Biblical Hormah and the Settlement of the Negev

Evidently, Hormah was one of the main cities of Simeon during its heyday.

AFTER three archeological campaigns at Tell Masos,1 located about ten miles east of Tell Sebac (near modern Beer-sheba), it has become increasingly certain that Tell Masos is to be identified with Biblical Hormah, where Israel was defeated in her attempt to conquer Palestine without divine aid (Num. 14:1-45). The excavations, con ducted by the University of Mainz (Germany), have been sponsored by a joint German-Israeli expedition under the auspices of the Deutsche Forschungs-Gemeinschaft and Tel Aviv University. They were directed by Profs. Y. Aharoni and V. Fritz, and A. Kempinski. The professional staff was com posed of students and teachers from Tel Aviv University, in cooperation with archeologists from Germany, the United States, and other countries.

As the map (Fig. 1) shows, there are three important tells at Masos dating from different periods. The oldest is the Middle Bronze II (MB H) settlement (c. 1800-1700 B.C.) south of the Nahal Beer-sheba. It was situated at some perennial springs that are still being used today by the Bedouins. An ancient caravan route connecting the southern coast of Palestine with Edom ran along the wadi. Three trenches cut through the MB II-age rampart and glacis revealed a structure typical of the time when the Hyksos ruled Egypt and the southern part of Palestine.

Stratigraphical evidence points to two settlements, of which the first was destroyed by fire. The remains of the destroyed city were reused as fill material for the defense walls. Since the two buildings that were unearthed had only one floor it appears that the second period of occupation did not last very long. There were also no architectural changes made. According to ceramic evidence the settlement was occupied during the first half of the eighteenth century B.C. It seems to be the largest of its kind so far discovered in the Negev, guarding the southern border of Palestine during the MB II period. It has therefore been suggested that this tell is identical with the h'm' of the Sinai inscriptions dating from the time of Amenemhet III (1842-1797 B.C.) and may also be identified with the h"m of the later execration texts.2 B. Mazar had already suggested the identification of h"m with Biblical Hormah.3

However, archeology cannot tell with certainty whether or not there was a settlement near Nahal Beer-sheba in the Late Bronze period (c. 1600-1200 B.C.) at the time of the attempted Israelite conquest. Its nonexistence, how ever, does not prove that the mention of Hormah in Numbers 14:45 is an anachronism since it may still be the place name designating the area of the MB II settlement. The existence of an early Iron I settlement (c. 1200-1000 B.C.) is well attested; Areas A, C, and F belong to this site.

Impressive house remains in these excavated areas are typical for Pales tine of the Israelite period and can be compared with many other sites, such as Megiddo and Hazor, dating from later periods. This type of house, the "four-room house," usually has one or two rows of stone pillars (Fig. 2). Several houses of this kind have been excavated at Masos, covering an area of about twelve acres. Since "four-room houses" have never been found at non-Israelite settlements, it is most likely that the four-room house is Israelite.4 The example at Tell Masos is the earliest yet dis covered. 5 The Iron I settlement to which these houses belong had no fortifications. Since Stratum I in Area A came to an end shortly before the establishment of the Israelite kingdom (c. 1050 B.C.) the early Iron I settlement belongs to the time of the Judges. The excavations at Tell Masos were therefore designed to help discover additional in formation about the history of the settlement of Israel in the Negev, supplementing the results of the excavations at Tell Arad, Tell Esdar, and Tell Sebac.

Is the Identification Valid?

How valid is the argument that Tell Masos is identical with Biblical Hormah? According to Joshua 19:1-9 the tribe of Simeon settled partly in the area belonging to the tribe of Judah. The list of cities contained in these verses refers to those cities that belonged to the Simeonites. Among them Beersheba is the only one identified with certainty. The list mentions also Hormah, which must therefore be located in the western Negev as are the other cities (Fig. 3).

Additional evidence can be gathered from another city list in Judges 1:16,17, where we are told that the Kenites joined the tribes of Judah and Simeon and dwelt in the vicinity of Arad. Furthermore, a list of cities referring to the territory of Judah mentions also those towns and villages that belonged to the Simeonites (Joshua 15:20-35). The area covered includes the territory of the Kenites as well, as is evident from the reference to the town of Kinah (verse 22), which must have been situated near the modern Wadi el-Quina, which evidently received its name from the Kenites.6 In all of these lists Hormah is also mentioned. Aharoni 7 has observed that Hormah played a very important role in the early history of the Israelites, although the city is not mentioned as often as Beer-sheba or Arad.

Since the strategic position and economic importance of cities are usually the main reasons for their repeated occurrence in Scripture, one has to look for these characteristics in order to identify an unknown town. Among the excavated and unexcavated tells be tween Beer-sheba and the southern end of the Dead Sea the only one fulfilling the characteristics apart from the already identified sites of Beer-sheba and Arad is Tell Masos. Its strategic position as a border town is apparent from the map. The excavations have brought to light rich finds of decorated pottery and small ornaments of copper, stone, and ivory, which testify to the wealth and trade relations of the settlement. Since Tell Masos is one of the largest sites in the Negev its identification with Hormah is most likely correct.

Evidently, Hormah was one of the main cities of Simeon during its hey day, which existed "until David reigned" (1 Chron. 4:30, 31, R.S.V.). Stratigraphical evidence indicates that the Iron I settlement was destroyed about 1000 B.C. along with Tell Arad, Tell Malhata, and Tell es-Sebac. These cities, however, were resettled shortly after ward. But not Tell Masos. A small city (Iron II, c. 700 B.C.) was later founded on a tell southwest of the large Iron I city (Area D in Fig. 1). Four occupational strata are discernible, but no destruction level. This little town had a defense wall probably of the casemate type. Such a wall was necessary during that period owing to the rivalry between Egypt and Assyria.

The Biblical data concerning the time of the Exodus supports the date for an Exodus around the middle of the fifteenth century B.C. (Judges 11:26; 1 Kings 6:1; Acts 13:19, 20). Therefore the time of the settlement of Israel in Canaan must fall in the Late Bronze age (c. 1600-1200 B.C.) and the early Iron I period (c. 1200-1000 B.C.). According to Y. Aharoni there is increasing evidence that most of the unexcavated cities in the Judean mountains were founded during the fourteenth century B.C. For instance, Khirbet Raddana (near mod ern Ramallah)8 and Shiloh 9 have Late Bronze-age settlements. This accords well with the early Exodus date and with Joshua 17:14-18, which indicates that the Israelites settled in the vicinity of the Canaanite towns and in the forest-covered mountains. Thus the earliest Israelite settlements in the Negev to the south of the Judean mountains could not have been founded contemporaneously with the settlement of Israel in the more fertile regions of Palestine. For, according to archeological evidence, the beginning of the settlement of Israel in the Negev must have taken place about 1300-1200 B.C. Only gradually did the southern tribes push southward. This is understand able, for settling in the Negev meant living and working in a semiarid climate that was not as comfortable as the cooler climate of the mountainous region to the north.

During the time of the later Judges (c. 1150 B.C.), the superpowers, Assyria and especially Egypt, were hardly in full control of Palestine. This political situation is also reflected in the book of Judges, where only the smaller non- Israelite peoples and tribes of Palestine and Traftsjordan undertook raids against Israel. At that time the Philistines were just establishing their colonies on the southern shores of Pales tine. They did not yet exert any political or military pressure upon Israel. In fact, the pieces of fine Philistine ceramic found at Masos point to trade relations between the Israelites and the Philis tines during the twelfth century B.C. The nonexistence of any fortifications at the Iron I city of Tell Masos is further proof for the peaceful conditions that existed at that time at least in southern Palestine.

Thus the advance of Israel from the Judean hills towards the Negev was apparently a slow and peaceful process that lasted a number of decades. It happened at a time when no serious foe threatened to stop the people of God from taking possession of the Promised Land.


1 See Y. Aharoni, V. Fritz, and A. Kempinski, "Vorbericht iiber die Auagrabungen auf Hirbet el-Mashash," Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palastinavereins 89 (1973), pp. 197-210.

2 W. Helck, Die Beziehungen Xgyptens zu Vorderosien im 3, und 2. Johrtausend v. Chr. (1962), p. 53.

3 B. Mazar, Eretz Israel 3 (1954), p. 22.

4 Y. Shiloh, "The Four-Room House: Its Situation and Function in the Israelite City," Israel Exploration Journal 20 (1970), pp. 189,190 (in Hebrew).

5 Joseph A. Callaway and Robert E. Cooley, "A Salvage Excavation at Raddana, in Bireh," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 201 (1971), pp. 9-19.

6 Y. Aharoni in a forthcoming issue of the Zeitschrift des De''uItbsicdh.en Palastinavereins.

7. Ibid.

8 M. Kochavi, ed., Judaea, Samaria and the Golan (1972, in Hebrew), pp. 19-24.

9 Volkinar Fritz, "Erwagungen zur Siedlungsgeschichte des Negeb in der Eisen I-Zeit (1200-1000 v. Chr.) im Lichte der Ausgrabungen auf der Hirbet el-Msas," ZDPV91 (1975), p. 43f.

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July 1976

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