Part of a Series – Hanukkah 2020 – Nes Gadol Haya Po – Be’er Sheva and the Negev
It couldn’t be a series about Be’er Sheva without mentioning Abraham – maybe the biggest story from the past connected to Be’er Sheva.
Abraham’s connection with Be’er Sheva is based on three stories from Genesis. First, we hear that Hagar and Ishmael wander in the desert of Be’er Sheva after being banished from Abraham’s house. Secondly, Abraham and Avimelech, King of Gerar make an oath of peace surrounding the well. Lastly, Be’er Sheva is named as Abraham’s home after the binding of Isaac.
Abraham’s meeting with Avimelech and his establishment of hegemony over the wells in Be’er Sheva are symbolized by an oath between the two. In this treaty, in exchange for recognized ownership of the well, Abraham gives Avimelech 7 sheep and the two swear an oath. The world for oath, “sheva,” is what gives Be’er Sheva its name, according to the biblical text.
Judaism and Christianity follow the Abraham story as it is laid out in the Bible, but these aren’t the only traditions linking Abraham to Be’er Sheva. In a commentary on the Quran written by an early Islamic exegete al-Tabari in the 9th century CE, we find another accounting of the Abraham-Be’er Sheva-well story.
He [Abraham] settled in Be’er Sheva in the land of Palestine…God sent him as a prophet. Abraham stayed there, it was mentioned to me, in Be’er Sheva, dug a well there, and established a masjid (mosque). The water of that well was pure and flowing. His flocks drank from there.
Then, the people of Be’er Sheva harmed Abraham somehow, so he left there until he settled in another part of Palestine between Ramleh and Jerusalem…When he left from their midst, the water dried up and left. The people of Be’er Sheva followed after him until they found him. Regretting what they had done, they said, “We drove a sincere man from among us,” and asked him to return to them.
He said, “I will not return to a city from which I was driven out.”
They said to him, “The water which you used to drink and that we drank with you, it has dried up and gone.” So he gave them seven goats from his flocks and said, “Take them with you. If you take them to drink from the well, the water will appear, flowing and pure like it was. Drink from it.”
Several elements of al-Tabari’s story are the same as the biblical narrative. Abraham controls the water; some sort of wrong is committed against Abraham; and, an ensuing agreement involving 7 animals creates peace.
Abraham’s legacy continues to affect the city through the ages. Not only is Be’er Sheva remembered through the Biblical text as the southernmost part of the Nation of Israel (as in “from Dan to Be’er Sheva”), but continuing through the Byzantine time period, when water and the memory of Abraham brought early Christians to build churches here. Shifting conditions in this “land on the seam” sometimes made living here difficult as environmental and political climates changed. There are even hundreds of years in Be’er Sheva’s history without significant settlement. The Ottomans renewed Be’er Sheva in 1900, and in the heart of the Old City was a structure which was known as Abraham’s well – continuing the connection.
Other people pass through Be’er Sheva in the biblical text – Isaac redigs his father’s wells, Isaac renames the city Be’er Sheva, Jacob and sons set out from Be’er Sheva on their way to Egypt, David has adventures in Be’er Sheva and Josiah takes down the altars in Be’er Sheva, but no one grabs the city and leaves a lasting mark like Abraham.
I think today, that many Be’er Sheva residents associate the town with Abraham. So much so that when I first moved to the city, the person who hosted my family for our first Shabbat dinner, said, “I feel like I’m following in the footsteps of Abraham when I invite new residents here on their first Shabbat.” Abraham was known for his hospitality and so being hospitable in Be’er Sheva is seen as an expression of the city’s connection to him. And indeed, the stories of Abraham providing water for the city’s residents, especially in the story from the medieval Moslem commentator, show that these things are all intermingled in what Abraham means to the city.
The shared traditions and veneration of Abraham and his connection to Be’er Sheva are reasons why in 1979, when Sadat and Begin signed the peace treaty in Israel, they did so in Be’er Sheva – city of our shared forefather, city of making agreements, and of course, in typical Abraham style, the residents of the city hurried to make everyone feel welcome.
Abraham serves as an anchor and an important chapter in Be’er Sheva’s history, part of the “haya” – Be’er Sheva’s past.