“And so, that place was called Beer-Shaba for the two of them swore there.”
And here we learn the origin of the name Beersheba, a place that has Biblical significance to God’s people throughout the Old Testament. It was at Beersheba that God appeared to Isaac to renew the covenant (Genesis 26:23-25), it was part of the inheritance of Simeon (Joshua 19:2), it was the place from which Samuel’s sons would judge Israel (1 Samuel 8:1-3), and it is the first place to which Elijah fled when he feared Jezebel’s threats to kill him (1 Kings 19:19:1-3). As a whole, Beersheba is located in the southernmost region of what would later become national Israel, and thus be juxtaposed with Dan (in the northernmost region) to speak of the whole of Israel: “from Dan to Beersheba.”
The term “Beersheba” comes from two Hebrew words. The first, rEaV;b (beer, pronounced as two syllables, with the first “e” being short and the second being long: be-ear), is the word that describes a well or a shaft into the ground. The second term, oAbDv (shaba) or oAbRv (sheba) depending on the occurrence, carries with it several connotations. Literally, in Hebrew, this is the number seven. Yet, the number seven carries with it the connotations of completeness and eternality, hence the connection with a covenant that has been made in this place. Thus, Beersheba has been variously translated as “the place of seven wells”, “the well of covenant”, or “the well of abundance.” All of these are correct translations, but since the scriptures tell us the purpose of naming the well (being the covenant made between Abraham and Abimelek), we ought to prefer the second term or translating Beersheba as “the well of covenant.”
The discussion is important on several levels, but most importantly because it illustrates a principle that was part of the bedrock of the Protestant Reformation — the principle that scripture can interpret itself. Given that scripture has one ultimate author, then we ought not be surprised that all of scripture is useful in the process of interpretation and thus we don’t really have permission to import our own preferences into the text. While “the place of seven wells” might be a legitimate translation of the Hebrew, it is not consistent with the rest of the text, thus it ought to be rejected.
Thus we have the word of God before us and we have the origin of the name to this location of Beersheba that becomes quite prominent throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Isn’t it remarkable the way God uses isolated events of our lives like this to make a lasting statement about his sovereignty. This name is given simply as a result of a dispute over water rights; yet the place of covenant between a believer and an unbeliever becomes a monument for all time. The question is what events in our own lives will God so use to work in the life of future generations?
O God, our help in ages past,
our hope for years to come,
our shelter from the stormy blast,
and our eternal home.
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
bears all who breathe away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the opening day.
— Isaac Watts