Alice C. Linsley
Abraham's territory extended from Hebron in the north (where Sarah resided) to Beersheba in the south (where Keturah resided). Abraham would have traveled back and forth between his two wives as he attended to his various enterprises. These would have included diplomatic matters such a water treaties and mutual defense pacts, defense of his wells, the movement and care of his sheep and cattle, collecting tariffs for the movement of cargo through his territory, and probably metal working since at Beersheba copper was smelted and abundant.
Genesis 22:19 tells us that after his offering of Isaac at Mount Moriah, Abraham didn’t return to Sarah in Hebron but instead went to live on a permanent basis with his cousin-wife Keturah in Beersheba. There he had built an altar and planted a terebinth. In other words, Beersheba was both a shrine and a border settlement. A terebinth marker grew at the north end of Abraham's territory in Mamre (Gen. 12:6) and after Abraham's formed a treaty with Abimelech at Beersheba, he planted a terebint there at the south end of his territory.
Many Bibles render terebinth as oak tree, but the word that appears in the Hebrew is terebinth, which might indicate the Pistacia terebinthus, also called turpentine tree. It is a small deciduous tree related to the pistachio and the earliest known source of turpentine. However, it is more likely that in the original telling of this story, terebinth meant the "tree of the daughter of Terah." Terah was the father of both Abraham and Sarah. This is a reasonable explanation and it suggests that when Abraham and Sarah left Haran they went first to a place where they had kin on their father's side. Arabic is older than Hebrew and the Arabic word bint (بنت) means "daughter of" and tera is the name Terah. Trees were commonly used as landmarks and border markers.
Beersheba was a Shrine in Abraham's Time
At the time that Abraham would have settled permanently in Beersheba it was a settlement of between 300 and 400 residents who depended on the well to sustain them. “Beer” means well, so Beersheba means the Well of Sheba. It was also a region where very sophisticated metal work was being done.
In Abraham's time wells were considered sacred places and neutral ground for combatants. Shrines were built at wells and these shrines were tended by priests who used the water to tend their flocks. This explains why many of the men of the Horite priestly lines met their future wives, the daugthers of priests, at wells. This includes Abraham, Jacob, Isaac's Rebecca, and Moses' Zipporah. Zipporah was the daughter of Jethro a priest of Midian.
Beersheba is first mentioned in Genesis 21. Here the meaning is given “well of seven” or “well of the oath.” The word sheba might refer to the seven lambs sacrificed in the covenant between Abraham and Abimelek, if we are willing to acknowledge that the word sheba is from the older Arabic word sab’a, meaning seven. However, this is a latter interpretation that pertains to covenant theology which developed during the time of Josiah and Hezekiah. It is more likely that the well was named for the person who maintained it as a shrine, and that would have been Sheba, a Horite ancestor of both Abraham and Keturah who is mentioned in Genesis 10:7. Sheba is the son of Ramah and we know that there was an ancient priestly line living in Ramah because that was the hometown of the priest Elkanah and his 2 wives: Hannah and Pennianah. Hannah was the mother of Samuel the Prophet. Penninah was the mother of Am-asi (I Chron. 2:25, 35) which is a Kushite name. The name is found among the Ashante of Ghana. Nte means "people of" and Asha is a proper name. The Ashante are the people of Asha, a Kushite ruler who established a kingdom in West Africa.
Asha is a priestly name in the Bible. A Jerusalem priest was named Am-ashai (Neh. 11:13). One of Jesse's grandsons was named Asah-el, which means "made by God." This suggests that the origin of the priesthood of Israel is to be traced to the older Kushite civilization, which makes sense since this is where Abraham's ancestors originated.
Josiah and Hezekiah were instrumental in turning the religion of Israel from its Kushite antecedents to a Jerusalem cult. During Josiah’s reforms, he “defiled the high places where the priests had burned incense, from Geba to Beersheba; and he broke down the high places of the gates which were at the entrance of the gate…” (II Kings 23:8).
Archaeologists have found Edomite and Midianite pottery here which indicates that these related peoples lived here together and at different times throughout the Iron Age. A four-horned brazen altar identical in structural to the altar used later by the Israelites was uncovered in 1973. This discovery was made by a team under the direction of Yohanan Aharoni and Ze'ev Herzog of Tel Aviv University. The team first encountered an ancient storage wall that contained the stones of the altar. Three of the stones still had large horns projecting from them, but the horn of the fourth stone had been broken off. Yet still another stone had the carved image of a serpent, probably indicating Kenite construction. The stones, which had been incorporated into a wall, were reassembled to assume their former shape and dated to the time of the Patriarchs. It is believed that the altar was destroyed during Hezekiah’s attempts to eradicate all shrines outside Jerusalem.
Beersheba had strategic importance because it was the largest settlement in the Negev. It guarded the trade routes between Mesopotamia and Egypt and between the Nile Delta and Southern Arabia. Its fortifications in the late Iron Age were impressive and included a moat that encircled the city and a steeply-sloped earthen rampart. Beyond the rampart the city was surrounded by thick stone walls. The gate was a chambered type, and inside the gate archaeologists found an incense altar at the high place, just as described in II Kings 23:8.
Archaeological discoveries indicate that Beersheba culture was from the earliest time associated with a ruler class. This explains the discovery of crowns and specters, and objects of ivory and copper of exquisitive craftsmanship.
Related reading: The Pattern of Two Wives; A Woman at a Well; Wells and Brides