BEERSHEBA (biblical: Beer-Sheba; Heb. בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע), city in the *Negev on the southern border of Judah; its name has been preserved in the Arabic form Bīr (Beʾr) al-Saʿb. Beersheba was first settled in the Chalcolithic period. Excavations conducted in its surroundings by J. Perrot uncovered remains of cave dwellings dug in the earth from this age. The inhabitants of the caves engaged in raising cattle and the manufacture of metal tools. Their pottery and stone vessels and figurines carved out of ivory and bone display a highly developed craftsmanship. Evidence of the beginnings of a religious cult was also found.
According to the Bible, Abraham and Isaac dug wells at Beer-Sheba and also formed alliances there with *Abimelech "king of the Philistines." The allies bound themselves under oath to observe the treaties, and in one source Abraham set aside seven ewes as a sign of the oath, which the Pentateuch explains was the origin of the name of the city (Be'er, "well"; Sheva, "oath" or "seven"; see Gen. 21:31; 26:33). The sanctuary of "the Lord, the Everlasting God," which was apparently located there in very early times, was invested with great importance in the tales set in the patriarchal period (Gen. 21:33; 26:23–24, 32–33; 46:1). After the rise of Israel, Beer-Sheba became a city of the tribe of Simeon and was later incorporated into the tribe of Judah (Josh. 15:28; 19:2). It appears to have been a center of the Israelite settlement in the Negev in the time of Samuel since his sons were sent there as judges (I Sam. 8:1–3). The sanctuary at Beer-Sheba was regarded as the extreme southern point of the country in contradistinction to the sanctuary at Dan which was held to be the northern point (Amos 5:5; 8:14). Thus the phrase "from Dan to Beer-Sheba" (Judg. 20:1, etc.) was the customary designation, at least until the days of David and Solomon, for the entire area of the country. After the division of the monarchy, Beer-Sheba continued
to be the southern frontier of the kingdom of Judah; the expression "from Dan to Beer-Sheba" was then replaced by "from Beer-Sheba to the hill-country of Ephraim" (II Chron. 19:4) or "from Geba to Beer-Sheba" (II Kings 23:8). Zibiah, the mother of Jehoash, king of Judah, originated from Beer-Sheba (II Kings 12:2). Elijah set out on his journey to Horeb from Beer-Sheba, the gateway to the desert (I Kings 19:3, 8). The city was settled by Jews after the return from Babylon (Neh. 11:27, 30). The biblical town of Beer-Sheba is to be sought at Tell al-Saʿb (Tell Beer-Sheba, a UNESCO World Heritage site (2005)), 2½ mi. (4 km.) NE of the new town, where remains of a fortress and potsherds from the Iron Age to the Roman period were found in excavations begun in 1969 by Y. Aharoni.
After 70 C.E. Beersheba was included in the Roman frontier-line defenses against the Nabateans and continued to be a Roman garrison town after the Roman annexation of the Nabatean kingdom. A large village existed then at its present site, where many remains have been found including mosaic pavements and Greek inscriptions (including a sixth-century C.E. ordinance regarding tax payments, which was issued to the south of the country, and a synagogue inscription). In the fourth and fifth centuries C.E., Beersheba first belonged to the district of Gerar and was later annexed to "Palaestina Tertia." The town was abandoned in the Arab period.
The modern settlement dates from 1900, when the Turkish government set up an administrative district in southern Palestine separate from that of Gaza and built an urban center in this purely nomadic region. The Turks were motivated by the need to strengthen governmental authority over the Bedouin at a time when Turkey was struggling with Britain over the delineation of the Egyptian border in Sinai. German and Swiss engineers aided in laying out a city plan. Both a city and a district council were set up, and Bedouin sheikhs held seats on them. Until 1914, however, progress was slow, and Beersheba had about 800 Muslim inhabitants and some Jewish families, one of whom ran a flour mill. In World War I, the town became the principal base for the Turko-German Army fighting on the Suez and Sinai front. Fortifications were laid out around the town and more settlers, including Jews, came and provided services to the army. A branch of the Jerusalem-Jaffa railway line was constructed and led beyond Beersheba to the southwest. On Oct. 31, 1917, the town was taken by Allied forces under General *Allenby 's command, with Australian and New Zealand units prominent in the battle. Allied losses were considerable; the British War Cemetery at Beersheba has about 1,300 graves. When Beersheba's strategic role ended, its economy dwindled and the railway was dismantled. In 1920, a few Jewish laborers planted a tree nursery and eucalyptus grove there and experimented with cultivating vegetables and other crops. In 1922, the population reached 2,356, among whom were 98 Jews. By 1931, the number of Jews had decreased to 11. The last Jews left during the 1936–39 riots, but efforts were intensified to purchase land for Jewish settlement in the Negev. During the *War of Independence the invading Egyptian army made Beersheba its headquarters for the Negev. When the town was taken by Israel forces on Oct. 21, 1948, it was totally abandoned by its inhabitants. Early in 1949, Jewish settlers, mostly new immigrants, established themselves there. The population, which totaled 1,800 at the end of 1949, reached 25,500 in 1956, 51,600 in 1962, and over 70,000 in 1968.
The vast majority of its inhabitants were originally new immigrants, mainly from North Africa, Iraq, India, Romania, Poland, Hungary, and South America. The first arrivals took over the abandoned houses, but from 1951 large new suburbs were built extending mainly to the north and northwest, while to the east a large industrial area sprang up. Arab Beersheba of Turkish times now became a small "old city" in a large modern town. The municipal area of about 10 sq. mi. (26 sq. km.) was doubled in 1967. Beersheba became the capital of Israel's Southern District, and a hub of communications linking up with the main roads and the railway lines Lydda-Kiryat Gat and Dimonah-Oron. A pumping station of the Eilat-Haifa oil pipeline was located there. Its largest industries (ceramics, sanitary ware, fire-resistant bricks, pesticides and other chemicals, and bromide compounds) exploited Negev minerals. There was also a large textile factory, flour mill, machine garage, and smaller plants for building materials, diamonds, metals, and other industries. The city had several academic, scientific, and cultural institutions, of which the Soroka Medical Center and the Municipal Museum were the first. In 1957, the Negev Institute for Arid Zone Research was established, which experiments with water desalination by electrodialysis, exploitation of solar energy, cloud seeding, adaptation of plants to aridity, hydroponics, and human behavior under desert conditions. The Institute for Higher Education, opened in 1965, was formally recognized as the University of the Negev in 1970 and had 1,600 students. Subsequently renamed Ben-Gurion University after Israel's first prime minister. It had 15,000 students in 2002. In 1973 the Beersheba Theater and the Symphony Orchestra were established. Beersheba also had a Biological Institute, mainly for the study of plant life in the desert. The city also served as a market center for the Negev's tens of thousands of Bedouin and had several large hotels. The traditional Thursday Bedouin market day was a noted tourist attraction.
In the 1970s the population of Beersheba passed the 110,000 mark, making it the fourth largest urban concentration in Israel after Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. The original plan to make Beersheba an industrial center was not too successful, though there were several large industrial plants, such as Machteshim, which produced agricultural fertilizers and employed over 1,000 workers, and an Israel Aircraft Industries metal plant. The main sources of employment, however, were the Soroka Medical Center, employing over 2,000, and the university. The city thus continued to serve as a regional
center and many workers in the Dead Sea chemical works and in the Nuclear Research Center near Dimona resided there. By the mid-1990s the population had risen to approximately 141,400, and in 2002 it was 181,500, making Beersheba the sixth largest city in Israel.
[George Schwab and
Efraim Orni /
Shaked Gilboa (2nd ed.)]
Another Beersheba was situated on the border of Upper and Lower Galilee (Jos., Wars, 3:39). It was fortified by Josephus, together with other places in Galilee in 66–67 C.E., for defense against the Romans during the Jewish War (ibid., 2:573). It is located at Ḥorvat Beer-Sheba (Khirbat Abu al-Shabʿa) between Parod and Kafr ʿInān near the Acre-Safed highway, where remains from the Second Temple period have been found.
G. Dalman, Sacred Sites and Ways (1935), index; S. Klein (ed.,) Sefer ha-Yishuv, 1 (1939) S.V.; Albright, in: JPOS, 4 (1924), 152; Alt, ibid., 15 (1935), 320; L. Woolley and T.E. Lawrence, Wilderness of Zin (1915), 45ff., 107 ff.; Perrot, in: IEJ, 5 (1955), 17, 73, 167; Contenson, ibid., 6 (1956), 163, 226; Dothan, in: Atiqot, 2 (Eng., 1959), 1ff.; EM, 2 (1965), 6–8 (incl. bibl.); Press, Ereẓ, 1 (1951), 62–63. WEBSITE: www.negevba.co.il.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.