In First Testament times, the only good north-south road through the central mountain range passed through or near Shechem, Bethel, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron – and then it divided. One branch went southeast toward Arad, the other southwest toward "the well of the oath," in Hebrew "Beer (well) sheva (oath)." This well lay at the point where the starkest part of the Negev desert begins, that is, where the rainfall drops to below eight inches annually. In Biblical parlance, here was the southern extreme of Israelite land: "from Dan to Beersheba." (Judges 20:1. 2 Samuel 24:2, 15.)
The well was a place for taking oaths. The Bible remembers two. The first, between Abraham and Abimelech, plays not only on the word sheva as "oath," but also on sheva as the number seven. The second oath was sworn between Isaac and the same Abimelech.
The well occupied a junction. While marking the southwest extreme of the Shechem-Hebron road where the desert starts, it also lay in an east-west basin formed by riverbeds. Along this basin, to the west, stand today the tells of the Negev cities from the Middle Bronze period and the Iron Age (I and II). South of this basin, the desert becomes wider, drier and more mountainous. One day's journey into it was almost too much for Elijah.
Near the "well of the oath," in various epochs, grew a town, especially in the Chalcolithic period, the Iron Age, the Byzantine period and today. (The function of the ancient well has been taken over by groundwater pumps, but the source is the same mountain aquifer that extends as far north as Mt. Carmel). The town's blossoming has generally coincided with the will to press from north to south (Keel p. 186). From Beersheba the aged Jacob set out with his sons toward Egypt. The kings of Judah launched from here their expeditions in quest of Arabia's riches, especially the gold of Ophir on the Red Sea. Byzantine pilgrims, in Elijah's footsteps, here began the arduous part of the journey to Sinai and St. Catherine's. The modern Israeli city (with 200,000 inhabitants) connects the rest of the land to the southern port city of Eilat.
The modern city dwarfs an old well that may be the Biblical one. Called "Abraham's well," it is found in a small museum. A big old tamarisk grows beside it, in memory of the one that Abraham planted. Just across the street to the south is the broad flat bed of the Beersheba River. On its banks nearby archaeologists discovered remains of six Chalcolithic settlements. (We can view the finds in the Israel Museum.) Around the well, from the 11th-7th centuries BC, spread an unfortified Israelite town, whose area at times reached 22 acres.
The well itself is 12 feet across and 50 feet deep. Its top 28 feet are lined with stones, set, probably, at the time of the Byzantine settlement. After that it is hewn in bedrock. In 19th-century representations, one sees grooves in the stones, made by the ropes of the water haulers. (These top stones have had to be replaced.)
Just north of the well, on Thursday mornings, the "Bedouin market" takes place. In recent years it has undergone low-tech globalization. Off to the side, however, with luck, one can still find Bedouin buying and selling the excess from their herds. This market is the living continuation of the ancient Beersheba: a meeting place between east and west, desert and sown, where people would seal their contracts with an oath.
There is another candidate for the famous well. It too lies on the northern bank of this riverbed, but three miles to the east at Tell Sheva.
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(r), (c) Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. (www.Lockman.org)