Well of the Oath – Beersheba

Series: Israel 2022

Isaac’s Well at Be’er Sheva

In the desert, you need water to survive. To thrive, you’ll need lots of water. There are springs if you can find them (look for anything green of course) or you can dig a well. You could also dig a large cistern.

Water – necessary for living. Living water. Spring water and well water came from deep in the earth and was deemed by the ancients to be living water. Living water was a gift from God. It was also important for the Jewish purification rituals. Daily cleansing in living water was essential to Hebrew life.

Rainwater collected in cisterns was good for most things and the Hebrews dug massive cisterns in the desert communities. During rainy seasons, the water flow in wadis (valleys) was directed into these cisterns and this water allowed ancient cities to be built and to exist for hundreds of years…. cities like Be’er Sheva or, as we in the west call it most of the time, Beersheba.

But Be’er Sheva in the Bible is mainly about the wells although the ancient ruins show the town to have had an elaborate water system including a huge cistern which is estimated to have about a 132,000-gallon capacity7.  From a Biblical standpoint, the ancient city is primarily about Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and to a lesser degree, David. And then, there was Josiah destroying the pagan altars but that was much later.

This is a reconstruction of a pagan 4-horned altar found in the ruins. It was actually found in pieces which had been used for other structures at the site. It is believed that the altar was destroyed during the reforms of King Josiah2 (2 Kings 23:8)

To my knowledge, per scripture, Jesus never came to this place. He did have a most interesting conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well about spiritual living water that he would give to her, and she would never thirst again. But that happened about 111 miles/180km north of here near Sychar in ancient Samaria (Okay, it’s an estimate – Sychar doesn’t exist anymore that I found so just guessing at the site somewhere near Mount Gerizim). (John 4:10-26)

Be’er Sheva is mentioned 33 times2 in the Bible primarily in the Old Testament. The ancient city was the largest city in the Negev Desert and the southernmost city of Judah.1 The “promised land” was said to stretch east of the Jordan River from Dan to Beersheba.

 

Google Map annotated to show Dan at the upper part of Israel and Beersheba down at the bottom.

It was an important city on the main road from the south into Judah and Israel. The Ridge Route7 begins here and connected all the cities in David’s kingdom. The Beersheva Valley was also a good way to travel from the Dead Sea west to the Mediterranean or north into Jerusalem. (You may note that there are different spellings for Be’er Sheva or Beersheba depending on the actual site. That is not a mistake – different place names are spelled differently in reference materials.)

The ancient roadway up to the city gates.
National Park sign showing a rendering of the city gates.

For all these reasons, it became an administrative center for Judah and a city that first Saul and then later, David, as king, fortified2 as protection for Israel from the south and the west…from the Philistines (remember David’s bout with Goliath just to the northeast) and from the Egyptians and just about anyone else who chose the southern route to the Mediterranean Sea and the trade routes to eastern Asia.

Looking down from the observation tower at the ruins of the city gates. There would have been two parts to the gate requiring travelers to pass through one and then the other. Traders would have been detained to inspect their goods and to extract a fee (in goods) for trading within the city.7

Archaeologists who have studied the site say it was first inhabited around 4000 BC and remained so until the 16th century AD. 4 The thriving modern city of Beersheba lies only about 3 miles to the west of the ancient tel (ruins/mound) which sits on a hillside overlooking Wadi Beer-Sheba2 (what else would it be named?) The Bedouin city of Tel Sheva lies to the east. Tel Be’er Sheva today is a national park. And the National Park is where we came to see the ruins and learn a bit about Be’er Sheva.

Biblically, it all started with a well…. or two…or three. In Genesis 21:22-24, we read that, after the event involving Isaac and his impending sacrifice by Abraham on Mount Moriah (Genesis 22:19) which didn’t happen because God provided the sacrifice instead, Abraham came to Be’er Sheva and settled down and, well, he dug a well.

So, Abraham came, and he had sheep and goats and needed water for the needs of his family and his servants and his animals. The area was known for groundwater that could be more easily accessed (than other parts of the desert) by digging wells in and around the streambeds in the wadis.5 Hence, there were numerous wells in the area…all very well named (pun intended).

I’m always intrigued that the ancients – not just the Hebrews in the Bible – named their wells. It shows how very important water was in ancient times and remains so even today. In this country, we name creeks and rivers and springs and lakes, but I do not know of anyone who names their wells…perhaps because there are so many. But I’ve been thinking seriously about giving our well a name – it has served us well (pun intended again) over the past 20 years or so and probably warrants a good name.

Ruins – possibly of dwellings. Note the skyline of the modern city
(about 3 miles away) in the distance.

Back to Abraham, who showed up and dug a well (or had wells dug by his servants) and the local ruler, Abimelech wasn’t so happy about this. Abimelech’s commander had filled in the well and was starting something with Abraham’s people. Long story short, Abraham and Abimelech met and made a covenant that Abraham, who had God on his side and obviously in a better situation than Abimelech, would not bring harm to Abimelech or his descendants.  To commemorate, Abraham planted a tamarisk tree nearby. This well was named Be’er Sheva with Be’er meaning “well” and Sheva meaning “oath” for the covenant or oath that was made by Abraham. Because Abraham gave Abimelech seven (7) lambs as a sort of proof that he had, in fact, dug the well in question and wasn’t taking someone else’s well, it is also called the “Well of the Seven”. (Genesis 21)

Now, there is a well named Abraham’s Well3 that is within the Archaeology Museum nearby. Tradition says that this may be the well that Abraham dug. In 1897, a local sheikh built a house over/around it. There is a photograph of this well on Wikipedia.3 We did not stop at this site so did not see Abraham’s Well.

More ruins, possibly dwellings.

Now, moving along to Isaac and Genesis 26:16-33. Isaac also has a run-in with Abimelech about those wells. Note: Abimelech is what all Philistine kings/rulers were called at the time1…. so, it is really not clear who the king was. It was like saying “the king” without giving his actual name. That helps explain how, years later, after Abraham had died, Abimelech’s men filled in all of Abraham’s wells and Isaac had to go through the same covenant process with Abimelech. That confused me for quite a bit until I read the part about all kings being called Abimelech… I was beginning to wonder how old Abimelech would be when Isaac came and started reopening those wells that his father, Abraham, had dug. 

Isaac’s story is a bit longer. First local people came and said the first well was theirs. Isaac named that well Esek which means “argument”. He dug another and the same thing happened. He named the second one Sitnah which means “hostility”.  Third time is the charm and the third well was dug and no one complained so he named it Rehobeth which means “open space”.  Then Isaac heads up to Be’er Sheva; Abimelech (the Philistine king) comes along and a new oath is sworn. The servants dig yet another well which Isaac names Shibah which means “oath” and the town there was now named Beersheba. Whew!!

And, per the National Park sign at the site, that well, is said to be the well that we actually did see. (And, of course, we took the obligatory selfies there to show everyone that we were there.)

Looking down into Isaac’s Well at Be’er Sheva. It is said to be 225′ deep. It is grated for safety.

My memories are of a hot, dry place on the hillside where the ruins of the city are located. Some people on the tour went down into the cistern – giant hole with lots of steps going down – but we did not. I might have been crazy enough to want to go down into the well but, it was grated up. (Okay, I wouldn’t really go down in a deep well considering it is one of the deepest in the area at 225’ deep7.)

Along the hillside, there were beautiful flowers growing and there were trees in the wadi although I do not know if they were tamarisk trees.

Just down the hill from the ruins, there was a stream where a local shepherd (Bedouin) herded sheep. Some things never change. There is still water there, there are still wells, and there are still people with thirsty sheep surviving in the Negev. May it always be so.

Bedouin Shephard

Other Scripture References of Importance Related to Beersheba:

  1. Genesis 21:14-19 – When Abraham sent Hagar away with Ismael, she wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. When they ran out of water, God intervened, opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water.
  2. Genesis 46:1-7 – When Jacob/Israel was going down to Egypt during the famine, he got to Beersheba and hesitated. God spoke to him and told him not to be afraid to go to Egypt to Joseph, his son. God promised to bring Jacob back again and that Joseph’s own hand would close Jacob’s eyes.
  3. 1 Samuel 8:1-2 – Samuel’s sons, Joel & Abijah served at Beersheba. They didn’t follow the ways of their father for they were corrupt. The people came to Samuel and asked him to appoint a king.
  4. 1 Kings 19:1-8 – Elijah & Jezebel. When Elijah killed all the false priests/prophets, Jezebel swore to kill him. Elijah fled to Beersheba. He left his servant there and journeys into the wilderness and sat under a broom tree. An angel ministered to him. He then traveled to Horeb where he stayed 40 days and 40 nights. God spoke to him there.
  5. 2 Kings 23:8 – King Josiah brought all the priests from the towns of Judah and desecrated all the high places for pagan worship from Geba to Beersheba. He broke down the gateway at the entrance of the Gate of Joshua…to the left of the city gate.
  6. Nehemiah 11:27-30 – When the Israelis (the remnants) returned from captivity in Babylon, the people settled in their ancestral homes from Beersheba to the Valley of Hinnom.
I have no idea what this sign is all about. It looks intriguing and very official. I wonder if it was asking visitors to watch out for snakes.

Sources for Other Information:

  1. Beersheba – Wikipedia
  2. Tel Be’er Sheva – Wikipedia
  3. Abraham’s Well Visitor Center
  4. Archaeology of Israel – Wikipedia – Tel Be’er Sheva
  5. Wayback Machine (archive.org) – Be’er Sheva Natl Park Brochure (PDF)
  6. 2022 Holy Land Tour, Journey to the Land of the Bible; Dallas Theological Seminary; 2022; Beersheba p31
  7. www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Beersheba pp 119-121
  8. New Testament places associated with Jesus – Wikipedia

The Gates of Hell

Series: Israel 2022 – Caesarea Philippi

 “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asked the question of his apostles – those closest to him during His ministry on this earth – as they traveled thru the towns around Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel. (Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-21)

Caesarea Philippi. This was not a Jewish town or religious center. I’m not even sure that there was a synagogue in the area at that time. (There are old ruins of a synagogue nearby but I was not able to find a date for the ruins.) This was not a place you’d expect the Messiah or even a prophet to visit. It was known throughout the region as a pagan worship center of the Gentiles in Hellenistic times called Paneas. It was a “high place” set aside for worship of the god, Pan. (In Arabic, the name is Banias; hence, the name of the park today.)

Caesarea Philippi is a beautiful park today in Israel’s Golan Heights at the foot of Mount Hermon. It is set aside as an archaeological site and nature preserve. 

When we arrived, we took a walk through a wooded area to the Lebanese Restaurant for lunch. It was a lovely sunny day, and the park was filled with families enjoying the afternoon. Lunch was excellent, by the way. If you ever visit Banias, do try to have a meal at the restaurant. The setting along the stream is lovely and the food was very good.

Lebanese Restaurant in Hermon Stream Nature Reserve
(Photo from Google Maps)

After lunch, we headed up to the old sanctuary walking along the stream, Nahal Hermon in Hebrew and Banias River in Arabic.3 It was so unexpectedly peaceful that I fell in love with this place and hoped we’d stay so I could just wander around for the rest of the day. (Alas, we did not.)

Nahal Hermon/Banias River

We arrived at Paneas at the headwaters of the spring that fed the stream and is also one of three tributaries that feeds into the Jordan River. I was just amazed at the sight.

Paneas at Caesarea Philippi – First Look

In front of us, the ancient Bamah or, “high place”, worship site.8 This had been a cultic sanctuary since the beginning of time, I suppose.  There was a red and tan and black colored cliff right in front of us that is 230’ (70m) long by 131’ (40m) tall. On one side is a large cave that is 66’ (20m) wide by 49’ (15m) tall. Along the front of the cliff is an elevated terrace about 263’ (80m) long on which were built temples and altars for worship of the gods. The cliffside was carved with niches that had once held statues and idols.

In front of the cave was the rushing waters of the spring. In the past, that spring had gushed forth from the mouth of the cave which may have been much larger and even more impressive than it is today.

According to Josephus, the Jewish historian from Roman times:

“… the place is called Panium, where is a top of a mountain that is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice, that descends abruptly to a vast depth; it contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when any body lets down any thing to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it …7

During the time of Christ, it was a site dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Paneas had been established by the Greeks sometime after Alexander the Great had conquered the area in the 3rd century BC .1 But the Hebrews had also worshipped Baal Gad (“Master Luck” or god of good fortune) at the site in the past.1 Joshua 11:17, 12:7, and 13:5 references a high place in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon.

The Court of Pan & the Nymphs –
The carved niches would have held statues of the pagan gods.

The place must have been quite ominous in ancient times. To the first Greeks who came here, the site resembled the legendary River Styx, the boundary between the earth and the underworld. They thought this must be a place of death and it came to be thought of as the “Gates of Hades” or, “Hell”.10 In the 3rd century BC, the Ptolemaic kings built a cultic center here and as noted, the Hellenists replaced all the local deities with Pan and the cave itself was dedicated to him.

The Grotto of Pan During Biblical times, the cave was much bigger and the spring waters would have gushed out of the mouth of the cave. The ancient Greeks in the area saw this as the entrance to the underworld, Hades.
A closer view of the large rock inside the Grotto of Pan that was possibly used for sacrifices of goats to the god.

You may remember studying Pan during those mostly boring classes in high school on Greek mythology and culture. There were so many that I got them all confused but I thought Pan was the funny one – you know he was the half-human, half-goat that played a flute and hung around with nymphs, one in particular called Echo. He was a god of wild places much revered by shepherds (well, he was part goat after all). I always think of Pan drinking lots of wine and carousing around. But I read he was a troublemaker and our word, pandemonium, comes from Pan’s name.4

Statue of Pan – This photo was taken in Maryland (USA) at Ladew Topiary Gardens

That’s pretty much all that was happening here for a few centuries – lots of pilgrimages being made to the cave and lots of goats being sacrificed. Greek empires faded and, ultimately, the Roman empire came on strong.

During the time of Christ, the area had been placed under Herod the Great’s rule. When Herod the Great died in 4 BC, his “kingdom” was divided into a tetrarch and split between his three sons. One son, Philip II, inherited governance of the northern areas and founded the city called Caesarea Philippi. After Philip II died in 34 AD, his nephew Herod Agrippa I assumed rule over Caesarea Philippi. Enough history.1

A view of what the site would have looked like at the time that Jesus visited.

I keep asking myself why Jesus would come here?  Why travel this far north from Galilee where there were not too many Jewish communities? There are ruins of an old synagogue nearby but I’m not sure it was there during the 1st century AD. According to Google Maps, the distance from Capernaum on the Galilee to Caesarea Philippi is about 54 kilometers (33.55 miles) and would take about 12 hours straight-up walking…. maybe 2-3 days if you’re eating and sleeping along the way. That’s quite a distance. Scripture tells us that Jesus made one trip to Caesarea Philippi, and it was from here that He began His last trip to Jerusalem (which is another 180 kilometers/111.84 miles to the south).10

Screenshot from Google – Galilee to Caesarea Philippi

Was He here just to see this place famous for pagan worship?

Many Gentiles came here to worship and make offerings to Pan but why would a Jewish teacher come here? He spent very little time in Gentile cities overall. So, why here? If you’re looking for an answer, I do not have one. It puzzles me. But it was against this backdrop that Jesus posed that question to Peter.

Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 6:15)

Peter answered,

You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)

Standing there looking at the cliff with all the niches carved out to hold pagan idols, I wondered what Peter and the other apostles thought about knowing they were standing right there in the presence of God… the real one.  No silly half-goats or wood nymphs playing flutes and causing trouble…. but the actual Messiah, the one who came to heal and to save all of mankind was there with them. For three years, He had traveled around teaching, healing the sick, calming storms, and even raising the dead. And now He was nearing the end of His ministry. Why had He come here?

Scripture tells us that Jesus held these conversations with the apostles in/around Caesarea Philippi. (Matthew 16:13) I do not know exactly where He stood when He called Peter “the stone” and told his followers that He would build His church on “the rock”. (Matthew 16:18) But, right where we stood looking at that awesome cliffside where the pagans made sacrifices to save their souls thinking that the cave was indeed the entrance to the underworld…to Hades, I can imagine Jesus telling the apostles that the “Gates of Hell” would not prevail against His church…the Church that He would build on the foundation of His own broken body.

The temples and altars at Caesarea Philippi are all gone. The spring no longer gushes out of the mouth of the cave but flows out further down the hill. The niches no longer hold idols. No more offerings are made to false gods. No one anywhere thinks of Pan as anything but a little made-up creature from the Greek myths they studied in high school.

But the church that Christ raised up…the church that He built…that church remains strong and continues to grow even today. Indeed! It will prevail for it is built upon the rock that is Jesus Christ himself and will continue forever and ever.

In the 3rd century AD, a Byzantine Church was built over the Temple of Augustus in front of the Cave. This photo is a detail of the floor mosaics from the church. Note the crosses in the circles in the mosaic design.

Sources for Historical Information About Caesarea Philippi:

  1. Caesarea Philippi – Wikipedia
  2. Baal – Wikipedia
  3. Banias River – Wikipedia
  4. Banyas – Archaeology in Israel (jewishmag.co.il)
  5. Banias – Wikipedia
  6. Altar Dedicated to Pan Unearthed in Golan Heights – Archaeology Magazine
  7. Banias Temples – Sanctuary of Pan – BibleWalks 500+ sites
  8. High Places, Altars and the Bamah – Biblical Archaeology Society
  9. Banias Springs – Israel Travel Centre
  10. The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Caesarea Philippi, pages 179-181(This book can be purchased on Amazon.com)

ICYMI (In case you missed it) – Previous blogs in the Israel 2022 series:

Israel 2022: Pinch Yourself – April 4, 2022

Israel 2022: Caesarea Maritima – April 11, 2022

Israel 2022: Contested on Mount Carmel – April 20, 2022

Israel 2022: In This Valley – April 30, 2022

Israel 2022: Sea of Galilee – May 9, 2022

Israel 2022: A Very Old Boat – May 31, 2022

Israel 2022: A Blessing & A Curse – Capernaum – June 20, 2022

Israel 2022: One Little Boy Named David – July 5, 2022