The First Time Be’er Sheva Was a Negev Boomtown

February 25, 2022 | Nathan Steinmeyer
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Still the largest city in southern Israel, Be’er Sheva plays a key role in the narratives of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis—and is mentioned 33 times in the Hebrew Bible altogether. Nathan Steinmeyer examines what several decades of archaeological work have uncovered about the city’s past:

From the 9th century until its destruction by Sennacherib in 701 BCE, Be’er Sheva functioned as the main administrative center of the Negev Desert. Indeed, for much of this period, Be’er Sheva was the only major Judahite city in the Negev. In addition to a large administrative structure, dubbed the “Governor’s Palace,” three large storehouses were constructed next to the gate complex. The storehouse complex covers roughly 6,500 square feet, with each storehouse featuring two rows of stone pillars. Hundreds of vessels were uncovered in the storehouses, showing their use in gathering oils, grains, and other products from the smaller villages of the region. These storehouses were possibly constructed by King Hezekiah in the late 8th century BCE in preparation for Judah’s conflict with the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Built into the wall of one of the storehouses was one of the most interesting finds discovered in Tel Be’er Sheva, a horned altar. The altar had been dismantled and used as building material in the wall of the storehouse. The altar was reconstructed at three cubits high (5.25 feet) and closely matches the description of such altars given in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 30:2). The altar shows that the city once held a cultic structure, possibly dedicated to the Israelite God.

Be’er Sheva was also an incredibly well-planned city. The city includes a belt of houses running along the casemate wall with a six-foot-wide peripheral street running parallel to the walls. Additional streets radiated through the city in straight lines to provide a high degree of organization and movability. The city also included a covered drainage ditch, a large city square, and a complex water system. The excavators suggested that Be’er Sheva was built as a planned city, in which the earlier town was actively dismantled and the later Iron Age city constructed according to a preconceived plan at a single time.

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