Abraham’s Gate and Tel Dan

Series: Israel 2022

Date Visited: February 24, 2022

Drinking at the springs of living water,
Happy now am I, my soul they satisfy;
Drinking at the springs of living water,
O wonderful and bountiful supply.


Once an ancient Canaanite city named Laish (lioness) which was old even when Abraham went there looking for his nephew, Lot.  Old when Joshua referred to it as Leshem (jewel).  Old when it was captured and burned by the tribe of Dan then rebuilt and given a new name more than two thousand years ago.

But Dan the city is not nearly so old as the springs bearing the same name. The Springs of Dan that are fed by winter snowmelt and gush forth from the mountains of Hermon…the springs of crystal-clear living water that have been flowing since time began and, some would pray, will continue to flow forever more.

These springs are the primary source of the Jordan River (along with the Banias Springs at Caesarea Philippi which you can read about here) – first forming the Dan River then joining with two other rivers to form the upper Jordan. The icy cold waters flow out from the Golan Heights at about 2000 gallons per second5 (240-252 million cubic meters per year12) and flows some twelve miles13 to reach the Jordan which flows into the Sea of Galilee. Ultimately, the waters of the Jordan River will end its long 156 mile13 journey at the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.

Flow from the Springs at Dan

In ancient times, the river flowed into the wetlands that once was Lake Hulah (or Hula or Huleh). The “lake” was drained in the 1950’s14, the fields plowed, and the area became…. well, an agricultural center (Hulah Valley) in northern Israel. But there were always people living there with farming, fishing, and hunting going on. There’s a reason the cows of Bashan as described in Amos 4:1 were so fat and happy. (Of course, Amos was calling the women “fat cows” but that is another story altogether.) This land is not desert like much of southern Israel; the abundant water and rich soil made this land very appealing to ancient peoples and to the Canaanites who settled there and built the city of Laish.

The first permanent settlement in the Valley, Enan/Mallaha, dates from 9000-10,000 years.14 Laish (later Dan) was first occupied from about 4500 BC7 (Before Christ or BCE/Before the Common Era). Archaeological excavations show that it was then abandoned for about a thousand years7. It was then occupied until its capture and destruction by the Assyrians. The site of the city was discovered again by archaeologists and identified as ancient Dan in the mid-1800’s AD (Anno Domini) or CE (the Common Era).

Biblically, we first hear of Laish when Abram (later to be called Abraham) goes there in search of his nephew, Lot. In Genesis 14, Abram’s nephew, Lot and his family, got caught up in a territorial war between four kings fighting five kings in the area around the Dead Sea Valley. The “four” kings ended up attacking and plundering Sodom & Gomorrah (yes, the two cities destroyed by fire later on) and heading north.  Lot and his family got caught up in the scuffle and were captured. Abram, who was living nearby, put together an army of 318 trained men from his family and allies and went in pursuit of the ruffians who had taken Lot and his family.  Abram and his army pursued the kings as far as Dan, all the way to Hobah, north of Damascus. Lot, his family, his possessions, and some others were rescued. 

At the ancient site of Dan, we saw an ancient archway/gate to the Canaanite city that dates from the Middle Bronze Age (@2000-1550 BC)1. The old gate/city entrance is traditionally called “Abraham’s Gate” as it is thought that this would be the gate that Abraham would have entered at Dan.7 

Abraham’s Gate at Tel Dan. You cannot see the arch clearly
due to the scaffolding.

The gate/entrance includes a mudbrick arch on top of megalithic basalt blocks which formed the gateway between two towers that have been preserved at almost 20’ tall.4 This Canaanite city gateway has been dated to about 1750 BC. It is the only existing structure “of its kind”4 in the near East and thought to be the oldest free-standing archway built in the world.5  

After the city was attacked, burned, and then rebuilt by the tribe of Dan (more later), a new and more secure entrance/gate to the city was built to the south and the ancient gateway that Abraham would have known was eventually filled in with dirt.5  

Today, the old gateway is covered with a pavilion to protect it from the elements, but we were told by our tour guide that the mud bricks are so badly and quickly eroding now that the Israeli Antiquities authorities are considering re-covering the structure by filling it again with dirt.  Dust to dust, as it were.

Before I continue with the story, I must note that the city would not have been called “Dan” when Abraham came to rescue Lot. This confused me as I was reading about the city. It is known historically to have been called Laish. That archway and gate was thought to have been built some 700 years before the tribe of Dan arrived and captured the city. At that point, there was no tribe of Dan as Isaac had not been born to Abraham & Sarah and Jacob had not yet been born to Isaac & Rebekah and, of course, Jacob had not yet sired those twelve sons who would become the twelve tribes of Israel, one of which was Dan. Abraham’s Gate is thought to have been built just about the time Jacob was going over to Egypt during the famine to meet back up with Joseph.5

Our tour guide, Olga, pauses for a moment to check the scriptures.

But I read through about ten different Bible translations and every single one of them referred to the city as “Dan” and not Laish. I will chalk that up to Biblical translators calling the city by the name it was at the time of the translator(s) and not at the time of Abraham. I also checked the Hebrew Bible on Biblehub.com and it does not mention Dan at all, just Hobah. I leave it with that.

So, how did the Canaanite city (and springs) become “Dan” anyway.  Back to scripture and it’s a long story that begins with the twelve tribes being allocated territory when the Israelites under Joshua’s leadership arrived and captured the “promised land”.  But that story is way too long and complicated (and confusing!) for a blog…so I’ll hit a few points and jump way ahead to the re-naming of the city. When I say I’m making a long, long story short, believe me, I’m reducing it to down to almost nothing.

Deuteronomy 34:1-4 tells of Moses climbing Mount Nebo and God showing him the promised land – all of it from Gilead to Dan and so on. This was in conjunction with God telling Moses that he [Moses] wouldn’t be going over into the promised land.

Joshua 19:40-48 tells of the land allotments made when the Twelve Tribes took possession of the promised land. The Tribe of Dan was allocated territory in the south across from Joppa. Verse 47 notes that, later, the Danites lost this territory, and they went up and fought against “Leshem” which means “Jewel” and captured it.  Leshem is thought to be Laish.7

Now we move to Judges 18. Some time had passed since the Israelites came to the land and divided it up. There is no king yet in Israel. The Danites (as previously referenced above in Joshua) are now without territory and looking around for some good land to occupy. So, they sent out scouts. The scouts came back with a good report saying the land “is a place where nothing on earth is lacking”. Basically, let’s go take what we want. And so, six hundred Danites went to Laish “to a tranquil and unsuspecting people” (V27) and captured and burned the city.

Israelite Gateway – Ancient Dan. To enter you had to pass through a “bottleneck” by passing through this first gate, then turning left, then right, and passing through a second gate.

They rebuilt the city and named it Dan. At some point, the city was fortified with a double gated entrance in the Israelite fashion – go into one gate, turn left or right, then proceed to the second gate…. sets up a bottleneck that is easier to defend than one wide open gateway.  No more mud bricks – they now use interlocking stones. This was circa 1200 – 721 BC.1

Sun dried bricks were no longer in use when Dan was fortified with thick walls made of interlocking stones.

Now, there is a slight nuance to this story.  When the Danite scouts went up to Laish, they stopped and spent the night at the house of a man named Micah (not the Biblical prophet). There they noticed a Levite/priest serving the house. The scouts reported back to the tribe about the priest and idols at Micah’s house. So, when the Danites came back on their conquest of the city, they stopped at Micah’s, took the idols, the priest’s ephod and teraphim, and convinced the priest to go with them.11 The Danites set up the idols and the priest for worship in their new city of Dan.

Which brings me to the last part of the story found in 1 Kings 12.  Many years have passed. King David has come and gone. After King Soloman (his son) died, the kingdom was divided – Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Jeroboam became the king of Israel, but Judah remained loyal to the house of David under Rehoboam (one of Soloman’s descendants). Jeroboam worried that the northern tribes will turn back to Rehoboam and Judah because the people continue to travel to Jerusalem in the south to the temple (the one Soloman had built) to worship as required by Jewish law. So, Jeroboam had two golden calves made and placed one golden calf at Bethel and the other at, you guessed it, the cultic altar at Dan.

The “High Place” or altar where the Golden Calf was placed by Jeroboam. The stairs lead up to the altar platform. This altar was already in use for pagan worship before the Danites arrived with the idol and priest that had been taken from the house of Micah (not the prophet).

Part one of Jeroboam’s plan was that the people of Israel would worship at Bethel and Dan rather than go all the way down to Jerusalem and then they wouldn’t be tempted to reunite the two kingdoms under the house of David and Rehoboam. Jeroboam appointed his own priests for the “high places” from every class of people and not just from the Levites tribe.7 Since Jewish law allowed that only those from the tribe of Levi (i.e., Levites) could perform duties as priests, appointment of priests from other tribes would have been considered to be an egregious violation of the law. Part two of the Jeroboam’s plan explains the golden calves (which would also have been totally forbidden under the Jewish law) since he wanted to form an alliance with the Canaanites in the area by using idols that they would recognize and accept.5&9

View of the altar platform looking back from the hilltop. Note that archaeological excavations are ongoing.

But with all this idol worship and golden calves, do not think things went well for Jeroboam. They did not. He suffered a series of mishaps while trying to make sacrifices at the altar at Bethel further to the south (see 1 Kings 13). 1 Kings 13:34 finally reports “And this was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that led to its extermination and destruction from the face of the earth.”

The city of Dan continued until 733 BC(E) when it was destroyed by the Assyrians under Tiglath-Pileser III.7 By the time of Jesus, it was already in ruins. It was lost to history altogether until the mid-1800’s when the ruins were positively identified as the Canaanite city of Laish and Biblical city of Dan. One final note of interest. During more recent archaeological excavations, a stone stela was found which included the inscription BYTDWD (House of David) and MLK YSR’L (King of Israel).  This is the oldest written record (9th century BC) that mentions David and validates that he was a real person and the King of Israel some one hundred years after his death.7&2

This area (Golan Heights) was highly disputed during the Six Days War in 1967. The old military bunkers remain at the top of Tel Dan.
Looking across into Lebanon from the Golan Heights.

Today the ruins of the ancient city and the springs are part of the Tel Dan Nature Preserve which was created in 1974. We started our tour with a long, beautiful walk beside the springs, then up the hill to the remains of the ancient “high place” and cultic altar, then around to Abraham’s Gate, and ending down by the ruins of the old Israelite gateway.

I end my story where we began our tour – with the crystal-clear springs. So much history but all that remains today are just ruins and the water – the beautiful free-flowing living waters, – back where everything started.

“How sweet the living water from the hills of God,
It makes me glad and happy all the way;
Now glory, grace and blessing mark the path I’ve trod,
I’m shouting Hallelujah every day.”

Sources for Information:

  1. Site-Seeing: Exploring Beautiful Tel Dan – Biblical Archaeology Society; Jonathan Klawans; October 19, 2022
  2. The Tel Dan Inscription: The First Historical Evidence of King David from the Bible – Biblical Archaeology Society; BAS Staff; June 14, 2022
  3. The Renewed Excavations at Tel Dan – Biblical Archaeology Society; Dan Ilan, Yifat Thareani, & Jonathon Greer; July 29, 2016
  4. The Remarkable Discoveries at Tel Dan · The BAS Library; Biblical Archaeology Review 7:5; September/October 1981; John C.H. Laughlin
  5. Did the Northern Kingdom of Israel Practice Customary Ancient Israelite Religion? – Biblical Archaeology Society; BAS Staff; May 17, 2016; Jonathan Greer
  6. 2022 Holy Land Tour, Journey to the Land of the Bible; Dallas Theological Seminary; 2022; Tel Dan; p18
  7. Dan (ancient city) – Wikipedia
  8. Springs of living water | Hymnary.org; John Willard Peterson; 1950; renewed 1978 by Singspiration
  9. The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Dan, pages 189-193
  10. Dan (son of Jacob) – Wikipedia
  11. Micah’s Idol – Wikipedia
  12. Jordan River – Wikipedia
  13. Dan River (Middle East) – Wikipedia
  14. Hula Valley – Wikipedia

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