Beersheba is the southernmost town in the land promised to Abraham. Located on the road towards Egypt in the parched south region known in the Hebrew as "the Negeb" the land had sparse pasture land when Abraham was living among the Philistines. The spot where the town grew had a major well frequented by travelers and shepherds alike.
After Hagar and Ishmael had been banished from Abraham's home in Gerar, Philistia, God had shown her a well from which she and her son refreshed themselves in an otherwise parched land. Sometime later, Abraham would improve that well, only to have Philistines fill it up.
Abimelech, king of the Philistines, was surprised at his people's actions and made an oath with Abraham to restore the well. That oath or "sheba" was the origin of the name of the settlement Abraham established there. The place was to be known from that day on as Beer-sheba, the "Well of the Oath" (literally, "well of the seven"). Some time after this treaty the area around the well was developed into a town that was often compared with Dan, using the idiom "From Dan to Beersheba" as being the superlatives of the land.
After the destruction of the cities of the plain Abraham moved his family south past the city of Salem and into the land of the Philistines. It was while there that his deception concerning Sarah had caused near disaster among his hosts. After God intervened by way of a dream to Abimelech, Abraham received gifts from the king and was allowed to live in the best of his land.
While there, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, who was now a rival to Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham agreed to banish them only after being assured by God that the two would be taken care of. They were then banished into the surrounding desert, which was called the "Desert of Beersheba" as the entire desert depended on the well. However, God waited until Hagar was in dire need to reveal a well near where she and Ishmael had stopped.
Abraham would learn of the well, and claim it as his own. But Abimelech's men—perhaps still sore at Abraham for his deception—filled in the well. This led Abraham to complain to the king. The resulting covenant between the two, involving a ceremony with seven sheep, would provide the name for the place of the well. It became known as "the Well of the Oath," or Beer-Sheba. The incident with the well influenced Abraham to move to the oasis near the well. He planted a grove of trees there and settled down to raise his young son Isaac, the "son of the promise," there. He happily worshipped God, calling Him "El Olam" (the Everlasting God).
Isaac Returns Home
Isaac grew to be a young man of perhaps as old as 30 years old in the small town his father had founded. Then things changed drastically when Abraham was called once more by God. The next day his father, some servants and himself set out on a two day trek to the region of Moriah. There he was shocked to find that he was to be the sacrifice to God. It had been a test of Abraham's faith that was not ever taken for granted again. Though they returned to Beersheba afterwards, they had moved to Hebron by the time that his mother Sarah had died.
And then, about three years later, his father arranged for him to marry his cousin, a girl named Rebekah. Oddly, it turned out that his mother's niece was barren. One can only wonder what was going through the minds of Abraham and his son at this time. Abraham took a young wife, a woman named Keturah, to be his wife in is old age. They would have six children together in the twenty years that Rebekah remained barren. After twins were born, Keturah and her sons were sent away, preserving the inheritance for Isaac.
After Abraham died, the twins grew into grown men, but Rebekah remained remarkably youthful as she aged. After a while, the family had to move due to a famine. While Isaac was heading south towards Egypt, God spoke to him telling him to not go there. So it was that he ended up in Philistia in a situation much like that of his father a generation earlier. By this time another Abimelech had come to power and Isaac attempted the same deception that his father had tried. This time, the king saw through the lie, scolding his guest for putting his people in danger. A law was declared to keep Isaac's family safe.
The forced peace between the growing tribe of Isaac and the local Philistines allowed the Hebrew shepherd to settle in Gerar. He grew wealthier as time went by, leading to a war over the water rights in the valley. As soon as Isaac dug a well, it would be filled in. He was forced to move several times until he ended up back where he had grown up: Beersheba. Because the Philistines hated the Hebrews, and the two men who had covenanted at Abraham's well were long dead, Isaac had to dig a new well at the ghost town that had once been home. Once again a covenant was made with the Philistine king. Isaac called the place Shebah (an oath), thus reestablishing the place as "Beer-Sheba."
Shortly before this, Isaac had heard from God again. He received a confirmation that the promises that God had made to his father Abraham. Though his sons had grown, they had as yet not taken wives, but God promised that his children would bring forth nations. He, the only beloved son, would live to see a small bit of that promise come true. Isaac would die in Beersheba at the age of 180.
Leaving the Promised Land
Shortly before Isaac died, his son Jacob returned after staying with the family of his uncle Laban for over 20 years. It was there that he had gone to keep from disappointing his parents who insisted on his marrying within the house of Terah. The man had also defrauded his brother years before, taking the older twins birthright. The feud had torn the family apart. Just before their father died, the brothers reconciled. Esau had married three women, the last being a cousin of his. He had a large family and plenty of land east of Beersheba.
Things got back to normal, for a while, as Jacob, now known also as Israel, oversaw a growing tribe on the edge of the desert. Trade with the neighbors was good, but the sons would grow up at odds with their younger brother Joseph, the favorite child of their father's favorite wife. Rachel had died on the journey back to Beersheba giving birth to Benjamin, Joseph's brother. The teenaged Joseph faced taunts from his brothers (all in their twenties) that led to a plot to kill him. The actions of two of the oldest sons—Reuben and then Judah—changed the plan to selling their brother to a traveling band of merchants on their way to Egypt.
The ruse broke Jacob's heart, but life went on for almost twenty years before another famine forced them to turn to Egypt for relief. Unknown to them, Joseph had gone from slave to "prime minister" there. After a time of testing, the brothers proved themselves to be repentant of their earlier ways. With the Pharoah's blessings, the clan of the "Sons of Israel" left Beersheba, their home for decades, and with it the land God had promised to them, went to Egypt to live. Before leaving, Jacob followed the family practice, interceding to God in worship for his family.
The Southern Circuit
Over 400 years later, the descendants of Israel returned to Canaan to claim the land God had promised them. The land had come to be described by the cities at its extremes: Dan in the north and Beersheba in the south. The twelve tribes had been allotted regions from Simeon in the south to Asher and Naphtali in the north. A discontent tribe of Dan had forced their way north of Naphtali and claimed the land around the town of Laish. The town was renamed "Dan."
During another period of around 400 years, the land was in constant war. The original conquest had left a scattered bunch of tribes holding onto land only to lose it to neighbors. God would raise up warrier leaders to judge the tribes—sometimes most of them united to some extent. Late in this time, the sons of the last "judge"—a priest named Samuel—would hold court in Beersheba.
After the tribes had been united under Saul, a Benjamite, Beersheba became a lazy border town again. Along with Dan in the north, the town would stand as a outpost to the "Gentiles"—those neighboring nations that did not worship Yahweh, the true God.
Dan would never recover from its apostasy in the days of the Judges, but Beersheba would remain part of the nation of Judah. But for those years of the united kingdom, "from Dan to Beersheba" became a proverb meaning the whole land.
After the people of Judah returned from exile in Babylon, Beersheba remained the frontier town in the south. What had been the portion for Simeon, and part of the nation of Judah, would be merged with Edom to become the Roman province of Idumea.