The subject matter of this story is the origin behind the naming of Beersheba, which was an important Judean stronghold near the Philistine border in the 9th through the 8th centuries BC. Like the stories explaining the origins of the name Ishmael (#37) and Isaac (#41), it too is an etiological tale. Its purpose was to answer the question of how Beersheba came to be possessed and named by the Israelites. Yet, the book of Genesis as it has come down to us preserves 2 contradictory accounts of this story, each one explaining in its own terms how a founding father figure, Abraham on the one hand and Isaac on the other, established a treaty with the Philistine king that recognized their claim to Beersheba through the act of having domesticated it by digging wells there.
In one version (E) the possession of Beersheba and its naming is accredited to Abraham who makes an oath or treaty with Abimelek and ratifies it through the giving of seven ewes. “And Abraham said to Abimelek: ‘Because you’ll take these seven ewes from my hand, it will be evidence for me that I dug this well.’ On account of this he called that place Beersheba, because the two of them swore there and made a covenant at Beersheba” (Gen 21:30-31).
The Yahwist version of the story explaining how Beersheba was named and came into Israelite possession accredits its founding to Isaac. “And it was in that day [the day that Isaac and Abimelek made a treaty/covenant], Isaac’s servants came and told him about the well that they had dug and said to him: ‘We found water.’ And he called it ‘seven.’ On account of this the name of the city is Beersheba to this day” (Gen 26:32-33).
We notice that both stories made use of the etymology of the name Beer-sheba. The first component of the name is “well,” while the second component can mean either “oath” or “seven.” So both traditions played with the etymology of the word to come up with a fanciful narrative that explained the origin of the name of the town and its coming into Israelite possession.
Thus the origin of the naming of Beersheba was preserved in two, once separate, traditions. In all likelihood they were probably told in two separate communities and time periods, and only came together during a later process of collecting such traditions. In fact, it is quite possible that both versions of the story were originally about Abraham, and that when these two versions were collected together, the scribe changed the name of Abraham to Isaac in one account in order to preserve them both. Furthermore, this cannot be an event that happens twice, let alone an event that actually happens at all, but rather a tradition whose purpose was to give the origin of the name of the border city where a treaty was made between Israel and the Philistines and to legitimate who politically possessed it. Digging wells in the ancient world was a claim to the land. Such ancestral stories, therefore, served to legitimate the possession of a place to a later time period, when these stories were written down.
In other words, these stories were used to legitimate Judahite control and possession of Beersheba during the early monarchal period when Judah and the Philistines were rivals. Once again (#26), the biblical texts themselves betray their date of composition. For the Philistines did not arrive on the coastal plains of Palestine until the 12th century BC—well after the purported time frame of the Abraham-Isaac stories—and the Philistine town of Gerar did not emerge as an important administrative stronghold in the south until the late 8th century BC.1 This story, therefore, represents the geopolitical world of the 9th and 8th centuries BC when Judah and the Philistines often skirmished over border provinces.
Excursus: Stories about Abraham
The book of Genesis tells us that Abraham’s sojourns span from the northern hill country of Bethel to Beersheba in the southern Negeb. That is to say, all the stories told about Abraham take place within the borders of the southern kingdom of Judah and along its northern and southern fringes. Abraham is a hero of the south. He wanders through, resides in, and establishes cultic sanctuaries to Yahweh throughout the land of Judah, especially along its northern and southern borders. As such these stories display a familiarity with the land and borders of Judah as they were defined in the monarchal period (the 9th-7th centuries BC) and could not have been written earlier than this. In fact these traditions legitimate the borders of the kingdom of Judah during the monarchal period by presenting an ancestral hero, Abraham, making claims to this land and defining its borders in some distant archaic past. Moreover, many of these stories display knowledge of other peoples, cities, and territorial boundaries of the Palestinian landscape during the monarchy as well. In other words, if these traditions are older than the monarchal period, which indeed may be the case, they nevertheless reflect the geopolitical realities and concerns of an author or scribal guild living sometime during the 8th-7th centuries BC when these traditions were written down. These stories served to explain present conditions and realities, such as Israel’s relationship to other peoples and its borders, by accounting for them in the deeds of their ancestors. The authors of these stories merely retrojected into the past the geopolitical realities of their own day.
Stories of the past were written in the ancient world to legitimate and explain the origins of political, religious, and ethnic institutions which actually existed at the time these stories were composed. When a story set in the archaic past betrays its date of composition by referring to peoples, places, borders, and events that belong to a much later time period, centuries later, we call these anachronisms. Common anachronisms in the stories narrated in the Yahwist and Elohist sources are the mention of Philistines, camels, border disputes, and the founding and destruction of cities that all occurred in the author’s own time period, not the time period implied in the narrative setting. The mention of Abraham’s border dispute with the Philistine king Abimelek, for example, is an anachronism. The Philistines did not enter the land of Canaan until the 12th century BC and could not have historically been present in a narrative set in the 18th century BC. Rather the tradition retrojects into the archaic past geopolitical realities present in the time of the author, or a time period after the 12th century BC. In fact, this particular story of a border treaty with the Philisitines most likely represents the historical circumstances of the 10th and 9th centuries BC when Israel often found itself fighting for border control with its coastal neighbor. In this particular case, the treaty Abraham establishes with king Abimelek which explicitly marks Beersheba as belonging to Abraham and his seed serves to legitimate Israelite possession of Beersheba during the early monarchal period.
- Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts (Touchstone 2001), 38.↵