A land bridge between the mountainous wilderness of Sinai and the hill country of Judah, the Negeva witnessed critical events in the Bible during the times of the patriarchs, the Exodus and the Israelite kings. No sooner are we propelled through the primeval history in the Bible—the creation, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Flood and the Tower of Babel—than we first hear of the Negev.
In Genesis 11, Abram, son of Terah, is introduced in a genealogical account. God immediately directs Abram to “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you” (Genesis 12:1–2). Abram leaves Haran (probably in northern Iraq) and sets off to the land where the new nation will dwell. He pitches his tent in the hill country and, after building an altar there, “Abram journeyed by stages toward the Negeb” (Genesis 12:9).
The Negev of the Bible (Negeb) probably comprised the region from the hills south of Hebron to Kadesh-Barnea in the Wilderness of Zin. The Negev, as we know it today, occupies a larger area, close to one-half of the territory of modern Israel. It is a triangular region, bounded on the east by the Arava valley, which connects the southern end of the Dead Sea with the northern tip of the Gulf of Eilat, on the west by the Sinai Peninsula and on the north by the Judean hill country and the Shephelah. The southern point of the triangle is at the port cities of Eilat and Aqaba, the western apex is around Gaza and the eastern at the Dead Sea’s southern end.
Terrain in the Negev is varied and, in some areas, dramatic. Around Beer-Sheva,b its chief city now as well as in the tenth eighth centuries B.C.E.,c at the time of the monarchy, rolling loessd hills characterize the landscape. Farther to the south and southeast the Negev becomes more rocky and rugged, with deep canyons carved in the rock and moonlike craters (Hebrew, makhtesh [mahk-TESH]; plural, makhteshim [mahk-tesh-EEM]) serving as natural barriers. The most famous Negev craters are Hamakhtesh Haqqatan (ha-ka-TAHN; “the small crater”), Hamakhtesh Haggadol (ha-ga-DOL; “the large crater”) and Makhtesh Ramon (ra-MOHN; “the Ramon crater”), which is the largest. All of them are oblong or elliptical geological formations produced by the combined effect of movements in the earth’s crust that lifted up rock strata and heavy erosion of those strata by a flowing stream. The resultant craters have sheer canyonlike cliffs, but are distinguished from most canyons by their far greater width across the chasm (as much as five miles in the Ramon crater). A crater’s size and shape signal how long erosion has been wearing away its rocks. The smaller, more elliptical Hamakhtesh Haqqatan is youthful compared to the larger, oblong Makhtesh Ramon, the oldest of the Negev’s craters. The watercourse that created each crater still runs, during periods of rain, in a narrow channel along the floor of the crater, exiting through a single gap in the surrounding cliffs. The varicolored layers of rock in the cliffs expose each crater’s geological history like the pages of a book. When the Psalmist mentioned his “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4), he may have been referring to a journey into the desolate landscape of the craters and canyons of the Negev.
Wind-sculpted sand dunes (see photo of erosion patterns in the Negev) occupy the western Negev. The central part is a desolate, high plateau, its surface covered with stones and scrub vegetation. Several peaks rise above the highlands, and many wadis, dry riverbeds with a seasonal flow of rainwater, slash across the area.
As its name suggests, the Negev is arid (“Negev” means “dry” or “parched”). The average annual precipitation in the Beer-Sheva basin is eight inches (200 mm), while around Makhtesh Ramon it is only about half that amount, and in Eilat even less. By comparison, the average annual rainfall in Jerusalem is 28 inches. These amounts of precipitation are inadequate for wheat, which requires more than 12 Inches (300 mm) of rainfall per year; barley growth, however, is sustained by only eight inches (200 mm) of rainfall. While agricultural conditions in the Negev in ancient times may have been improved by systems to catch and use runoff rainwater, the region was nevertheless inhospitable. We may assume that, like the Bedouin today, the 041population sustained itself primarily by flocks of sheep and goats.
The settlement history of the Negev extends back in time as far as the Paleolithic period (100,000–10,000 B.C.E.) and continues through the Neolithic period (10,000–4,000 B.C.E.), the Chalcolithic period in the fourth millennium B.C.E. and the Early Bronze Age (c. 3000–2650 B.C.E.), when Arad was first occupied. Early Bronze Arad was a well-planned city, surrounded by a fortification wall that included large semicircular towers at regular intervals. Within its wall, Arad was divided into clearly defined cultic and domestic areas, separated by streets.
Subsequently, during the Middle Bronze Age I (c. 2200–2000 B.C.E.), several sites in the Negev were occupied by what Rudolph Cohen called “the mysterious MB I people.” These sites, the best known of which is Beer Resisim, are composed of clusters of round structures with roofs made of flagstones laid on tree branches (possibly acacia) that spanned the space between the outer wall of the structure and a central column (see photo of shelter structure at Beer Resisim). The entrances were very low. It seems that these structures sheltered people during seasonal migrations to find pasturage for their flocks. Each cluster probably belonged to an extended family, the house of the father surrounded by houses of his married sons and possibly other relatives.
The patriarchs Abraham and Isaac spent much of their time in the Negev. After the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah, “Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb, and dwelt between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar” (Genesis 20:1). Later we read of Isaac as he is about to meet Rebekah, brought to him to be his wife: “Isaac had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi, for he was settled in the region of the Negeb” (Genesis 24:62).
The Israelites’ first attempt to conquer Canaan was launched from Kadesh-Barnea (see photo of Kadesh-Barnea), on the outskirts of the Negev, but that effort ended in defeat. “When the Canaanite, king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negeb, learned that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim,e he engaged Israel in battle and took some of them captive” (Numbers 21:1).
When the spies were dispatched by Moses to scout out the land before the Israelites attempted to enter it, the spies reported: “The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan” (Numbers 13:29).
After Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, it was apportioned to the tribes according to God’s instructions. In general, the Negev was alloted to the tribes of Judah and Simeon; the allocation is described in considerable detail, even down to a listing of specific cities and towns (Joshua 15, 19:1–9). The Negev was divided between several Judahite and other clans and these divisions were distinguished one from the other by being called “the Negev of —.” When David fled from Saul’s wrath he allied himself with Achish, the Philistine king of Gath. Achish would regularly ask David: “ ‘Against whom have you made a raid today?’ And David would say, ‘Against the Negeb of Judah or against the Negeb of the Jerahmeelites, or against the Negeb of the Kenites.’ ” (1 Samuel 27:10). These special Negev designations refer to the areas under the control of each of these groups and must have been located around Beer-Sheva. Controlling such an area may have meant that this was a territory in which the majority of the population belonged to a certain clan and/ or that a certain clan had special privileges in this area, such as grazing rights and/or cultivation plots.
Beginning in the reign of David, Beer-Sheva became the southern limit of Israel’s territory, recognized in the familiar phrase “from Dan to Beersheba” (Judges 20:1; 1 Samuel 3:20; 1 Kings 4:25 and more). Excavations at Beer-Sheva have revealed five layers of occupation, the earliest dating to Iron Age I (12th century B.C.E.), the time 042of the Judges. During the time of the monarchy, a well-planned and fortified administrative center with a place of worship was built there (Amos 8:14). This sanctuary at Beer-Sheva was probably destroyed during the religious reforms that were made by King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:3–6), around 710 B.C.E., when Hezekiah sought to centralize worship in the Jerusalem Temple. A casemate wall surrounded the city, and an earthen glacis, sloping up to the base of the wall, may have provided structural support and added protection from assault to the city wall by battering rams and other war machines. A large gateway opened into the city; adjacent to it, within the city, were public buildings constructed with long, parallel rooms. Many scholars identify these buildings as storehouses, although some maintain that they were stables similar to those they identify at Megiddo. At the end of the eighth century B.C.E., the city was destroyed bye fire, probably during the campaign of the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. Beer-Sheva rose again from these ashes, however, when it was resettled in the Persian period, in the fourth century B.C.E. The last occupation of the site is marked by a Roman fortress dated to the second-third centuries C.E.
When Solomon reigned as king, in the tenth century B.C.E., the Negev flourished. With the assistance of Hiram, king of Tyre, who “sent his servants with the fleet, seamen who knew the sea, to work with the servants of Solomon” (1 Kings 9:27), Solomon sent forth maritime trade expeditions. The ships sailed from Solomon’s port of Ezion-Geber, near Eilat, through the Gulf of Eilat to the Red Sea, and from there to Africa and the East. To protect the land route to Eilat and the southern border of his kingdom, Solomon built a chain of fortresses, which also protected his trade routes to Egypt.
After Solomon’s death, Shishak, king of Egypt, conducted a campaign in Palestine in about 924 B.C.E. (1 Kings 14:25–28). His inscription in the temple of Amon in Karnak contains details of his exploits including the places he attacked in central and southern Palestine. Seventy place names from the Negev occur in the inscription, including fortresses and towns such as Yurza, Sharuhen, Arad, Ezem and possibly even Ezion-Geber.1 The destruction evident in the archaeological remains of Solomonic fortresses in the Negev probably occurred during Shishak’s campaign.
Solomon’s death marked the end of a unified Israel under one king. In 928 B.C.E. the kingdom of Israel divided in two: Israel in the north ruled by Jeroboam, and Judah in the south ruled by Rehoboam. With its capital in Jerusalem, the kingdom of Judah included the Negev.
Several sites in the Negev were occupied during the period of the Judahite monarchy, especially in the central Negev valleys. These settlements were agricultural and depended on herding and terraced fields utilizing the collection of runoff water. Settlement in this remote area must have required direct support or even command of the central government in Jerusalem. The probable mission of these remote settlements was to protect the southern border of the kingdom and its trade routes while trying to support their people by whatever means available.2
During Iron Age II, beginning with the period of Solomon in the tenth century and ending with the Babylonian destruction in 586 B.C.E., the great Early Bronze Age site of Arad was reoccupied. This time a strong citadel was built on top of a hill overlooking the remains of the previous city. Archaeological excavations have revealed at least six rebuildings of this citadel. Included in the tenth- to early seventh-century citadel was a small temple, the only intact Israelite temple ever excavated. In the Holy of Holies of the temple, two incense altars and two standing stones were found. Near the Holy of Holies stood a square altar, constructed of unworked stones as prescribed in Exodus 20:25. Yet another extraordinary find at Arad was 18 ostraca, inscribed potsherds, from the office of Eliashib, possibly the Israelite commander of the fort just before its destruction by the Babylonians in the early sixth century B.C.E.
In the late seventh-beginning sixth centuries B.C.E., the Negev fell to the Edomites, who came from the east and left their distinctive cultural mark of pottery and other objects at several sites. The Edomites may have helped the Assyrians in their attack on Arad at the end of the eighth century B.C.E. as indicated by a contemporaneous ostracon found at Arad referring to “the evil that Edom has committed.”3 043Another ostracon from the Arad archive suggests that the Edomites may have also helped the Babylonians in their final attack on Judah in 586 B.C.E., because the commander of Arad was ordered to send troops to Ramat-Negev (possibly Tel ’Ira) to stop an Edomite attack.4 During the Persian period (fifth-fourth centuries B.C.E.) occupation in the Negev was mostly limited to fortresses, a situation that continued in the Hellenistic period (fourth-first centuries B.C.E).
The region regained its importance with Nabatean settlement in the first century B.C.E. The Nabateans, energetic traders who monopolized the lucrative incense business between the Arabian Peninsula and the centers of Roman civilization, established several cities in the Negev along the main trade routes from Arabia to the port of Gaza on the Mediterranean. These included Oboda (Avdat), Sobata (Shivta), Nessana (Nitzana), Mampsis (Mamshit), Rehovot-in-the-Negev and Elusa (Halutzah), cities whose remains survive today. Discovery of the remains of water-catchment systems and channels to agricultural plots led some scholars to suggest that the Nabateans invented the technology for runoff agriculture. Recently, however, it has been suggested that the archaeological remains related to this type of agriculture and identified as Nabatean should be dated to the Early Arab period (640–1099 C.E.).f
In the Byzantine period (325–640 C.E.), the Nabatean cities became Christian, and numerous churches, some quite large and impressive, were built. Today, the most dramatic remains at Negev sites originally established by the Nabateans are Christian 044basilicas. The intact walls, chancel screens, standing columns and baptismal fonts astonish visitors who come upon them in the sparsely inhabited desert environment. After the Arab conquest, the Negev cities were slowly abandoned.
Since 1948 the Negev has been part of the modern state of Israel. As in Solomonic times, Eilat became Israel’s gateway to Africa and the Far East, Timna became a center for copper mining, and many industries were developed, such as the production of potash and phosphates. At several sites near Avdat (Oboda) and Shivta (Sobata), agricultural experiments utilizing the ancient runoff methods are being carried out. Today, thanks to efficient methods of water delivery to agricultural fields, the Negev, in the places where it is cultivated, is green and fertile. The words of the prophet Isaiah seem to be fulfilled:
“The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isaiah 35:1–2).
A land bridge between the mountainous wilderness of Sinai and the hill country of Judah, the Negeva witnessed critical events in the Bible during the times of the patriarchs, the Exodus and the Israelite kings. No sooner are we propelled through the primeval history in the Bible—the creation, the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the Flood and the Tower of Babel—than we first hear of the Negev. In Genesis 11, Abram, son of Terah, is introduced in a genealogical account. God immediately directs Abram to “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the […]