Some important points of, or related to, this ‘wilderness of Beersheba’, are explained below:

a)         To ascertain the location of the wilderness of Beersheba it is to be noted that Chapter 21 of the book of Genesis of the Bible, from which this narrative has been taken, is a mixture of the three intricately interwoven traditions (Yahwistic, Priestly, and Elohistic).[1]

b)         As to the narrative reproduced above (Gen. 21:8-21), it is solely an Elohist Version.[2] This is mainly a narrative of the story of Hagar and Ishma‘el and ends with v.21. From v.22 to the end of the chapter, there is another story (regarding a treaty at certain other Beersheba [Well of Oath] between Abraham and Abimelech). It is quite a separate narrative and has nothing to do with the story of Hagar and Ishma‘el near Beersheba (Well of Seven). Scholars differ as to whether it is Elohistic or Yahwistic.[3]

c)         The word Beersheba has been used at 34 places in the Bible. It is only once in the whole of the Bible that it is preceded by the qualifying word wilderness (Gen. 21:14) and Abraham had settled Hagar and her son Ishma‘el in it. It is for the first time that the word Beersheba has been introduced in the Bible. At the same time it is the sole place in the whole of the Bible where the word Beersheba is related to Hagar and Ishma‘el both. The ‘Beersheba’ related to the treaty between Abraham and Abimelech is quite a different place, hundreds of miles away from it, and having nothing to do with it.

d)         ‘Wilderness’ means ‘uncultivated, barren, uneven, and mountainous land or desert’. The word has also been used in the Bible figuratively in the sense of ‘uninhabited’, though it is not its literal sense. The original Hebrew word used in the Bible for this ‘wilderness’ is ‘Midbār’. In the English Bible, the Hebrew word ‘Midbār’ has been translated either with the word ‘wilderness’ or with ‘desert’. The use of this word ‘Midbār’ in the Bible in the sense of ‘uncultivated and uninhabited place’is obvious from: ‘Yet the defenced city shall be desolate[4], and left like a wilderness [in Hebrew ‘midbār’]’.[5] It has also been applied to convey other senses or implications in the Bible. Stanley A. Cook explains in Enc. Biblica:

The English word ‘desert’ ordinarily means a sterile sandy plain without vegetation and water–a ‘sea of sand’ such as, e.g., parts of the Sahara. This is not the meaning of the Hebrew word. No desert of this kind was known to Israel either before or after the occupation of Canaan. (…) midbār; AV ‘desert,’ RV ‘wilderness’; (…). It is commonly employed to denote the wilderness of wanderings, which itself is a mountainous region, (…). The most prominent is that which was the scene of the wandering of Israel. It is commonly called ham-Midbār;(…), and with this agrees the circumstance that it is only in the later writings that the horror and lonesomeness of the ‘wilderness’ is referred to (e.g., Dt. 8:15).[6]

       In the OT (according to the ‘Authorized’ and ‘Revised’ English Versions), the English word ‘wilderness’ has been used 270 times, out of which it has been used 256 times as the translation of ‘Midbār’. In the Hebrew Bible (OT), there are different words for it (e.g. ‘Midbar’, ‘Sarab’, ‘Arabah’, ‘Yasheemon’, ‘Tohoo’, ‘Kharabah’, etc.). The Heb. word ‘Midbār’, is the most commonly used word for ‘wilderness’ and ‘desert’, and has been used in the OT for 269 times (256 times in the meaning of  ‘wilderness’; and 13 times in the meaning of ‘desert’). Another Hebrew word for ‘wilderness’ is ‘Arabah’, which has been used for 59 times in different meanings (e.g. 5 times in the meaning of ‘wilderness’; and 8 times in the meaning of ‘desert’, etc.). This ‘Arabah’ signifies a barren and sterile land, hence ‘Arabia’. Other Hebrew words (e.g. Tohoo, Yasheemon, etc.) have also been used for this ‘wilderness’ for a number of times. The word used here is ‘Midbar’. It has been explained by Shemaryahu Talmon, Professor, Bible Stuidies and Dean, Faculty of Humanities in the Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem, in his detailed article ‘Wilderness’ in the Supplementary Volume of the Interpreter’s Dic. of Bible, according to which it refers to: 

(…) arid or semiarid areas which are not suited for permanent settlement but in part can be utilized as pasture lands for small stock. (….). In the majority of occurrences, ‘wilderness’ carries negative overtones, referring to parched, inhospitable, and dangerous places. (….). No trees or other vegetation grow in this barren void, and no husbanded animals or civilized men live there. Anyone who ventures into this wilderness suffers hunger and thirst. (…). This wilderness is synonymous with utter distress, a place cut off from life. (…). The Mesopotamian, for which Arabian desert lay to the W, where the sun sets, identified the wilderness as the area which leads to the nether [in a lower place or position] world. This idea appears to be reflected in scriptures in which midhbar, `arabha, semama contrast with the Garden of Eden, the source of life and abundant growth[7].

   W.L. Reed explains in the same Dic. of the Bible:

The translation of several different words [he has written here in Heb. script: Midbar, Yasheemon, `arabah, etc.]; often used interchangeably with ‘Desert.’ An accurate translation is difficult, because the so-called wilderness regions included arid and semiarid territory as well as sandy desert, rocky plateaus, pasture lands, and desolate mountain terrain. Such regions existed in Canaan and beyond its E and S borders.[8]

   Smith’s Dic. of Bible explains:

Midbar. (…). It is most frequently used for those tracts of waste land which lie beyond the cultivated ground,[9]

   Harper’s Bible Dic. explains:

Wilderness, a desolate or deserted area devoid of civilization. One Hebrew word above all others is used for ‘wilderness,’ or ‘desert,’ in the OT: midbar, indicating both ‘that which is desolate and deserted’ and ‘that which is beyond,’ i.e., beyond the limits of settlement and therefore of government control, perceived by both city dwellers and villagers as being essentially disorderly and dangerous, the home of wild beasts and savage wandering tribes. In time of war or repression refugees would flee to the midbar; (….). Midbar was for them, as ‘wilderness’ was originally in English, the wild, alarming wasteland, where men and women find themselves bewildered and disoriented.[10]

      It means that the word ‘midbar’ used in the Hebrew Bible for ‘wilderness’ signifies a mountainous, sandy, desolate, inarable place, which is quite similar to the wilderness of Beersheba and Paran.

e)  ‘Beersheba’[11] is a meaningful word.[12] It has literally two different meanings which are: (i) ‘a well of seven’[13]; and (ii) ‘a well of an oath or covenant’[14]. The ‘Beersheba’ related to the oath of Abraham and Abimelech, next to this story of Hagar and Ishma‘el, which starts with v. 22 of this chapter, is ‘the well of the oath’, from which it took its name[15].

f)  In this paragraph a study of the ‘Beersheba’ related to the ‘the well of the oath’ is being undertaken. Some important authorities are being quoted here to elaborate these second meanings. Hasting’s Revd. Dic. of Bible explains that it was a place:

where he [Abraham] made a covenant with Abimelech, from which the place is alleged to take its name (‘well of the covenant,’ according to one interpretation).[16]

   J. Hasting’s Dic. of the Bible explains:

It (…) received its name (‘Well of the oath’) as having been the place, marked by a well, where Abraham entered into covenant with Abimelech, king of Gerar (Gn 21:31 E).[17]

   According to McKenzie, it is:

about 28 mi [miles] S [South; according to Interpreter’s Dic. of Bible ‘SW’ (1:375)] of Hebron.[18]

      Hebron (which is now called ‘Al-Khalīl’) lies twenty miles south (SSW) of Jerusalem[19]. This Hebron was the place where Abraham had permanently settled with his first wife Sarah; but he spent most of his own time at Beer-sheba, with his large number of flocks and herds, on his land, which was offered to him by Abimelech (Gen. 20:15); and dictionaries of the Bible have recorded the fact that it was a suitable pasture for the herds and flocks, for example Harper’s B.D. explains:

The Beer-sheba plain with its ample winter pasturage is well suited for seminomadic living; thus it served as the principal homestead of Israel’s patriarchs.[20].

      F. F. Bruce asserts that it had been a green grassy valley with human settlements in it, as back as 4th millennium BC:

On both sides of the Beer-sheba valley, in the Negeb, there is evidence of human settlement going back to the Chalcolithic Age (later fourth millennium BC [Gr. Chalkos = copper + lithos + stone]). (….). The Beer-sheba valley and its neighborhood were frequented by pastoralists like Abraham because the water-table was sufficiently high to be tapped by the digging of wells.[21]

       E. Hull has described its present condition in similar way in the Hasting’s Dic. of Bible:

The soil in the valleys where there is some moisture is exceedingly rich, and is rudely cultivated by the fellahin, who succeed in producing fine crops of wheat and barley. In the tracts around Beer-sheba the Bedawin find ample pasturage for their flocks and herds, which towards evening assemble in crowds around the wells as they did three thousand years ago.[22]

It was quite a different place from the ‘Wilderness of Beersheba, where Abraham had settled Hagar and Ishma‘el.

g)  A detailed account of the ‘Wilderness of Beersheba’ which is related to Hagar and Ishma‘el is being afforded in the next paragraph. This Beersheba of Hagar and Ishma‘el was, in true sense of word, a ‘wilderness’: being a desolate, mountainous, sandy, sterile, uneven, and uncultivated land; whereas the ‘well of Oath’ was a beautiful valley with thick green pastures where human settlements have been traced by the archaeologists as ancient as the fourth millennium BC, and where the very Bible asserts the existence of a ‘city’ in Isaac’s times(Gen. 26:33). As such it could not have been the place where Abraham had settled Hagar and her son Ishma‘el, which had been a Midbār, i.e., a desolate, uneven, mountainous, sandy, sterile, and uncultivated ‘wilderness’ in true sense of word.

h) The ‘Beersheba’in the first sense (the ‘well of seven,’[23]), related to Ishma‘el and Hagar, is being dealt with in this paragraph. In the ancient times a name was given to a place due to the settlement of some tribe there or due to some remarkable event which happened there, or due to some conspicuous qualities of its location or the surroundings etc. The same is the case with both these Beer-sheba’s. Both the places, which were subsequently given the name of ‘Beer-sheba’, previously bore no particular name. So they were named due to the events that took place there. The first was called ‘Beer-sheba’ (the well of an oath or a covenant), because an oath had been carried out there between Abraham and Abimelech. The second was given the name ‘Beer-sheba’ (the well of seven) after the seven rounds of running between al-Safā and al-Marwah (Moriah of the Bible) by Hagar as a result of which she was made to discover this ‘well of seven’ by God through His angel; and this well had been commonly called by the Arabs as ‘Zamzam’[24], hence the uncultivated and uninhabited area, surrounding this ‘Well of Seven’, was given the name of the ‘Wilderness of Beersheba’. Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam explains:

Hadjar, cast off by Abraham and seeing Ishma‘el perishing of thirst, ran in despair seven times from one hill to the other;[25]

   David Kerr explains:

This [the circumambulation around the Ka’bah] is followed by running seven times between two small hills [al-Safa and al-Marwah], recalling the plight of Hagar and her son Ishmael who, in Islamic, Jewish and Christian tradition, were saved from certain death by a spring of water which God caused to break through the desert sands. This well is named in Islamic tradition as Zamzam,[26]

   After a detailed study of Arabic and Biblical accounts, a summary of the event can be stated something like that:

An extraordinary event happened there. Leaving Hagar and her child Ishma‘el in the mountainous, uncultivated, and sandy wilderness of Beer-sheba (Well of Seven) under the word of God, Abraham returned to his flocks and herds at Beersheba (Well of Oath) and his abode at Hebron. The food and water left by Abraham with her was used up in a few days. She was much perplexed and distressed. Nearby stood the hillocks of al-Safā and al-Marwah (Moriah of the Bible). She ran from one hillock to the other in search of some food or drink, or somebody to help her; but in vain. After seven rounds of running between al-Safā and al-Marwah, a well was provided there for Hagar and her son in a strange manner. So the place was given the name of ‘Beer-sheba’–‘the well of seven’. Close by stood perhaps the remnants of the Sanctuary of the Ka‘bah (or Bayt-Allah, i.e. House of Allah, which, in Hebrew, is Beth-el), on which the building was to be raised by Abraham and Ishma‘el in the near future.

   It had been an established and well-known tradition among the Arabs since remote pre-Islāmic times that while performing the Pilgrimage of Makkah, they ran (performed Sa‘y, according to the terminology of the Islamic Pilgrimage) between the Mounts of al-Safā and al-Marwah ‘seven times’. Islam has retained this tradition, which came down from the times of Abraham, to remind the believers of Abraham’s firm faith in and his total submission to Allah, and Hagar’s trust in her Master; and to make them follow the spirit of the event. Al-Bukhārī has reported the event in detail:

Narrated Ibn ‘Abbās: ‘Ibrāhīm (Abraham) brought her and her son Ishma‘el while she used to nurse him at her breast, to a place near the Ka’bah under a tree on the spot of Zamzam, at the highest place in the mosque. During those days there was nobody in Makkah nor was there any water. So he made them sit over there and placed near them a leather bag containing some dates, and a small water-skin containing some water, and set out homeward. Ishma‘el’s mother followed him saying, ‘O Ibrahim! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we may enjoy, nor there is anything?’ She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her. Then she asked him, ‘Has Allah ordered you to do so?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ She said, ‘Then He will not neglect us,’[27] and returned while Ibrahim proceeded onwards, and on reaching the Thaniya where they could not see him, he faced the Ka’bah, and raising both hands, invoked Allah saying the following supplication:

O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring to dwell in an uncultivated valley, by Your Sacred House (…) so that they may give thanks. (v. 14: 37).

Ishma‘el’s mother went on suckling Ishma‘el and drinking from the water (she had). When the water in the water-skin had all been used up, she became [felt] thirsty and her child also became [felt] thirsty. She started looking at him (i.e., Ishma‘el) tossing in agony. She left him, for she could not endure looking at him, and found that the mount of al-Safa was the nearest mountain to her on that land. She stood on it and started looking at the valley keenly so that she might see somebody, but she could not see anybody. Then she descended from al-Safa and when she reached the valley, she tucked up her robe and ran in the valley like a person in distress and trouble, till she crossed the valley and reached al-Marwah mountain, where she stood and started looking, expecting to see somebody, but she could not see anybody. She repeated that (running between al-Safa and al-Marwah) seven times[stress added].

Ibn ‘Abbas told: The Prophet (Pbuh) said, ‘This is the source of the tradition of Sa‘y (the [briskly] walking) of people between them (i.e., al-Safa and Al-Marwah).’

[The Prophet continued] ‘When she reached Al-Marwah (for the last time) she heard a voice and she asked herself to be quite and listened attentively. She heard the voice again and said: ‘O, (whoever you may be)! You have made me hear your voice; have you got something to help me?’ And behold! She saw an angel at the place of Zamzam, digging the earth with his heel (or his wing), till water flowed from that place. She started to make something like a basin around it, using her hands in this way, and started filling her water-skin with water with her hands, and the water was flowing out after she had scooped some of it.’

The Prophet (Pbuh) added, ‘May Allah bestow mercy on Ishma‘el’s mother! Had she let the Zamzam (flow without trying to control it) (or had she not scooped from that water) (to fill her water skin), Zamzam would have been a stream flowing on the surface of the earth.’

The Prophet [pbuh] further added, ‘Then she drank (water) and suckled her child. The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah, which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people.” The House (i.e., Ka‘bah) at that time was on a high place resembling a hillock, and when torrents came, they flowed to its right and left. She lived in that way till some people from the tribe of Jurham or a family from Jurham passed by her and her child, as they (i.e., the Jurham people) were coming through the way of Kada, they landed in the lower part of Makkah where they saw a bird that had the habit of flying around water and not leaving it. They said, “This bird must be flying around water, though we know that there is no water in this valley.” They sent one or two messengers who discovered the source of water, and returned to inform them of the water. So they all came (towards the water).’

The Prophet (Pbuh) added: ‘Ishma‘el’s mother was sitting near the water. They asked her, “Do you allow us to stay with you?” She replied, “Yes, but you will have no right to possess the water.” They agreed to that.’

The Prophet (Pbuh) further said, ‘Ishma‘el’s mother was pleased with the whole situation (…). So, they settled there, and later on they sent for their families who came and settled with them so that some families became permanent residents there. The child (i.e., Ishma‘el) grew up and learnt Arabic from them and (his virtues) caused them to love and admire him as he grew up, and when he reached the age of puberty they made him marry a woman from amongst them.’[28]

   It may be appreciated by a construing mind how clear, compact, consistent, spontaneous, flawless, and logical, is the statement of the event in this tradition.

i)  It has been recorded above that some well already existed, and was quite visible, at the site of the ‘Beersheba of the Well of Oath, where the oath was carried out between Abraham and Abimelech; but it was without any name. It was named ‘Beersheba or the Well of Oath’ after the oath which was administered there between Abraham and Abimelech. Whereas prima facie there existed no well at the site of the ‘Wilderness of Beersheba of the Well of Seven’, and the well was subsequently provided there in an unusual way, after Abraham had gone away, leaving Hagar and Ishma‘el in the ‘Wilderness of Beersheba and Paran’. It shows that the Beersheba of ‘the Well of Seven’ and the Beersheba of ‘the Well of Oath’ are quite different places.

j)  There is the mention of a third ‘Beersheba’ as well in the Bible as recorded hereunder:

Abimelech came to him from Gerar with Ahuzzath his friend and Phicol the commander of his army. Isaac said to them, ‘Why have you come here? You hate me and you sent me away.’ They answered, ‘We have seen plainly that the Lord is with you, so we thought, Let the two of us put each other to the oath and make a treaty that will bind us. We have not attacked you, we have done you nothing but good, and we let you go away peaceably. Swear that you will do us no harm, now that the Lord has blessed you.’ So Isaac gave a feast and they ate and drank. They rose early in the morning and exchanged oaths. Then Isaac bade them farewell, and they parted from him in peace. The same day Isaac’s slaves came and told him about a well that they had dug: ‘We have found water’, they said. He named the well Shibah [there is a footnote ‘x’ on it: ‘That is Oath’]. This is why the city is called Beersheba [there is a footnote y on it: ‘i.e. Well of an Oath’] to this day.[29]

   According to most of the commentators and lexicographers of the Bible, the Beersheba concerning Abraham and the Beersheba concerning Isaac are one and the same place. There are others who believe they are different. There are, again, some others, who observe that it was a mere fabrication of the redactors of the Bible. Whatever the case may be, there is a special point to be noted here. Isaac did not find Hagar or any of the member of Ishma‘el family there. Had it been the same Beersheba (Well of Seven) related to Hagar and Ishma‘el story:

(i)   It must have already existed there.

(ii)  The well genuinely being the property of Hagar and Ishma‘el, they should have been very much there.

(iii) Ishma‘el being a hospitable person, must have entertained his younger brother Isaac there.

   But to the utter disappointment of the writer and the readers, nothing of this sort had been witnessed there. The well did not exist there before this event. It was dug out there by the slaves of Isaac. There was neither Hagar nor the Ishma‘el family on the spot to entertain Isaac. Then it was Isaac who named it the well Shibah according to the Bible. It means that it was a well that came into being through digging it out by the slaves of Isaac and it was not the well that was provided and brought to the sight of Hagar through some extra-ordinary process. 

From the above data it has become quite clear that the wilderness of Beersheba mentioned in the relevant passage of the Bible relates to the uncultivated, mountainous, sandy, sterile and desolate land of Makkah and the well of Zamzam. It, in no way, has anything to do with the cultivatable Beersheba of the Well of Oath, which is near the S. boundary of Canaan, where Abraham frequented to look after his herds and flocks which he had kept there.

To recapitulate and sum up the whole of the above theme, some conspicuous points are given below:

1.      There are some interpolations, additions, deletions, and alterations in the passage, which render the whole story quite doubtful. Any of its statement should, therefore, be judged on its own merit after examining it critically. 

2.      The story depicts Sarah as a jealous, revengeful, spiteful,  and mean-spirited woman. It is quite unbecoming and unbelievable of a lady of Sarah’s calibre, and as such the whole of this episode looks to be a fabrication.

3.      Hagar was the daughter of the king of Egypt and as such a princess. She was given to Abraham and Sarah to be reared up and educated and for learning noble and godly etiquette under the guidance of Abraham and Sarah, and to serve the family, as an acknowledgement of its piety and godliness. She was not a ‘bondwoman’ sold by his father, the king of Egypt. As such all the stories of Sarah’s maltreatment to Hagar are simply fabrications. Even if Hagar had been a slave-girl, it was not proper for Sarah’s grace to injure her feelings by reminding her of her inferior status and to subject her to such ill treatment.

4.      When Hagar and Ishma‘el were settled at Beersheba, Ishma‘el was a child of very young age which is obvious from the clauses that Abraham: ‘took some bread and a skin of water and, giving them to Hagar, put the child on her shoulder’; and Hagar ‘cast the child under one of the shrubs’; and the angel of God said to Hagar, ‘lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand.’ On the other hand it occurred as a result of the ‘mocking’ of Ishma‘el to Isaac at the time of the weaning feast of Isaac. The weaning took place when Isaac was either two years old or three. He was younger than Ishma‘el by fourteen years. It means that Ishma‘el was a youth of not less than sixteen or seventeen years at that time. Hagar could not have ‘put him on her shoulder’ or ‘cast him under one of the shrubs’ or 'lift up the lad, and hold him in her hand.’ All this makes quite clear that the episode of the weaning feast, in its present form, is inconsistent and incredible; and the noble Sarah stands exonerated of all the charges of jealousy etc., and this episode of the story is also to be rejected on merit. 

5.  Abraham had abandoned Hagar and Ishma‘el in the wil-derness of Beersheba to be settled there under the orders of God. He should not have worried, as he was doing it under the command of God, and he had previously witnessed that God was the Sustainer of the family.

6.       The word ‘Beersheba’ has been used at 34 places in the Bible. It is only in connection with both Hagar and Ishma‘el  that it has been preceded by the word ‘wilderness’. It is due to the fact that this ‘Beersheba’ is a ‘wilderness’ in true sense of word; whereas the other ‘Beersheba’ is a green and fertile place abounding in water.

7.      ‘Beersheba’ is a meaningful word which means the ‘Well of Seven’; or the ‘Well of Seven Rounds of Running between the Mounts of al-Safā and al-Marwah (Moriah of the Bible)’; or the ‘Well which was given to Hagar as a result of her Seven Rounds of Running between the Mounts of al-Safā and al-Marwah’.

8. ‘Beersheba’ also means the ‘Well of Oath’, which relates to the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech, and to the covenant between Isaac and Abimelech, carried out in the SW end of Canaan. It has nothing to do with the former ‘Beersheba’ or the ‘Well of Seven [Rounds of Running between the Mounts of al-Safā and al-Marwah]’.

9.      ‘Wilderness’ is the English rendering of the Hebrew word ‘Midbār’ [in Heb. character ‘מדבר’], which means: ‘sandy, barren, uneven, uncultivated, and mountainous land or desert’. These qualities are promptly relevant to the ‘Beersheba’ of the ‘Well of Seven’ i.e., Makkah and its environment. As to the ‘Beersheba’ of the ‘Well of Oath’, they cannot be applied to it.

10.    ‘Beersheba of the Well of Oath’, already existed at the place where the oath was carried out between Abraham and Abimelech (or, in the case of the oath between Isaac and Abimelech, it was dug out by the slaves of Isaac); Whereas no well was visible or dug out at the site of the ‘Wilderness of Beersheba of the Well of Seven’. It makes clear that the ‘Beersheba of the Well of Oath’ and the ‘Beersheba of the Well of Seven’ are quite different places. The ‘Beersheba of the Well of Seven’ is the ‘Well of Zamzam’, which was given to Hagar as a result of her running seven times between the hillocks of al-Safā and al-Marwah in search of water.