Bersabee (Heb., BAR SBY), or BEERSHEBA, a town on the southern extremity of Palestine, one of the most familiar geographical names of Holy Writ, known on account of its position and its connection with several incidents in Hebrew history. Throughout most of that history, it was proverbially the extreme point to the south in the country; from “Dan to Bersabee” included the entire length of the country, from north to south (Jud., xx, 1, etc.; I Par., xxi, 2 “from Bersabee to Dan”); later, after the destruction of the northern kingdom, the territory was sometimes described as extending “from Gabaa to Bersabee” (IV K., xxiii, 8), or “from Bersabee to Mount Ephraim” (II Par., xix, 4); and finally, after the exile, the place still remains as the southern-most point in the phrase “from Bersabee unto the valley of Ennom” (II Esdras, xi, 30). Milton has helped to fix the name and locality of the town in the minds of English readers by his reference to Beersaba, where the Holy Land borders on Egypt and the Arabian shore. Still, it was not exactly on the southern border, which was considered to run “along the `river of Egypt’, the present Wady el-Arish, nearly 60 m. S. E. of Beersheba” (G. A. Smith); but there was little arable land beyond it, and it was practically the last stopping point in the country.
The name means, literally, “the well of seven”, but Gen., xxi, 30, 31, and xxvi, 26-33, explain it as “the well of swearing”. The former narrative, with its insistence on the “seven” (sheba) ewe-lambs, leads one to expect the name to be interpreted as “the well of seven”, and inclines one to regard the other explanation as a gloss, or as evidence of the interweaving of another narrative; yet it may be “that the two explanations resolve themselves into one; for the Hebrew word `to swear’ (nishba, the reflexive of the unused shaba`) seems to mean properly (as it were) `to seven-oneself’, i, e. to pledge oneself in some way by seven sacred things, so that if it be assumed that the `seven lambs’ were used for this purpose, only one ceremony would be described in the passage” (Driver, Genesis, 215). Seven was regarded as a sacred number. Still, Driver prefers the explanation “well of seven”, that is, seven wells; but there is no evidence that there were ever seven wells in the vicinity. G. A. Smith inclines to the meaning, “well of the seven gods”, but offers no proof to support it.
Each of the two narratives referred to has its ownaccount of the occasion which gave rise to the name. In the first, it was bestowed by Abraham, when, after a conflict between his herdsmen and those of King Abimelech as to the ownership of a well, he concluded a covenant with the king, who was accompanied by his captain, Phicol. In the second, it was bestowed many years later by Isaac when, after a conflict between his herdsmen and those of King Abimelech as to the ownership of a well, he concluded a covenant with the king, who was accompanied by his captain, Phicol. Other points in the two accounts are parallel also, though there are many differences. The traditional opinion regards them as narratives of two different series of events which befell the two patriarchs, surprising in certain details, perhaps, yet not remarkable for the essential facts which are such as might easily recur. The modern critical opinion considers that the same tradition became attached to two different names and was embodied in two different documents (the Elohistic and the Jahvistic; see articles: Abraham, Genesis, Pentateuch). “Doubtless, history repeats itself”, says Prof. Sayce (Early Hebrew History, 64); “disputes about the possession of wells in a desert-land can frequently recur, and it is possible that two kings of the same name may have followed one another on the throne of Gerar. But what does not seem very possible is that each of these kings should have had a `chief captain of his host’ called by the strange non-Semitic name of Phicol; that each of them should have taken the wife of the patriarch, believing her to be his sister; or that Beersheba should twice have received the same name from the oaths sworn over it.” The differences of detail are regarded by the upholders of the traditional opinion as proofs that two distinct facts are related, and by critics as variations that “would naturally arise from the fluctuation of tradition”. (Driver, Genesis, 255.)
Bersabee, the village that grew up around the wells at this spot, is identified with the present Bir es-Seba which is twenty-eight miles southwest of Hebron, on the road to Egypt. The country surrounding it, known as the desert of Bersabee, is a soil that is said to be naturally very fertile, needing only irrigation to make it productive; the few cultivated plots in the valley give “fine crops of wheat and barley”. In the spring, sheep, goats, and camels find there a rich pasture land. Three wells may be seen there today, one of which, however, is dry. The largest is believed to have been dug by Abraham (Gen., xxi) and is at least very ancient. It is a solidly constructed piece of masonry, about thirty-eight feet deep; it still furnishes abundant sweet water. The climate of Bersabee, though very hot, is regarded as healthy. The highest altitude is 950 feet above the Mediterranean. At this day, the desert presents a picture of the same pastoral, patriarchal life that we see in Genesis (Conder, Palestine, 52-55). Bersabee, with the desert around, is the cradle of the Hebrew race and connected with memories of Agar and Ismael (Gen., xxi), of Abraham (ib.), of Isaac (xxvi), of Jacob who was born there, and his sons (xxviii, xlvi), of the sons of Samuel (I K., viii, 2), of Elias (III K., iii), and of Amos, who denounced its idolatry (v, 5, viii, 14). It formed, at first, part of the territory of Juda (Josue, xv, 28) and later fell to the lot of Simeon (xix, 2). Its site as a halting-place on the road to Egypt made it well known to all. After the Exile, it again became a center for the Jews (II Esd., xi, 27), and in the days of the empire had a Roman garrison. It was most flourishing in the early Christian ages, when the hermits flocked there. For a time, it was an episcopal see. Extensive ruins of dwellings and public edifices, mostly of Roman days, still remain.
JOHN F. FENLON