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Herzog, Ze’ev 1980a







Herzog, Ze’ev 1980a


Herzog, Ze’ev


Beer-sheba of the Patriarchs



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Biblical Archaeology Review

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The findings of archaeologists sometimes seem to confirm the Biblical text. At other times, the excavation results present a problem. Perhaps the best known case of the latter is Jericho. Most scholars date the Israelite conquest of Canaan to the Late Bronze Age, to a time (13th century B.C.) when, according to Jericho excavator Kathleen Kenyon, there was no settlement at Jericho, let alone a city whose walls could be trumpeted down. According to the Bible, the next city to fall to the Israelites, was Ai. There is a problem in this case too. Professor Joseph Callaway, who excavated Ai, found no settlement from that period. We have encountered a somewhat similar problem at Beer-shebaa with respect to the Patriarchal Age. The problem is even more complicated because scholars disagree wildly as to the date of the Patriarchal Age. The well-known American scholar, William F. Albright, placed the Patriarchal Age in what archaeologists call MBI or Middle Bronze I. He was supported by the famous Hebrew Union College archaeologist, Nelson Glueck. They reasoned, largely on the basis of Glueck’s surface surveys done in the area south of the Biblical Negev, that the patriarchal stories preserve descriptions of conditions in the Negev which correspond only to archaeological remains from MBI. Albright dated this period from the 21st to 19th centuries B.C. This view has now been almost totally abandoned because the Biblical references to the Patriarchal Age reflect an urban civilization with frequent allusions to kings and cities: Bethel, Gerar and Hebron appear prominently in the patriarchal narratives, and a number of other cities are mentioned too. Because there appear to have been no towns in Palestine in MBI, it is no longer tenable to regard this period as the Patriarchal Age. Many scholars have now shifted the date of the Patriarchal Age to MBII (c. 19th to 16th centuries B.C.). In the Bible the patriarchs are portrayed as pastoralists on the fringes of an urban society. According to many scholars, the urban society of MBII fits this picture admirably. However, a number of other dates, both later and earlier, have also been defended, and two important books1 have recently suggested that there was no Patriarchal Age, that the stories were composed during the Israelite monarchy or even the exilic period without reference to historical fact. It is fair to say that there is no more perplexing question among Biblical scholars than the date of the Patriarchal Age2—there is even a question as to whether such an age ever occurred. It is into this maelstrom that we must now introduce the evidence from Beer-sheba. As reflected in patriarchal narratives, Beer-sheba is the most important center in the Negev during this period. Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba (Genesis 22:19). Abraham and Abimelech entered a covenant at Beer-sheba (Genesis 21:32). Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Beer-sheba (Genesis 21:33). The Lord spoke to both Isaac and Jacob at Beer-sheba (Genesis 26:23; Genesis 46:1). Beer-sheba is also the site of some famous wells: Abraham’s well at Beer-sheba was seized by Abimelech’s men (Genesis 21:25). Isaac’s servants dug a well at Beer-sheba also (Genesis 26:25). Tel Beer-sheba, the site of the ancient city, is located on a hill overlooking the Wadi Beer-sheba about two and one half miles east of the modern city of Beer-sheba. The mound itself covers only two and one half acres. Beer-sheba was excavated during eight seasons (1969–1976) by a team from Tel-Aviv University’s Institute of Archaeology under the direction of the late Professor Yohanan Aharoni. Most of the dig was devoted to uncovering the great, fortified, Israelite city dating to the United Monarchy of King David (his reign being dated from 1000 B.C.) and, later, to the kingdom of Judah (980–701 B.C.). This period of time is called Iron Age II by archaeologists. During Iron Age II, Beer-sheba was a rich and powerful urban city, surrounded by a massive circular wall containing an impressive gate through which one passed into the city. A circular street parallel to the wall allowed easy access to the carefully planned metropolis. Large storehouses to the right of the city gate accommodated commercial activity. An imposing governor’s residence looked out on a plaza inside the gate. Cultic centers provided for the city’s religious needs. In this article, however, we are interested in the Beer-sheba of earlier periods. During the last three seasons of excavation (1974–1976), an effort was made to go below Beer-sheba of Iron Age II to find patriarchal Beer-sheba. A considerable part of the site was dug down to bedrock in order to find the earliest settlements at Beer-sheba. This effort revealed four earlier occupational strata (Strata VI through IX) which I am pleased to describe for BAR readers in the first published summary of this phase of our excavation. I must tell you at the outset that these strata cover the 250 to 300 years immediately prior to the fortified Israelite city of the United Monarchy—from about 1250 B.C. to about 1000 B.C. Essentially the pre-urban occupation of the site was found. There was, however, nothing from an earlier period except a few Chalcolithic (4th millennium B.C.) sherds: no evidence was found of habitation at Beer-sheba before about 1200 B.C. (the beginning of Iron Age I) which is several hundred years after the latest date scholars proposed for the Patriarchal Period. The Iron I settlements at Beer-sheba were preserved mostly on the southeastern slope of the mound, the lowest part of the natural hill underlying the tell. To prepare for the construction of the later, fortified, Israelite (Iron Age II) city, during the latter part of King David’s reign, the top of the hill was leveled. This not only gave a solid base for the new city, but also destroyed almost all earlier remains. The southeastern part of the mound where the topography was lower escaped such destruction. Although we dug from Stratum VI down to Stratum IX (and then hit bedrock) I shall describe the strata in reverse order—from the lowest and earliest stratum to the latest and highest. The earliest occupation at Beer-sheba (Stratum IX) was represented only by seven large pits about 22 to 25 feet in diameter. The pits are irregular in shape though most may be described as roughly round. Some of the pits are almost 10 feet deep: These we assume were used as granaries. Other pits, between three and four feet deep, were used for habitation. The best preserved dwelling pit consists of three separate areas. A cave cut into the conglomerate rock which formed the side of the pit provided partial shelter from the elements. Niches cut into the rock at the rear of the cave contained two storage jars (one of whose lid was still on) which had been left in the niches. A second area which effectively enlarged the cave was formed by a wall in the middle of the pit and extending part of the way across it. This wall and the natural rock wall opposite it on the other side of the pit could have supported a roof built of beams, branches and clay. Although the cave floor was paved with rounded limestone slabs, the floor of the area behind the wall, on the side away from the cave, was raised by fill, creating a kind of terrace. The occupants came to the terrace, no doubt, to escape the oppressive heat in the lower parts of the pit or to catch the afternoon breeze. The pit’s third dwelling area, in addition to the terrace and roofed areas, was probably an open court. There the floor was even lower than in the cave. Several accumulated layers of ashen soil on the court floor contained large quantities of pottery sherds, pieces of charred wood and many bones, indicating that the pit had been used for the long period of time. A lengthy corridor-like trench had been cut adjacent to this dwelling pit: An opening was cut into the corridor creating an entrance into the dwelling pit. One end of the corridor led to another dwelling pit. We think that the entire settlement of this stratum covered about 2,990 sq. yds., approximately the area of half a football field. If so, it probably contained about 20 dwelling pits and 10 granaries and would have housed from 100 to 140 people. Stratum IX was not destroyed by violence. It was abandoned then reused, new structures were added to the old. The pottery leads us to believe this stratum had been occupied in the 13th and 12th centuries B.C. In Stratum VIII, which dates to the 11th century B.C., we found houses for the first time. The pit dwellings continued to be used, although with a raised floor, in most of the area in which they were built. The houses of Stratum VIII had mud brick walls built on a stone foundation. A typical house of this stratum measured about 44 feet by 25 feet. It had only the internal wall along the back of the house creating a broad room about 9 feet wide and 25 feet long which was apparently the dwelling room. The remainder of the house was an open courtyard. This appears to be a variation of the later 4-room Israelite house which also had a broad room in back, but in which the remainder of the house was divided into three long rooms. In the later Israelite house only the middle room was used as an open courtyard. Like Stratum IX, Stratum VIII was abandoned rather than destroyed. The pottery suggests that the same people who lived in Stratum VIII built Stratum VII at the end of the 11th century B.C. Stratum VII was the first fortified settlement at Beer-sheba. Prior to building the settlement of Stratum VII, a substantial leveling operation was carried out during which the pits of the previous strata were filled. The new settlement shows a first attempt at planned development. About halfway down the slope, a chain of houses was built, each house sharing its side walls with its neighbors. The backs of the houses formed a fortification wall around the city. The houses were entered from inside the settlement fur