The economy of ancient Israel focused on food production. The limestone that dominated the hill country not only made an excellent building material, but also weathered into a fertile, red-brown soil. This famous soil was called the terra-rossa. This kind of soil is potentially very productive, but today is often rocky and patchy due to centuries of neglect. Terracing has been used in ancient, as well as modern, times to guard against erosion and preserve the soil.
The three most important agricultural products have always been oil, grain, and grapes, as have been repeatedly mentioned in the scriptures. Olive trees grew throughout the hill country, and their bounty was pressed into oil for cooking, for burning in lamps, and for medicinal use. The coastal plain, the hill country of Ephraim, and the valley of Galilee were very valuable as grain producers. The hill country between Bethlehem and Hebron was noted for its excellent vineyards, and the grapes were used to produce wine, vinegar, and raisins.
Today many of the hills in Israel are barren and rocky, except where reforestation has been introduced. In ancient times there seems to have been no lack of trees, but the forests were destroyed by war (Deut. 20:19-20) and clearing land for agriculture (Joshua 17:15). Timber for major building projects came from the famed cedars of Lebanon (I Kings 5:6). Most of their buildings were made of stone and mud brick. The limestone mentioned earlier was one of Israel’s greatest natural resources, since it broke along even lines and was very easily shaped.
Sheep and goats were raised for their wool, hair, skins, milk, and meat. However, meat was not a normal part of their average diet, and was usually only used in connection with a sacrifice, festival, or honoring a special guest.
While the patriarchs of Israel usually sojourned throughout the hill country, it is frequently mentioned in the Bible that they camped in the Negev, a name that means “dry land” or “south country”. This region is situated directly south of the hill country of Judah and was inherited by the tribes of Simeon (Josh. 19:1-9) and Judah (Josh. 15:20-31). The region is shaped something like a butterfly, with its ‘body’ situated at Beersheba, the center of the biblical Negev, and its ‘wings’ stretched out to the basins on either side. Because of its position between the highlands to the north and south, the Negev has a very rich soil, which collects in the form of a fine-blown sand.
The land area occupied by the Negev extends about fifteen miles north and south of Beersheba and about forty miles from east to west. The Negev is essentially a fertile basin surrounded on all sides, except for the west, by mountains. Since the west side is the only way to drain the rain water, there are two streams which drain out and eventually empty into the Mediterranean. They only fill in after heavy rainfall, so most of the time they are just nominal riverbeds.
The rainfall is very sparse, only 2 to 8 inches annually, and makes water conservation a very important part of the area’s economy. Settlements usually are formed along the wadis, or seasonal streams, where they could collect the water during the rainy season and store it for later use. Some of the people have flourished in this region due to their careful water conservation. This region focused on raising sheep and goats, and donkeys and camels were bred and used in the caravan traffic.
The wind in the Negev is stronger because of the sharper difference between the sea and the land temperatures. An example would be that the day time temperature in August in Beersheba would be somewhere in the 90’s, while the night temperature turns really chilly. It was crossed by several minor travel routes, but was never the route of the great caravan travelers. Roads branched out from her to join the Via Maris, a main highway. The “way to Shur” road extended south. These are shown on the map below of The Negev.
PLACES WHERE THE PATRIARCHS DWELLED
Most of these places where the important patriarchs of the Bible dwelled didn’t become actual cities until much later. These are the ones that are mentioned the most in the Bible. (The term patriarch has come to mean basically, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his 12 sons, who were the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel).
This is one of the most ancient cities of Judah. Its early name was Kiriath-arba, “the town of four”, which suggests that four smaller communities were united into one to form a city. Excavations on its slopes indicate occupation as early as 3300 B. C. The beautiful wall that surrounds the Cave of Machpelah. which is the burial place of the patriarchs, belongs to the time of Herod. (This Herod also was the one who added to the Temple to make it the beautiful place that is talked about on The Temple in this web site). The enclosed area measures 160 by 90 feet. The walls are 8 feet thick and made up of hewn stones as large as 22 by 5 by 5 feet. Hebron was taken by Caleb, who was one of the original spies sent out by Moses, and served as David’s capital during the first 7 1/2 years of his reign.
This was a community located a little more than a mile north of Hebron. It was there that King Herod built a wall enclosing an area of 150 by 200 feet. Inside this perimeter, excavators discovered a sacred well in which money and figurines of worshipers were found. The Roman Emporer Hadrian later dedicated this site to the worship of Mercury. Constantine removed Hadrian’s pagan altar and erected a church on the site, which tradition says was the location of an altar erected by Abraham in Genesis 13:18.
Beersheba means “well of swearing” and is located about 25 miles south of Hebron in the center of the biblical Negev. The ancient site is located several miles east of the modern city and is at the juncture of two seasonal wadis, or streams. Both Abraham and Isaac concluded covenants there with Abimelech, and Jacob later offered sacrifices there before journeying to Egypt with his family. Later Samuel’s sons were made judges at Beersheba. It is also mentioned along with Dan, Bethel, and Gilgal as a religious center. It was destroyed and resettled during the years, but the Bible’s expression “from Dan to Beersheba” that describes the length of Israel shows that it was an important religious and administrative center.
Excavations by Tel Aviv University have uncovered the 2 1/2 acre city of the Israelite period. Adjacent to the city gate were three storehouses, each about fifty feet long, in which archarologists have found numerous storage jars for grain, wine, and oil. A very interesting discovery was that of a horned altar dating to 8 B. C. It stands about 63 inches tall.
This city is mentioned only four times in the Bible, but it was an important city in the biblical period. It was both a fortress and an administrative center. Although it was destroyed six times during the period of the monarchy, it was always quickly rebuilt, which signifies its importance.
The most important discovery here is the only Israelite temple yet discovered in an archaeological excavation. The plan of it seems to follow that of Solomon’s Temple. It had one main room and a holy of holies, which contained a high place and a standing stone. Flanking the entrance were two incense altars. In the outer court was an altar for burnt offerings built of earth and unhewn stone. This worship center, like that of Beersheba, was in competition with the legitimate temple in Jerusalem.
It was here that Abraham and Isaac enjoyed the hospitality of its king, Abimelech. Although the identification of the site has been debated, most modern archaeologists feel the site is located about 15 miles northwest of Beersheba. A most interesting discovery there was several smelting furnaces, illustrating the iron industry at this very early age.
Below is a map of The Negev with where the cities are that are listed in the above text. Also shown are some of the main roads at the time. The next picture is of the Cave of Machpelah, the traditional site where the patriarchs were buried. Herod later made the huge monument to it that you see in the picture below. This is right outside of the city of Hebron. Permission is given to use the picture and the map is one I drew.