be-er-she'-ba (be'er shebha`; Bersabee): Allotted originally to Simeon (Josh 19:2), one of "the uttermost cities of the tribe of the children of Judah" (Josh 15:28).
1. The Meaning of the Name:
The most probable meaning of Beersheba is the "well of seven." "Seven wells" is improbable on etymological grounds; the numeral should in that case be first. In Gen 21:31 Abraham and Abimelech took an oath of witness that the former had dug the well and seven ewe lambs were offered in sacrifice, "Wherefore he called that place Beer-sheba; because there they sware both of them." Here the name is ascribed to the Hebrew root shabha`, "to swear," but this same root is connected with the idea of seven, seven victims being offered and to take an oath, meaning "to come under the influence of seven."
Another account is given (Gen 26:23-33), where Isaac takes an oath and just afterward, "the same day Isaac's servants came, and told him concerning the well which they had digged (dug), and said unto him, We have found water. And he called it Shibah: therefore the name of the city is Beer-sheba unto this day."
2. A Sacred Shrine:
Beersheba was a sacred shrine. "Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of Yahweh, the Everlasting God" Gen (21:33). Theophanies occurred there to Hagar (21:17), to Isaac (26:24), to Jacob (46:2), and to Elijah (1 Ki 19:5). By Amos (5:5) it is classed with Bethel and Gilgal as one of the rival shrines to the pure worship of Yahweh, and in another place (8:14) he writes "They shall fall, and never rise up again," who sware, "As the way (i.e. cult) of Beersheba liveth." The two unworthy sons of Samuel were Judges in Beersheba (1 Sam 8:2) and Zibiah, mother of King Jehoash, was born there (2 Ki 12:1; 2 Ch 24:1).
3. Its Position:
Geographically Beersheba marked the southern limit of Judah, though theoretically this extended to the "river of Egypt" (Gen 15:18)--the modern Wady el`Avish--60 miles farther south. It was the extreme border of the cultivated land. From Dan to Beersheba (2 Sam 17:11, etc.) or from Beersheba to Dan (1 Ch 21:2; 2 Ch 30:5) were the proverbial expressions, though necessarily altered through the changed conditions in later years to "from Geba to Beer-sheba" (2 Ki 23:8) or "from Beer-sheba to the hill-country of Ephraim" (2 Ch 19:4).
4. Modern Beersheba:
Today Beersheba is Bir es-Seba` in the Wady es Seba`, 28 miles Southwest of Hebron on "the southern border of a vast rolling plain broken by the torrent beds of Wady Khalil and Wady Seba" (Robinson). The plain is treeless but is covered by verdure in the spring; it is dry and monotonous most of the year. Within the last few years this long-deserted spot--a wide stretch of shapeless ruins, the haunt of the lawless Bedouin--has been re-occupied; the Turks have stationed there an enlightened Kaimerkhan (subgovernor); government offices and shops have been built; wells have been cleared, and there is now an abundant water supply pumped even to the separate houses. Robinson (BW, XVII, 247 ff) has described how he found seven ancient wells there--probably still more will yet be found. The whole neighborhood is strewn with the ruins of the Byzantine city which once flourished there; it was an episcopal see. It is probable that the city of Old Testament times stood where Tell es Seba' now is, some 2 1/2 miles to the East; from the summit a commanding view can be obtained (PEF, III, 394, Sheet XXIV).
E. W. G. Masterman