Kiryat-Arba Is Hebron…. But Is It?
Hebron’s Original Name
In Joshua 14, after Joshua grants Caleb the city of Hebron, the biblical author observes:
יהושע יד:טו וְשֵׁ֨ם חֶבְר֤וֹן לְפָנִים֙ קִרְיַ֣ת אַרְבַּ֔ע הָאָדָ֧ם הַגָּד֛וֹל בָּעֲנָקִ֖ים ה֑וּא…
Josh 14:15 The name of Hebron was formerly Kiryat-arba: [Arba] was the great man among the giants (anakim).
According to this, even though the Torah (Num 13) and Joshua (Josh 14:14) use the name “Hebron,” the city was originally called Kiryat-arba.
The identification of Kiryat-arba as Hebron’s original name appears again in the account of Judah’s conquest of Hebron:
שופטים א:י וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ יְהוּדָ֗ה אֶל הַֽכְּנַעֲנִי֙ הַיּוֹשֵׁ֣ב בְּחֶבְר֔וֹן וְשֵׁם חֶבְר֥וֹן לְפָנִ֖ים קִרְיַ֣ת אַרְבַּ֑ע וַיַּכּ֛וּ אֶת שֵׁשַׁ֥י וְאֶת אֲחִימַ֖ן וְאֶת תַּלְמָֽי:
Judg 1:10 The Judahites marched against the Canaanites who dwelt in Hebron, (the name of Hebron was formerly Kiryat-arba), and they defeated Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai.
In both of these passages, Kiryat-arba seems to have been inserted as an editorial comment or gloss. In his discussion of glosses, the scholar of biblical textual criticism, Emanuel Tov writes that the clearest examples in the Bible of editorial glosses are, “short explanations of names and words, added to the completed text, either during the textual transmission, or at an earlier stage.” The phase “the name of Hebron was formerly Kiryat-arba” fits this description.
Kiryat-arba Is Hebron: The Inverse Gloss
The inverse of “Hebron was formerly Kiryat-arba” is found as well. Most texts that discuss Kiryat-arba receive an editorial comment telling us that this is the city of Hebron. This occurs, for example, in the verse describing Sarah’s death:
כג:ב וַתָּ֣מָת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥וא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן…
23:2 Sarah died in Kiryat-arba—that is, Hebron—in the land of Canaan…
In the city lists that mention Kiryat-arba, all but one case contain this gloss:
List of Judah’s cities (Josh 15:54)
טו:נד וְקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥יא חֶבְר֖וֹן
15:54 Humtah, Kiryat-arba—that is, Hebron—and Zior:
Refuge cities (Josh 20:7)
כ:ז וַיַּקְדִּ֜שׁוּ אֶת־קֶ֤דֶשׁ בַּגָּלִיל֙ בְּהַ֣ר נַפְתָּלִ֔י וְאֶת־שְׁכֶ֖ם בְּהַ֣ר אֶפְרָ֑יִם וְאֶת־קִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥יא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּהַ֥ר יְהוּדָֽה:
20:7 So they set aside Kedesh in the hill country of Naphtali in Galilee, Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and Kiryat-arba—that is, Hebron—in the hill country of Judah.
Levitical cities (Josh 21:11)
כא:יא וַיִּתְּנ֨וּ לָהֶ֜ם אֶת־קִרְיַת֩ אַרְבַּ֨ע אֲבִ֧י הָֽעֲנ֛וֹק הִ֥יא חֶבְר֖וֹןבְּהַ֣ר יְהוּדָ֑ה…
21:11 To them were assigned in the hill country of Judah Kiryat-arba—[Arba was] the father of the giant(s) (anok)—that is, Hebron…
The formulation היא חברון “that is, Hebron” makes it clear that the original city listed in these texts was Kiryat-arba, but that a scribe, likely during a later period when the name Hebron was prevalent, or when the two cities became identified with each other, consistently glossed it as Hebron.
The use of the term “that is” (הוא or היא) is discussed by Michael Fishbane, who sees these as technical terms with formulaic usage for glossing places:
The concern of biblical scribes to provide themselves or their readers with accurate geographical information about old locales mentioned in the texts—toponyms whose names have been changed or whose identities have been obscured with time…
Kiryat-arba in Nehemiah
Kiryat-arba appears on its own, without any gloss, only once, in a list of resettled cities in the book of Nehemiah:
נחמיה יא:כה וְאֶל־הַחֲצֵרִ֖ים בִּשְׂדֹתָ֑ם מִבְּנֵ֣י יְהוּדָ֗ה יָֽשְׁב֞וּ בְּקִרְיַ֤ת הָֽאַרְבַּע֙ וּבְנֹתֶ֔יהָ וּבְדִיבֹן֙ וּבְנֹתֶ֔יהָ וּבִֽיקַּבְצְאֵ֖ל וַחֲצֵרֶֽיהָ:
Neh 11:25 As concerns the villages with their fields: Some of the Judahites lived in Kiryat-ha-arba and its outlying hamlets, in Dibon and its outlying hamlets, and in Jekabzeel and its villages.
It is possible that the author of this passage uses this older term to archaize, i.e., to give the new settlements the imprimatur of hoary antiquity—but there is no very strong reason why this should be so in this particular text. More likely, all the city-list texts originally had only the name Kiryat-arba with no gloss identifying the city as Hebron. As the idea developed that Hebron and Kiryat-arba were identical, various scribes glossed the other references to Kiryat-arba, but overlooked this verse in Nehemiah.
Why the Conflation of Hebron and Kiryat-arba?
The evidence suggests that Kiryat-arba and Hebron were originally separate cities. In Israelite tradition, Hebron is the city of Sheshai, Ahiman, and Talmai the giants, conquered by Caleb and/or the Judahites. The patriarchs live in Hebron; David is crowned in Hebron and first establishes his rule over Judah and Israel there. Kiryat-arba, on the other hand, is the place where Sarah dies; it is a Judahite town appearing in a number of city-lists.
Over time, the two cities became conflated in the understanding of the scribes, who believed that Kiryat-arba was merely an archaic name for Hebron. This prompted the scribes to gloss Hebron with the phrase, “the original name of Hebron was Kiryat-arba,” and to gloss Kiryat-arba with, “that is, Hebron.” But what might have prompted a later editor to think the two cities of Kiryat-arba and Hebron were one?
When the Idumeans Controlled Hebron
After the fall of Judah in 6th century B.C.E., and for much of the Second Temple Period after that, Judah (Yehud) lost control of its southernmost territories to the Edomites (Idumeans), whose borders included Hebron. Kiryat-arba, which was resettled during this period (Neh 11:21), was likely a southern Judahite town on the border near (Idumean dominated) Hebron. Perhaps associating Kiryat-arba with Hebron in the city lists and Sarah’s burial notice was meant as a political statement to the Idumeans during the period when they dominated Hebron, “You may rule this city now, but it is part of our heritage going back to the time of Abraham and Joshua.”
In addition to this political interpretation, however, we must add two prosaic possibilities. It is possible that the scribal editors were no longer familiar with the location of Kiryat-arba, and they associated it with a more familiar place in the vicinity, the great city of Hebron. Moreover, it may be that the scribes were partially correct. Kiryat-arba may have been a small town, very close to Hebron. As happens with small towns near large cities, when Hebron expanded over time, the nearby small town of Kiryat-arba was swallowed up, and with that, the two cities merged not only their populations, but their places in Judahite tradition. Thus, from the perspective of this time period, Kiryat-arba was indeed (part of greater) Hebron.
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Prof. Jacob L. Wright is Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the Director of Graduate Studies in Emory’s Tam Institute of Jewish Studies. His doctorate is from Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen. He is the author of Rebuilding Identity: The Nehemiah Memoir and its Earliest Readers (which won a Templeton prize) and David, King of Israel, and Caleb in Biblical Memory.
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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