candidate for a Middle Bronze (Abraham time period) city in the entire area, we are left with a new model for Abraham’s Beer Sheva. Perhaps, during the Bronze era, Beer Sheva was an area, not a specific place.
During settlement, however, the biblical context changes and Beer Sheva is clearly noted as a town. Archaeology at Tel Beer Sheva shows a town at this time period with an extensive gate structure, along with storehouses, administrative center, and water system. Also, uncovered here was a 4-cornered altar, found disassembled, but not destroyed, recalling the disassembly of altars by King Josiah in II Kings 23. The tel was destroyed by Sennacherib in 701 BCE. Afterwards, there was a failed attempt to rebuild the city at this location.
In the modern city of Beer Sheva, salvage digs have been done prior to building some of the major infrastructure complexes of the city. Part of the excavation can be seen in the corner of the parking lot by the municipal market. According to Herzog, these digs have all uncovered remains from the 8th century BCE and onward. According to them, the ancient city was located on Tel Beer Sheva; and after Sannacherib’s destruction, moved to this lower location. Other archaeologists contend that the finds here date earlier and make the modern city of Beer Sheva a logical choice for the ancient city of Beer Sheva, because of the preservation of the name. The tel, they claim, is the site of Sheva.
When thinking about this, I return to the biblical text. Beer Sheva is mentioned 30 times; Sheva is mentioned once. Beer Sheva is an important border town during the First Temple Period. Sheva is a one-hit wonder in a dispersed tribe. The archaeological finds of an impressive administrative center do not strike me as a place which would only be mentioned once. Many ancient tels were abandoned throughout the years and the city center moved to lower ground (such as in Akko) and I don’t see any problem describing the migration of Beer Sheva similarly.
It all depends on the dating.