The Hebrew word neʹgev is thought to be derived from a root meaning “to be parched,” and often denotes the semiarid area S of the mountains of Judah. From the circumstance that this region lay S of Judah, neʹgev also came to mean “south,” and is used with reference to a southern side (Num. 35:5), a southern boundary (Josh. 15:4) and a southern gate. (Ezek. 46:9) In some translations a distinction between the geographical designation and the compass direction is not maintained, resulting in confusing renderings. An example of this is Genesis 13:1, where translating neʹgev as “south” (AS, AV, Le) makes it appear that Abraham went southward out of Egypt, when actually his direction was northward through the Negeb to Bethel. But this difficulty has been eliminated in many modern translations.—AT, JB, NW, RS.
The Negeb of ancient times seems to have embraced an area extending from the district of Beer-sheba in the N to Kadesh-barnea in the S. (Gen. 21:14; Num. 13:17, 22; 32:8) The prophet Isaiah described this region as a land of hard conditions, a haunt of lions, leopards and snakes. (Isa. 30:6) In the northern section, occasional springs, wells and pools are found, and the tamarisk is one of the few trees that thrives there. (Gen. 21:33) To the SW of Beer-sheba lie two small areas and one relatively large area of sand dunes. Much of the Negeb is a plateau between 1,500 and 2,000 feet (457 and 610 meters) above sea level, with peaks up to 3,500 feet (1,067 meters) in elevation. To the S and E of Beer-sheba there are rugged ridges, generally running from E to W.
However, the cisterns, terrace walls and ruins of many towns that have been found in the Negeb indicate that the area anciently supported a considerable population. Here the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob found pasturage for their large flocks. (Gen. 13:1, 2; 20:1; 24:62; 46:5) And in Abraham’s time the Elamite king Chedorlaomer, with his three allies, defeated the inhabitants of the Negeb.—Gen. 14:1-7.
Centuries afterward, the Israelite spies sent by Moses entered the Promised Land from the Negeb, which at that time was inhabited by the Amalekites. (Num. 13:17, 22, 29) Under the leadership of Joshua, all the inhabitants of the Negeb were defeated (Josh. 10:40; 11:16) and cities in this region became part of the territory of the tribe of Simeon. (Josh. 19:1-6) Also, the nomadic Kenites, who were related to Moses through marriage, took up residence in the Negeb. (Judg. 1:16; compare 1 Samuel 15:6, 7.) The Israelites evidently did not maintain control over the area. Over the years there were repeated clashes with the Canaanites of the Negeb, particularly the Amalekites. (Judg. 1:9; 6:3; 1 Sam. 15:1-9; 30:1-20) From the city of Ziklag, given to him by the Philistine king Achish, David made raids upon the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites of the Negeb. (1 Sam. 27:5-8) Apparently not until David’s reign as king, after the defeat of the Edomites, did Israel gain complete control of the Negeb. (2 Sam. 8:13, 14) The later Judean king Uzziah evidently built towers and hewed out cisterns in this region.—2 Chron. 26:10.
After the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Obadiah foretold that the Israelites would be restored to their land, including the Negeb.—Obad. 19, 20.