Hebron PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
Article Index
Seeking Mamre
Tombs of Patriarchs
Byzantine Mamre

The Hebron of David
and later...

After the death of Saul, the land lay open and vulnerable to the Philistines. David was their vassal, ruling Ziklag on the northwest fringe of the Negev. Now that his own people were in need of defense, he...

,,,inquired of Yahweh, saying, “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” Yahweh said to him, “Go up.” David said, “Where shall I go up?” He said, “To Hebron.”

So David went up there, and his two wives also, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail the wife of Nabal the Carmelite.  
David brought up his men who were with him, every man with his household. They lived in the cities of Hebron.   The men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah. [2 Samuel 2:1-4]

Hebron was the natural choice for a rebellious vassal who needed to build a power base. Hailing from Judah, David would have wanted to establish himself on that tribe's mountain. His home town of Bethlehem was too vulnerable. Its hill lacked a spring. The Philistines or the other Israelite tribes could mass on the Benjamin plateau and attack from the north. The Philistines had little trouble, apparently, in reaching the Valley of Rephaim between Jebusite Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Hebron was much stronger. To see why, please go to our first page on Hebron, which gives the geographical logic behind David's ascent to "the cities of Hebron."

He brought his wives and militia, but there is no record of his having had to conquer it. Most likely, its residents preferred a strong ruler from their own tribe over the weak successor of Saul the Benjaminite. After the disaster that had befallen the army of Israel, the Judahites, like everyone else, would have felt threatened by the Philistines. What is more, David likely had alliances in the area by marriage: his wives were from Carmel and Jezreel, both of them locations in the Hebron region.

In his mountain bastion, David spent seven and a half years accumulating power. When we look at the tell, using the sparse excavations to estimate where the walls would have been, we may wonder at the smallness of the "city."


According to the most recent excavator, Avi Ofer, Hebron was the major city in the area during the Middle Bronze Age. A massive "cyclopean" wall from this time can still be seen at places on the tell. After the turmoil of 1550 BC, when the Egyptians drove out the Hyksos and ravaged the land, Hebron underwent a decline, as did the rest of the highlands. There are no finds for the Late Bronze Age except nearby cemeteries used by nomads. The city revived in the 11th century, however, probably when the Calebites took over. Judging from his finds, Ofer believes that Hebron had its "golden era" in the 10th century, which would fit its function as David's capital.

Ofer believes (1) that the strong walls from Middle Bronze II continued in use during David's time, protecting the upper part of the city, but (2) that the city extended beyond them. To confirm these points, more work is required. In any case, we should recall that in the First Testament period a city on a hill was the hub of a wider metropolitan area. For every person living inside, there would have been another ten or so living in nearby villages, producing food to support the urban aristocrat and themselves.

David's main concern at first was not with the Philistines, rather with the remnant of the Israelite forces under Saul's son, Ishbosheth, whose army was headed by Abner. After both were murdered, the northern tribes found themselves leaderless. There was nothing to stop the Philistines from dominating, say, the Jezreel Plain or the valley at Shechem, cutting them off from each other. Under the old system from the period of the judges, the tribes should have waited for God to call up a leader, granting him charisma to unite them against the enemy. But this wouldn't work against the Philistines, who were better organized, faster and more mobile than the Canaanite city-states. That was why the tribes had taken Saul as their first human king, and it was why they now went to David in Hebron. 


The elders asked David to make a compact with them, under whose terms he would rule them as king. In the Ancient Near East, a king was not normally bound by a compact to his people; he was above the law by which he ruled them (Keel, pp. 677-78). The tribes' insistence on a compact would have been a vestige from the older system, under which each of them had retained a large measure of independence.

As a capital from which to rule all the tribes, Hebron would have been too far south. So David set his sights on Jebusite Jerusalem, a decision we've discussed there. He conquered it and made it his capital, gaining a foothold on the Benjamin Plateau. Then he attempted to consolidate his kingdom according to his own standards of efficiency, ignoring the compact with the tribes. This act fueled the first great rebellion against him, led by Absalom his son. Absalom had been born in Hebron and could take it as his base, for the city no doubt resented its loss of status to Jerusalem.

After Solomon's death and the split in the kingdom, the data become thin. Enough exists, however, to indicate that Hebron continued to function until the Babylonian invasion of 586 BC and even later. Of special interest from the reign of Hezekiah are five jar handles inscribed "For the King," two including the name "Hebron." This was one of four Judean towns appointed to collect provisions in such jars. Clearly, it was in the grip of Jerusalem.

In 539 BC Babylon fell to Cyrus of Persia. Throughout the Persian period (that is, until 332 BC) Hebron was empty. No finds have turned up on the tell or in the valley below. Instead, there was habitation on the next hill to the north at a place called the Ruin of Nimra (Mamre?).

By the fifth century, the Edomites had become the dominant group in the area. The Persians organized their lands as the province of Idumea.

Hebron re-emerged as a town in the Hellenistic period, but never again would its center be on the tell. It was now in the valley to the east. The population was largely Edomite, as is evident from the many tombstone inscriptions that carry, as a component of the person's name, the syllable -cos. Cos was the chief god of Edom.

Judah Maccabee conquered the region in 160 BC. Half a century later, the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus annexed Idumea, and many Edomites converted to Judaism. (Among them was the future Herod's paternal grandfather.) Some of them retained their ethnic identity, however, as well as a desire for independence.