Hebron (pronounced Hĕv-rōn in Hebrew) was an important city in the early Hebrew Bible narratives. It was intimately connected to the stories of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, Joshua and Caleb, and ultimately David, king of Israel. The location of biblical Hebron has been confidently identified by modern archaeological research at Tell er-Rumeide (an Arabic term pronounced Rū-māy-dĕh), also known in Hebrew simply as Tell Rumeideh or Tel Hevron.

Location and Geography.

Hebron is located 20 miles (31 km) southwest of Jerusalem and 37 miles (60 km) inland from the Mediterranean Sea. Its elevation is 3,050 ft (930 m) above sea level, which made it the highest settled point and a natural geographic capital of the hill country of Judah. The settled urban area of the mound itself was roughly 7.5 acres (3 ha) within its presumed wall lines. Tell Rumeideh today is the site of several Arab homes and a small Jewish apartment complex. The tell is surrounded by the sprawling modern city of Hebron (also known in Arabic as El-Khalil). The entire Hebron region is very fertile. The hills and valleys boast iron-rich soil ideally suited to the traditional agriculture, which includes the raising of sheep and goats as well as the growing of grape vineyards, olive gardens, fruit orchards, and terraced fields of wheat and barley. The natural bedrock and surface stone of the region is the white limestone common to most of the land of Israel, which served as the primary building material in ancient times. The water source for the ancient city was a subterranean spring, located on the lower east slope of Tell Rumeideh, which still provides water in the twenty-first century, known by local Arab residents as Ein Jedida.

Just 3,281 ft (1,000 m) directly east of Tell Rumeideh is the large, ancient shrine known as the Cave of Machpelah and alternatively as the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It is also surrounded by the modern city, built atop a natural grotto reputed to be the biblical cave of Machpelah of Genesis 23. The large structure, apparently erected during the Herodian period, has remained in use from ancient to modern times and has become a revered site of prayer for both Jews and Muslims. No significant excavation or archaeological work has occurred at the shrine.

Archaeology of Hebron.

Tell Rumeideh was suggested as the site of biblical Hebron by the 1920s survey of W. F. Albright, A. E. Mader, and F. M. Abel. Excavations at Tell Rumeideh have been carried out by four different archaeological projects since the 1960s. The American Expedition to Hebron, directed by Philip C. Hammond, excavated on and around the tell for three summer seasons in 1964 to 1966, when the Hebron region was controlled by Jordan. The Judean Hills Survey Expedition, an Israeli project directed by Avi Ofer, excavated on the tell during three seasons from 1984 to 1986. Yuval Peleg excavated a Late Bronze–Age tomb on the lower northwest side of the tell in 1998, on behalf of the Staff Officer of Archaeology of the Israeli Civil Administration for Judea and Samaria. Emanuel Eisenberg of the Israel Antiquities Authority directed a salvage excavation in 1999 on the lower north slope of the tell, in preparation for a modern structure.

The Hammond Expedition.

In 1964 through 1966 the American Expedition to Hebron, directed by Hammond, excavated in six areas of the ancient city on Tell Rumeideh. The tell itself was termed Site I, and the excavation areas were numbered I.1, I.3, I.4, I.5, I.6, and I.7. Hammond also excavated a residence from the Early Arab Period (Area I.2) on the tell’s lower eastern slope. Hammond also did exploratory work at Ein Jedida and excavated five tombs (TT.1, TT.2, TT.3, TT.4, TT.5) around the tell’s lower periphery. Hammond’s project established that the tell was home to an urban population during the Early Bronze III, Middle Bronze II, Late Bronze I–II, Iron I, and Iron II, as well as the Hellenistic and Early Roman (Herodian) periods.

Early Bronze Age.

A 39 ft (12 m) section of the Early-Bronze city wall, some 19.7 ft (6.5) m thick, was discovered in Area I.3, on the south side of the tell. Remains of an Early-Bronze domestic structure were reached only in Area I.6, in the upper central area of the tell.

Middle Bronze Age II.

Elements of a Middle Bronze–II city wall were discovered on the south side of the tell, in Area I.3 and Area I.7 farther east. The Middle Bronze–II city wall was built on the inside of the earlier Early-Bronze city wall along this southern line, directly abutting the Early-Bronze wall’s interior face. The width of the Middle Bronze–II wall was not determined in Area I.7 since only the face was detected along the existing terrace. In Area I.3 the Middle Bronze–II wall component proved to be a large gate tower, 42.6 ft long by 29.5 ft wide (13 by 9 m), with an interior room entered by a doorway in the tower’s northern wall. A 9.8 ft (3 m) wide section of wall that served as a frame or gatepost was bonded to the tower’s western face. The stratigraphic layers which ran to the tower and represented the pathway through the city gate itself demonstrated that the gate tower was built during the Middle Bronze II and with repairs continued in use for more than 1,000 years, through the Late Bronze II, Iron Age I, and to the end of Iron Age II.

Late Bronze Age II to Iron Age II.

Rooms from domestic houses which were built in the Middle Bronze II were discovered in Area I.1 on the east side of the tell and in Area I.6 in the upper central area of the tell. In Area I.1 the Middle Bronze–II structure continued in use through the Late-Bronze periods. Its ruined walls were covered over in Iron Age I, and a new structure was built that endured through Iron Age I and II. In Area I.6 the Middle Bronze–II structure continued in use through the Late-Bronze periods and then continued in use, with significant remodeling, through Iron Age I and II. Of note in the Area-I.6 structure is that a datable limestone scarab (registry AEH 859) bearing the prenomen of Rameses II (user maאat ra setep n ra) was found in stratum XXXIV, a Late Bronze–II phase, in room 1096. The five excavated tombs yielded remains from various periods: tomb TT.1 from the Early Bronze and late (Byzantine and Islamic) periods; tomb TT.2 from the Late Bronze II and Iron Age II; tomb TT.3 from the Early Bronze only; tomb TT.4 from the Early Bronze, Middle Bronze II, and late periods; and tomb TT.5 from Iron Age II.

The Hammond summary.

The initial picture of ancient Hebron gained from the Hammond excavations was of a thriving town in the Early Bronze III, surrounded by a thick city wall, which was destroyed and abandoned for a number of centuries before being settled again in the Middle Bronze II. The Middle Bronze–II town was surrounded by a new city wall, with a towered gate on the south side (Area I.3). The Middle Bronze–II town continued into the Late-Bronze periods as a Canaanite town and then made the transition into Iron Age I, the Israelite period, all without significant destruction. The city wall and certain domestic structures continued in use in the Israelite/Judahite town through Iron Age I and II. There was some evidence of destructive events in the mid- and terminal Iron-II phases, which may be attributed to the Assyrian attack on Judah in 701 B.C.E. and the Babylonian attack in 589 B.C.E.

The Ofer Expedition.

In 1984 to 1986 the Judean Hills Survey Expedition, directed by Avi Ofer, excavated in three areas on the tell (labeled F, G, and S) and surveyed Ein Jedida (as Area W). In Area F, on the north side, and in Area G, on the southwest (near Hammond’s Area I.7), Ofer uncovered segments of the face of the Middle Bronze–II city wall. In Area G he also found what he mistakenly identified as a stone glacis abutting the outer face of the Middle Bronze–II wall (this was actually the top of Early-Bronze III wall remains). Area S was a 16.4 ft (5 m) wide trench on the southeast side of the tell, stretching some 164 ft (50 m) long from northwest to southeast, parallel to Hammond’s Areas I.1 and I.4. The trench stepped down over three modern terraces. The goal was to determine a stratigraphic sequence for the entire site. Ofer identified strata from the Middle Bronze II and Iron I, IIA, and IIB and suggested that he was poised atop an Early-Bronze stratum beneath his Middle Bronze–II finds. The significant excavated structural finds in the Area-S trench were rooms of a house dubbed the Tablet House, a structure which originated in the Middle Bronze II. In it was found a small baked clay tablet (TH1), inscribed in cuneiform Akkadian, now known as the Sheep Tablet. The tablet bore four personal names, one possibly a royal name, and featured a list of numbers of sheep and goats which had presumably been bought or sold. The total picture and stratigraphic summary of Ofer’s project more or less paralleled that of Hammond’s project, except for the Late Bronze Age.

The Late-Bronze Dilemma.

Although Hammond discovered evidence in that Hebron was a walled town during the Late-Bronze periods, Ofer, who had no access to Hammond’s data, reported that no Late-Bronze town existed at Tell Rumeideh. In his Tablet House, Ofer did find pottery with Late-Bronze decorative designs in a stratum he initially dated to the late thirteenth or early twelfth century B.C.E. But because he did not detect a surface in connection with the finds, he concluded the structure was not in use in a Late-Bronze town. In his short summaries from the 1980s and in his 1993 article on Hebron in the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, Ofer reported that Hebron was abandoned during the Late-Bronze periods. The first descriptions of Hammond’s Late-Bronze finds at Tell Rumeideh, including the use of the city gate in Area I.3, only appeared in 1992, too late to influence Ofer’s interpretations. Consequently, Ofer’s publications, and others reliant upon them, should be viewed with caution in relation to the Late Bronze Age. It is now widely recognized that Hebron was a functioning town during the Late-Bronze periods, utilizing the still-standing Middle Bronze–II city wall.

The Eisenberg Excavations.

In 1999, Emanuel Eisenberg of the Israel Antiquities Authority directed salvage excavations over a 9-month period in a single area of 5,382 ft2 (500 m2), on the lower north slope of the tell, in preparation for construction of a modern housing structure. A 46 ft (14 m) long stretch of the Early Bronze–III city wall was unearthed. The wall was 19.6 ft (6 m), similar in size to the Early-Bronze wall segment revealed in Area I.3 on the south side of the tell. Outside the Early-Bronze wall, running roughly parallel to it, Eisenberg discovered a similar length of the Middle Bronze–II city wall, built of huge cyclopean stones, 3.3 to 6.6 ft (1–2 m) in breadth. The Middle Bronze–II wall was 9.8 ft (3 m) thick and similar to the Middle Bronze–II wall remains in Area I.3, except that the Middle Bronze–II wall directly abutted the Early-Bronze wall in Area I.3, whereas in Eisenberg’s area there was a gap of 3.3 to 6.6 ft (1–2 m) between the two wall lines. Remains of Early-Bronze and Middle Bronze–II dwellings were found by Eisenberg. Late-Bronze pottery sherds were also discovered, but no Late-Bronze structures were found in the area. Iron-I vessels and sherds were found in a silo and two garbage pits, but again no Iron-I structures were found. A nearly complete four-room house from Iron Age II was unearthed, which showed evidence of two different destructive events (perhaps, again, the Assyrian and Babylonian attacks). Eisenberg found eight LMLK jar handles, dating from the late eighth century B.C.E., with five legible impressions that read lmlk hbrn (“belonging to the King/Hebron”). This class of LMLK storage jar impressions, found in excavations at various sites in the Judean hills, attest to Hebron’s continued importance as a regional center, centuries after the capital of Judah had relocated to Jerusalem. Eisenberg also found part of a dwelling used in the Hellenistic and Herodian periods.

The Composite Picture of Hebron.

Perhaps the most instructive of Hammond’s finds was the Middle Bronze–II city gate (Area I.3), which played a role in the lives of virtually everyone associated with the city for over a millennium. That gate may even have been the muse for the writer of Genesis 23, who portrayed Abraham as purchasing the cave of Sarah’s burial in a transaction that occurred “at the gate of his city” (Gen 23:10–18). Perhaps the most significant of Ofer’s finds was the Sheep Tablet, indicating not only literacy in writing during the Middle- and Late-Bronze periods at Hebron but also that pastoral transactions were occurring and being recorded. The picture of the transfer of sheep from one party to another parallels the biblical images of Abraham, Isaac, and the family of Jacob as owners and traders of sheep and goats (Gen 13:2, 21:27–31, 26:20, 27:9, 37:1–17, 38:13–17). Eisenberg’s finds demonstrate the limits of the biblical city’s wall line on the north, as compared to Hammond’s on the south, and confirm that the city was active from the Middle Bronze II through Iron II. The composite picture of Hebron which appears from all of the archaeological excavation efforts there seems consistent with the portrayal of the site in the Bible in various periods.

Hebron in the Bible.

In the early Hebrew Bible narratives Hebron was a significant settlement. The Genesis patriarchal stories note Hebron as the primary place of residence for Abram (later Abraham), who established a tent dwelling there at the “oaks of Mamre the Amorite” and who was allied with the local clan of Mamre, Eshcol, and Aner (Gen 13:18, 14:13, 18:1). The implication of Genesis is that the population of Hebron was thriving since the clan of Abram consisted of 318 males of battle age and those with Mamre and his brothers would presumably have numbered even more (Gen 14:14, 14:24). Extrapolated numbers for Abram’s clan could total 650 people or more. To this may be added the clans of Mamre and his brothers and of Ephron son of Zohar (Gen 23:8–9), who apparently headed a large component of the community. The population count for Hebron inferred by the Genesis narrative may be estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000 people. However, not all must be placed within the confines of the city on the tell. Joseph is said to have taken his journey from the “valley of Hebron” (Gen 37:14), where Jacob was presumably settled. Perhaps this is where Abram’s residence at the “oaks of Mamre” was located, rather than within the urban housing in the city itself.

Abraham’s wife Sarah died at Hebron and was buried “in the cave of the field of Machpelah” east of the settlement (Gen 23:1, 19). Specifics of Abraham’s real estate purchase of the cave, the field, and its trees for a price of 400 shekels of silver are reported in some detail in the Genesis 23 account of his transaction at the gate of the city. The cave of Machpelah became the family tomb for Abraham’s clan. The burials of Sarah and Abraham (Gen 25:9–10), Rebekah and Isaac, and Leah (Gen 49:29–31) and Jacob (Gen 50:12–13) were all located at the cave of Machpelah. Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph are each noted as having lived at Hebron (Gen 35:27, 37:14), perhaps, as noted, in “the valley of Hebron” outside the city proper.

Hebron is mentioned in the account of the Israelite spies sent to reconnoiter the land of Canaan in Numbers 13. Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai are listed as people residing in the city; and a parenthetical note recalls that “Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt” (Num 13:22). Joshua and Caleb are named (Num 14:6) as the only two of the 12 spies to report positively on the prospect of Israel successfully possessing the land. Both are later mentioned in connection with Hebron. Joshua and the Israelites are reported to have defeated King Hoham of Hebron and his Amorite force (Josh 10:3–5), along with others of the Amorite coalition, and to have taken the city of Hebron (Josh 10:36–37). Caleb is said to have captured and occupied the city, which Joshua granted him as an inheritance for his family (Josh 14:12–15), driving out or slaying local inhabitants Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai (Josh 15:13–14, Judg 1:9–10). These seem to have been family names and may represent a significant number of people, from three clans, who were dispossessed by the arriving Israelites. Much later, a passing note is made that Samson carried the captured gate of Gaza to the hill east of Hebron (Judg 16:3).

The last references to Hebron are found in 2 Samuel, as part of the story of King David. After the death of Saul, David made his residence at Hebron and was anointed king there over the house of Judah (2 Sam 2:1–4). His reign in Hebron over Judah alone was 7 years and 6 months (2 Sam 2:11, 5:5). Note is made of the forces of David that located to the Hebron region (2 Sam 2:3) and the sons born by David’s wives while he lived at Hebron (2 Sam 3:2–5). Abner, who made peace with David, was killed by Joab upon his return to Hebron (2 Sam 3:27), and Abner’s burial at Hebron was accompanied by David’s lament for him (2 Sam 3:32–34). David hanged the killers of Ishbaal (Ish-bosheth) at the pool of Hebron and interred his severed head in the tomb of Abner (2 Sam 4:12). All the tribes of Israel came to Hebron to anoint David king over all Israel (2 Sam 5:1–5), after which he made his capital at Jerusalem. The final mention of Hebron is made in the story of Absalom’s revolt against David, where Absalom went to Hebron to instigate the doomed insurrection (2 Sam 15:7–10).

Hebron Called “Kiriath-arba.”

On several occasions in the biblical texts “Kiriath-arba” (pronounced Kir-yat ar-ba) appears as an earlier name for Hebron. Genesis notes the death of Sarah at Kiriath-arba (Gen 23:2) and the return of Jacob to Kiriath-arba (Gen 35:27)—in both passages the toponym Kiriath-arba is followed by the parenthetical phrase “that is, Hebron.” The Joshua narrative explains that “the name of Hebron formerly was Kiriath-arba; this Arba was the greatest man among the Anakim” (Josh 14:15). A follow-up in Joshua speaks of “Kiriath-arba, that is, Hebron” and adds the parenthetical note “Arba was the father of Anak” (Josh 15:13). Joshua’s list of sites conquered by Judah includes “Kiriath-arba, (that is, Hebron)” (Josh 15:54). The word kiriath means “town.” The term arba is not capitalized in most Bible translations when it is printed together with the word kiriath, although it probably should be since it seems that Arba was the personal name of a Canaanite notable in the town’s distant Bronze-Age heritage.

The account in Judges explains that “Judah went against the Canaanites who lived in Hebron (the name of Hebron was formerly Kiriath-arba); and they defeated Sheshai and Ahiman and Talmai” (Judg 1:10). The implication of the text is that Arba, for whom the town was named, lived prior to the individuals or clans who went by the names Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai. The ultimate implication of the text is that during the whole of the Canaanite period, from the era of Abraham to the era of the Canaanites displaced by Israel, the name of the town was Kiriath-arba. This raises the question of when the city began to be called Hebron, to which the answer is elusive. It seems clear that Hebron was the name used by Israel to refer to the city, but whether that name was also used prior to Israel’s arrival is not certain; its use in Genesis and in the Joshua narratives, where Hoham is listed in Hebrew as “king of Hebron” (Josh 10:3, 12:10), is possibly anachronistic. Hebron may or may not have been a name that originated during the Canaanite control of the city. But Kiriath-arba was certainly a name by which the city was called during the Canaanite period.

[See also CENTRAL HILL COUNTRY.)]

Bibliography

  • Chadwick, Jeffrey R. “The Archaeology of Biblical Hebron in the Bronze and Iron Ages: An Examination of the Discoveries of the American Expedition to Hebron.” PhD diss., University of Utah, 1992. An account of the finds of Hammond’s three seasons of archaeological excavation at Hebron from 1964 to 1966.
  • Chadwick, Jeffrey R. “Discovering Hebron: The City of the Patriarchs Slowly Yields Its Secrets.” Biblical Archaeology Review 31, no. 5 (September 2005): 24–33. A popular account of Hammond’s excavations and finds, informed by the later work of Ofer and Eisenberg.
  • Eisenberg, Emanuel. “The Fortifications of Hebron in the Bronze Age.” Eretz Israel 30 (2011): 14–32. Discussion of Early- and Middle-Bronze city wall remains, offering an expanded model of the city wall lines and presenting alternative interpretations of the models of Ofer and of Hammond and Chadwick. In Hebrew.
  • Eisenberg, Emanuel, and Alla Nagorski. “Tel Hevron (Er-Rumeidi).” In Hadashot Arkkheologiyot—Excavations and Surveys in Israel, vol. 114, pp. 91–92. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2002. English version of the summary synopsis of Eisenberg’s excavations at Hebron in 1999 (the Hebrew version appears in the same volume).
  • Hammond, Philip C. “Hebron.” Review Biblique 72 (1965): 267–270. Initial preliminary summary of Hammond’s excavations in the 1964 season.
  • Hammond, Philip C. “Hebron.” Review Biblique 73 (1966): 566–569. Initial preliminary summary of Hammond’s excavations in the 1965 season.
  • Hammond, Philip C. “Hebron.” Review Biblique 75 (1968): 253–258. Initial preliminary summary of Hammond’s excavations in the 1966 season.
  • Ofer, Avi. “Hebron.” In New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, vol. 2, pp. 606–609. Jerusalem: Carta, Israel Exploration Society, 1993. Report and analysis of Ofer’s excavations, with some reference to Hammond’s earlier work, written prior to Eisenberg’s work, and not well informed on Hammond’s finds; its incorrect view of Late Bronze–Age Hebron requires that it be used with caution.
  • Ofer, Avi. “Tell Rumeideh—1984.” In Excavations and Surveys in Israel 1984, vol. 3, pp. 94–95. Jerusalem: Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, 1984. English edition of Hadashot Arkheologiyot. Initial preliminary report of Ofer’s excavations in the 1984 season.
  • Ofer, Avi. “Tell Rumeideh—1985.” In Excavations and Surveys in Israel 1986, vol. 5, pp. 92–93. Jerusalem: Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, 1986. English edition of Hadashot Arkheologiyot. Initial preliminary summary of Ofer’s excavations in the 1985 season.
  • Ofer Avi. “Tell Rumeideh—1986.” In Excavations and Surveys in Israel 1987/88, vol. 6, pp. 92–93. Jerusalem: Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums, 1988. English edition of Hadashot Arkheologiyot. Initial preliminary summary of Ofer’s excavations in the 1986 season.
  • Peleg, Yuval, and Irina Eisenstadt. “A Late Bronze Tomb at Hebron (Tell Rumeideh).” In Burial Caves and Sites in Judea and Samaria: From the Bronze and Iron Ages, edited by Hananya Hismi and Alon DeGroot, pp. 231–259. Jerusalem: Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria/Israel Antiquities Authority, 2004. Detailed finds from a single Late-Bronze tomb on the northwest slope of Tell Rumeideh.

Jeffrey R. Chadwick