Abraham & Beersheba, the Bible, & Archaeology

Abraham & Beersheba, the Bible, & Archaeology June 9, 2021

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and activist, who runs the blog, Daylight Atheism. He has written articles for AlterNet, Salon, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, Canadian FreethinkerFreethought TodayFree Inquiry, and Secular Future, the newsletter of the U.K.-based National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies.


In this article I will be responding to a portion of his post, “Let the Stones Speak: Part 1” (unknown date). In my previous two articles, I tackled other portions of it: Genesis, Joseph, Archaeology, & Biblical Accuracy (A Brief Survey of Evidence for “The King’s Highway” in Jordan in the Bronze Age: Prior to 1000 BC) and Arameans, Amorites, and Archaeological Accuracy [both 6-8-21]. He wrote:

Anachronisms in the Patriarchal Narratives

[. . .]

Site Focus: Beersheba

The town of Beersheba, in the Judean Desert at the southern extent of the territory of biblical Israel, plays an important role in the patriarchal narratives. It is named by Abraham in Genesis 21:31 as the result of a dispute with Abimelech over water rights; it is also named a second time by Isaac, who apparently forgot his father had named it the exact same thing, in Genesis 26:33. (The name “Beersheba” is Hebrew for “Well of Seven” and also “Well of the Oath”; both interpretations are possible in the Abraham story, whereas the context of the Isaac story suggests the latter.) Abraham dwells there for some time (Genesis 22:19); Jacob also has a vision of God there en route to Egypt (Genesis 46:1-4).

The general location of biblical Beersheba is not in dispute. The ancient name has been retained in the present-day site of Bir es-Seba, where a modern town has been built over the ruins of a small Roman settlement. Four kilometers west of Bir es-Seba is the mound of Tell es-Seba. Each place has been proposed to be the site of the OT town; it has also been suggested that both places were parts of biblical Beersheba, with the tell being a royal city and the modern site a civilian village (Manor 1992, p. 642).

As it turns out, however, at neither site have there been found any remains from the Early or Middle Bronze Age, although remains from both earlier and later periods do exist. Along the bank of the nearby Wadi es-Seba, remains from the Chalcolithic period, the 4th millennium BCE, have been found. “These early sites, however, have no association with events recorded in the Bible” (ibid., p. 642). Excavations at Bir es-Seba, beneath the Roman occupation level, have produced Iron Age pottery dating to the 10th century BCE, while excavations at Tell es-Seba have identified nine distinct Iron Age strata dating from the 11th to the 7th centuries BCE, during most of which time Beersheba was a large walled city. Following the Iron Age, the site was host to a small Hellenistic fortress and later to a Roman outpost, after which time it was abandoned. No artifacts of any sort from the Bronze Age have been found, and therefore it seems that the city where Abraham and Isaac supposedly dug their wells did not exist at the time when they are thought to have lived. (Note that Genesis 26:33 specifies that Beersheba was a city at the time, not merely a nomadic encampment.) It was, however, a large and distinctive landmark during the Iron Age, the time of the Israelite monarchy.

I accept the life and death dates of Abraham as being c. 1813 BC-c. 1638 BC (this period is the Middle Bronze Age II, for the Near East), based on the estimate of the Jewish Virtual Library: though there is considerable debate about precisely when he lived.

John J. Bimson, in his chapter, “Archaeological Data and the Dating of the Patriarchs”, in A.R. Millard & D.J. Wiseman, editors, Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives. Leicester: IVP, 1980. pp.59-92, provides a response:

Beersheba Tel Beersheba (Tell es-Seba’) completely lacks pre-Iron Age remains. It does not therefore bear on the question of whether the patriarchal narratives relate better to MB [Middle Bronze Age] I [2100-2000 BC] or MB II [2000-1550 BC]. . . .

[T]he references to Beersheba in the patriarchal narratives do not actually require a settlement on the site at the time in question. Sarna has argued thus in reply to Van Seters: ‘The biblical passages refer only to a well and a cultic site…. No king or ruler is mentioned, and no patriarch ever has dealings with the inhabitants of Beersheba. The only description of Beersheba as a “city” in the patriarchal narratives is a late editorial note (Gn. 26:33) which clearly has nothing to do with the narrative context, and which views the material through the eyes of a later age.'[109] In 1967, Aharoni held the view that the absence of early archaeological evidence does not contradict the patriarchal narratives, which, he then suggested, have only the area of Beersheba in mind, not a town.[110] . . . (pp. 75-76)


[109] N. M. Sarna, Biblical Archaeology Review 3/4, 1977, p.9.

[110] Yohanan Aharoni in Winton Thomas, (ed.), Archaeology and Old Testament Study (Clarendon, Oxford, 1967), p.389.

The biblical data appears perfectly consistent with this scenario (it was, to use Lee’s words, a “nomadic encampment”). Beersheba is mentioned eleven times in Genesis (RSV). None of the passages require the interpretation of even a town, let alone a city. The very first mention, in Abraham’s time (Gen 21:14) refers to “the wilderness of Beer-sheba.” As for Genesis 26:33 being a “late editorial note”, Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers (which was written in 1905; thus it is no polemics against “undesired” archaeological results) observed:

There was no city at this time at Beer-sheba, but one is mentioned at the conquest of Canaan by Joshua (Joshua 15:28). This note, as is the case generally with those which speak of a thing existing “unto this day,” was added by Ezra and the men of the Great Synagogue, after the return from Babylon (comp. Genesis 22:14); and its meaning is that, whereas Abraham’s name had been forgotten while the place lay desolate, this remarkable coincidence of the water being again found, just when the covenant had been confirmed by the customary sevenfold sacrifice, so impressed the minds of the people that the title of Beer-sheba never again passed into oblivion.

The Oxford Biblical Studies Online site (“Beersheba”) — drawing from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Archaeology — verifies that no city existed at the site of Beersheba in Abraham’s time:
According to radiocarbon dating, the Chalcolithic settlement in Beersheba City dates to about 4200–4000 B.C.E. After its abandonment, human occupation returned to Beersheba City and Tel Shebaʾ only in the Iron Age.
The Iron Age in the Near East is the period of 1200-550 BC (starting some 438 years after Abraham’s death). Therefore, no city or even town or village was there during his lifetime, and as a result of that archaeologically determined information, the supposed “anachronism” vanishes. Adam Lee agrees that there was no city during this period, but thinks this is a disproof of the biblical narrative (not realizing that the biblical narrative during the time of Abraham doesn’t indicate a town or city in the first place; to the contrary, it describes it as a “wilderness”).
The terminology of “to this day”: implying a later addition to the text, is common in the Old Testament (86 appearances in RSV: most in this same sense). For example:
Genesis 35:20 (RSV) and Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.
Deuteronomy 34:6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-pe’or; but no man knows the place of his burial to this day.
Joshua 8:28 So Joshua burned Ai, and made it for ever a heap of ruins, as it is to this day.
2 Samuel 18:18 Now Ab’salom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself the pillar which is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance”; he called the pillar after his own name, and it is called Ab’salom’s monument to this day.

This notion of the scribe Ezra making slight additions to the Bible is not an “after the fact” rationalization of alleged anachronisms, either, since, for example, Charles Buck’s Theological Dictionary, published in 1802 referred to it (“Bible”):

Ezra made additions in several parts of the Bible, where any thing appeared necessary for illustrating, connecting, or completing the work; in which he appears to have been assisted by the same Spirit in which they were first written. Among such additions are to be reckoned the last chapter of Deuteronomy, wherein Moses seems to give an account of his own death and burial, and the succession of Joshua after him. To the same cause our learned author thinks are to be attributed many other interpolations in the Bible, . . .

See also the Jewish article, “Verses Added to the Torah at a Later Date: The Phenomenon and Its Ramifications (3)” by Rav Amnon Bazak (9-21-14), and “The Book That Changed: Narratives of Ezran Authorship as Late Antique Biblical Criticism”, by Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg; Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 138, No. 1 (2019).

Bimson continues:

Thompson speaks of ‘several hundred new settlements, with a number of very large villages’ appearing during the EB IV/MB I period in the central Negeb. These occur in two main zones, environmentally distinct. The largest number of settlements and dwellings, and all of the large villages, lie on the north-western slopes of the central hills; they were supported by agriculture based on wadi terracing, which kept arable fields productive with the aid of run-off water. Remains of groups of round stone huts have been found in the areas of Ramat Matred, Har Romem, Nahalsin and the upper Nahal Nisáná. Long-term winter grazing is possible in these regions, and Thompson believes these settlements were oriented to animal husbandry. Therefore it seems that at this time the settlement of the central Negeb was based on a mixed economy of agriculture and grazing.

As Glueck noted in the 1950s, these MB I settlements provide an excellent background to Abraham’s movements through the Negeb with flocks and herds (12:9-10; 13:1). It is also notable that the patriarchs practised cultivation, either occasional patch cultivation or the more intensive form attested by the wadi terracing; Genesis 26:12 refers to Isaac sowing and reaping in the region of Gerar (where, incidentally, agriculture is aided by plentiful and stable ground water). (pp. 76-77)

I noted about Gerar in a recent paper:

In 1956, the eminent Israeli archaeologist  Yohanan Aharoni identified the Tel Haror site as the biblical Gerar. It’s located in the western Negev Desert of Israel, between Gaza and Beersheba, some 14 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. This is the ancient territory of the Philistines. Could it have been visited by Isaac, as the Bible states? Yes! The Wikipedia article on the archaeological site states:

During the Middle Bronze Age II it was one of the largest urban centres in the area, occupying about 40 acres. The city contains substantial remains of Middle Bronze Age II through to Persian-period settlement strata.

The Middle Bronze Age in the Levant ran from 2000-1550 BC, with Middle Bronze Age II referring to 1750-1650 BC.

Genesis 26:21 states: “Isaac went to Gerar, to Abim’elech king of the Philistines.” This was clearly a city at that time (as archaeology bears witness), as opposed to Beersheba. Bimson expands upon this perspective:

Abraham is said to have dwelt for a time ‘between Kadesh and Shur’ (Gn. 20:1), and Isaac is found at one point journeying from Beer-lahai-roi, and later dwelling there, after Abraham’s death (24:62; 25:11; cf. 16:14 on location). These references leave no doubt that Abraham and Isaac journeyed through, and occasionally settled in, the region in which many MB I sites have been found. In 1955 Glueck described the region in which MB I sites had been discovered as extending from a site 28 km SE-SSE of Beersheba to a site 22 km SE of Am el- Qudeirat (Kadesh-barnea), and MB I sites have since been discovered further west, along what was perhaps the biblical ‘Way of Shur’.

Therefore, even if Abraham’s movements through the Negeb on his way to and from Egypt are disregarded, his and Isaac’s sojournings there do fit ideally into the MB 1 period, when agricultural settlements in the Negeb are well attested. (p. 77)


I dealt with the Bronze Age evidence for Kadesh and the Negev in a separate installment.

The Bible in Genesis refers, for example, to the “city” of Zoar (Gen 19:20-22): to which Abraham’s nephew Lot fled. According to archaeology, it was already old by this time:

The earliest ancient burials discovered by Politis at Zoar (Zoora) date to the Early Bronze Age I-II (c. 3100–2600 B.C.). (“Ancient World’s Largest Cemetery Identified at Biblical Zoar (Ancient Zoora)”, Biblical Archaeology Society, 2-28-12)

The issue of the Bronze Age existence of Nahor (called a “city” in Abraham’s time in Genesis 24:10) was addressed my previous paper about the Amorites and Arameans. I also documented the ancient existence of Haran (though it’s not called a “city” in Genesis).

Bimson concludes (and with his words I will also):

This paper has tried to contribute to the debate by emphasizing the length of the patriarchal age as envisaged in Genesis, thus showing that it was quite long enough to span the major changes in patterns of settlement which occurred during the transition from MB I to MB II. Such a setting is in accord with the biblical dating of the patriarchs.

Without pretending that this removes every trace of disharmony between the patriarchal narratives and archaeological evidence, it can be said that it offers by far the most complete solution to the problems raised in this area by recent scholarship. . . . From the point of view of the Palestinian archaeological evidence, there is certainly no reason to reject an early setting for the events of the patriarchal narratives, and ideally those events should be placed within the twenty-first to nineteenth centuries BC. (p. 85)


Photo credit: Abraham’s Parting from the Family of Lot, by Jan Victors (1619-1676) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary:  Atheist Adam Lee argues for biblical anachronism regarding Beersheba and Abraham. But the Bible doesn’t say it was then a town; thus absence of archaeological evidence is irrelevant.


Browse Our Archives