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There is a place in Israel called Be-er-Sheva', which is given two different stories to justify the name. The word Be-er means well, as in a well of water, and the word Sheva means "seven" or more stretchingly "oath", depending on context. So this is either "well seven" or "well of the oath", both reasonable etymologies.

But Genesis 26:31 gives a story for the etymology:

And they arose early in the morning, and they swore, man to his brother, and Isaac sent them, and they walked from him in peace. And it was on that day, and Isaac's servants came and told him of the fortunes of the well that they dug. And they told him "We found water." And he called it Shiv'ah (Seven/Oath). For this the name of the city is Beer-Sheva (Well-Oath/Well Seven) to this day.

A separate earlier etymology is given for the same name Genesis 21:30:

And said "Because these seven ewes you will take away from me: in return you will be my witness, that I did dig this well (Be-er). And because of this the place is called Be-er Sheva' (Beersheba) because there the two of them did swear an oath (Shvu'a).

This story regards Abraham and Avimelech.

So which etymology is accurate?

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Background

The NET Bible notes on Genesis 21:30:

The name Beer Sheba (בְּאֵר שָׁבַע, bÿ’er shava’) means “well of the oath” or “well of the seven.” Both the verb “to swear” and the number “seven” have been used throughout the account. Now they are drawn in as part of the explanation of the significance of the name.

Genesis 26:33 actually says that the name Issac gave to the new well he dug was Shibah:

The name Shibah (שִׁבְעָה, shiv’ah) means (or at least sounds like) the word meaning “oath.” The name was a reminder of the oath sworn by Isaac and the Philistines to solidify their treaty.

Interpretation

The simplest solution is that there are two separate accounts that have been fused by a later author to create the current text of Genesis. But that would be an especially careless edit. There seems no reason for the final editor not to simply rephrase the accounts to avoid the contradictory etymologies.

What seems to have happened is that Abraham named his well Beer Sheba and Issac named his Shibah. Both names played off the concept of the oath that was struck between the Philistines and the Hebrews. Issac likely was aware of the similarity between the name he chose and Abraham's choice. Later the name's origin got confused. Even the name's designation blurred as by Genesis 26:33 the name Beer Sheba was associated with the city, not just the wells.

Like other origin stories, it seems likely that the name arose because of several different, reinforcing stories working toward a particular name. The rich associations between "seven" and "oath" that revolve around the two stories recorded in Genesis would have helped firm up the name. Certainly the area would have had other names both before and after Abraham named it, but Beersheba was the name that eventually stuck.

Support

The NET Bible supports this interpretation:

The name Beer Sheba (בְּאֵר שָׁבַע, bÿ’er shava’) means “well of an oath” or “well of seven.” According to Gen 21:31 Abraham gave Beer Sheba its name when he made a treaty with the Philistines. Because of the parallels between this earlier story and the account in 26:26-33, some scholars see chaps. 21 and 26 as two versions (or doublets) of one original story. However, if one takes the text as it stands, it appears that Isaac made a later treaty agreement with the people of the land that was similar to his father’s. Abraham dug a well at the site and named the place Beer Sheba; Isaac dug another well there and named the well Shibah. Later generations then associated the name Beer Sheba with Isaac, even though Abraham gave the place its name at an earlier time.

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I'm not sure what Bible you're reading.

Abraham dug a well, and named the land around it Beersheba.

Isaac, his son, dug a well in the same land, and called the well Shebah: but because the well was in the land of Beersheba, that became the name of the city.

Genesis 21:30-33

30 And he said, For these seven ewe lambs shalt thou take of my hand, that they may be a witness unto me, that I have digged this well.

31 Wherefore he called that place Beersheba; because there they sware both of them.

32 Thus they made a covenant at Beersheba: then Abimelech rose up, and Phichol the chief captain of his host, and they returned into the land of the Philistines.

33 And Abraham planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God.

Genesis 26:32-33

32 And it came to pass the same day, that Isaac's servants came, and told him concerning the well which they had digged, and said unto him, We have found water.

33 And he called it Shebah: therefore the name of the city is Beersheba unto this day.

33 And he called it Shebah: therefore the name of the city is Beersheba unto this day.

  • "I'm not sure what Bible you're reading." - Ron reads the Hebrew MT and translates into English himself. How does your post answer Ron's question about which etymology or both is correct? – Abu Munir Ibn Ibrahim Apr 8 '19 at 19:30
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Genesis 21 is Elohist, as one can tell from the two early mention of God, and from the style. Chapter 26 is Yahwist. The Yahwist story etymology is just a different tradition regarding the same place name, and overlaps the Elohist narrative.

This is explained simply by the documentary hypothesis, and in no other reasonable way.

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