Heshbon—Song of Songs 7:4

Identifying cities mentioned in documents from the ancient Near East can be challenging. Religious, administrative, propagandistic, and economic texts include topographic references that require specific study to determine their exact locations. Succeeding civilizations may have changed place names or shifted them to new sites. As a result, scholars have to examine geographical features in the context of conditions during ancient times.

The Hebrew Bible describes the route that the Israelites used to arrive in the land of Canaan. They wanted to cross the Madaba Plains east of the Jordan River and follow what was known as the King’s Highway. The highway was an area that is now part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

Numbers 21 reports that Moses sent messengers to King Sihon. He asked for permission to cross into the Promised Land near Madaba (Num. 21:21). However, the Amorite king had seized that area from the Moabites; he refused and prepared to use force to stop the Israelites (Num. 21:23). The Israelites fought them at Jahaz and took the Amorite capital city, Heshbon. Not long after that victory, Moses went up to Mount Nebo and died there.

A modern town preserves the name of Hisban and has long been associated with the biblical story. Andrews University began archaeological work at the tell in 1968 and has continued it for half a century. The initial excavations at Tall Hisban did not uncover evidence of an Amorite city during the Late Bronze Age when the Israelites would have conquered the region. Rethinking their interpretation of the site, the excavators then established a new paradigm for understanding the relationship between archaeological work and biblical studies. The “Andrews Way” of approaching archaeological excavations says that the Bible should not be forced onto archaeological research, that comprehensive work must include anthropological studies, and that all results need to be published promptly. Until then, biblical studies had generally ignored the tribal nature of the population in Transjordan as well as its nomadic changes and diverse settlement patterns. The expeditions at Heshbon have provided more tools to understand ancient peoples. One main suggestion for the absence of LB occupation has been that LB Heshbon is elsewhere. Another is that the nomadic nature of tent-dwelling Amorites, who had recently conquered the area, had left no significant remains.

Without a doubt, the site was inhabited during the Iron Age when Solomon described the pools of Heshbon (Song of Songs 7:4). Paul Ray notes that excavators thus far have found only one reservoir; whether this feature reflects the biblical data is still open for debate. Since Heshbon was located at a crossroads, it was vulnerable to the power struggles that engulfed many of the tribal kingdoms of the area. The biblical texts describe Heshbon under Moabite and then Ammonite control before the Neo-Babylonians invaded the Levant (Isa. 15:4; Jer. 48:2; 49: 3).

The New Testament does not mention Heshbon, but Josephus describes Alexander Jannaeus, the Maccabee conquering the town of Esbus during the Hellenistic period (106-79 BC). Herod the Great fortified the settlement, and later the Zealots seized it during their revolt against Rome (AD 68-70). The Romans re-conquered the area and placed all the towns and villages of the Madaba plains under their control.

During the Byzantine period, Esbus, or Heshbon, was an important center for Christianity. The site had at least three churches dating between 400-800 AD. Andrews University found several layers of mosaic floors as well as a silver box containing “holy relics” buried under the altar place of the acropolis church. More recent excavations uncovered the largely intact original mosaic floors of the north church and have preserved them for later display. An inscription on a lintel that rested above the entryway described how a wealthy patron named George rebuilt the church in the sixth century AD. Mosaic images of the churches of Hesban were also found on the floors of the Church of St. Stephen at Um ar-Rasas in Jordan, showing that at least one of them had a dome.


Bates, Hudon, LaBianca, “Tall Hisban 2011-2012: The Final Seasons of Phase II,” 287-319.

LaBianca, “Community Archaeology at Tall Hisban,” 5-27.

Ray, Tell Hesban and Vicinity in the Iron Age.

Younker et al., “Preliminary Report on the 2009 Season of the Madaba Plains Project: Tall Jalul Excavations 2009,” 27-34.