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The Testimony, March 2006 85 How did the ancient Israelites get their water? Tony Benson M OST READERS of this magazine have ready access to unlimited supplies of water, accessible at any time by the turn- ing of a tap. But what did the Israelites of Bible times do for water? Few lived near to a river or lake that supplied water all the year round. For those living in the hills, in particular, other means of obtaining water had to be found, and the ancient Israelites were experts at utilising vari- ous methods to ensure an adequate year-round supply of water. We will have a look at the five main methods of obtaining water. Springs There are very few naturally flowing springs in the Judean hills, the most famous being the Gihon Spring in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley. This has a flow of fifty cubic metres an hour, estimated at being sufficient to provide enough water for the drinking and cooking needs of 120,000 people. This spring is referred to in 1 Kings 1:33 as the place where Solomon was crowned king, and is well known as the source of water channelled through the tunnel, about a third of a mile long, constructed by Hezekiah, as referred to in 2 Chronicles 32: “This same Hezekiah also stopped the upper watercourse of Gihon, and brought it straight down to the west side of the city of David” (v. 30). It is typical of limestone hills, such as those making up much of the central spine of Israel, that water tends to flow underground, with little in the way of surface flow. This meant that the ancient Israelites, and their Canaanite predeces- sors, had to dig down to find flowing water at underground springs. A number of ancient shafts and tunnels have been discovered dur- ing excavations of ancient cities, the most well known being at Hazor and Megiddo, both readily visited. Modern steps at Megiddo, leading down to a tunnel through which water was brought into the city from a spring outside the walls. This water system dates back to the time of Solomon. PICTURE: TONY BENSON

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Page 1: How did the Israelites get their water - Testimony · PDF fileHow did the ancient Israelites get their water? ... place where Solomon was crowned king, ... How did the Israelites get

The Testimony, March 2006 85

How did the ancient Israelites get their water?

Tony Benson

MOST READERS of this magazine have ready access to unlimited supplies of water, accessible at any time by the turn-

ing of a tap. But what did the Israelites of Bible times do for water? Few lived near to a river or lake that supplied water all the year round. For those living in the hills, in particular, other means of obtaining water had to be found, and the ancient Israelites were experts at utilising vari-ous methods to ensure an adequate year-round supply of water. We will have a look at the five main methods of obtaining water.

SpringsThere are very few naturally flowing springs in the Judean hills, the most famous being the Gihon Spring in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley. This has a flow of fifty cubic metres an hour, estimated at being sufficient to provide enough water for the drinking and cooking needs of 120,000 people.

This spring is referred to in 1 Kings 1:33 as the place where Solomon was crowned king, and is well known as the source of water channelled through the tunnel, about a third of a mile long, constructed by Hezekiah, as referred to in 2 Chronicles 32: “This same Hezekiah also stopped the upper watercourse of Gihon, and brought it straight down to the west side of the city of David” (v. 30).

It is typical of limestone hills, such as those making up much of the central spine of Israel, that water tends to flow underground, with little in the way of surface flow. This meant that the ancient Israelites, and their Canaanite predeces-sors, had to dig down to find flowing water at underground springs. A number of ancient shafts and tunnels have been discovered dur-ing excavations of ancient cities, the most well known being at Hazor and Megiddo, both readily visited.

Modern steps at Megiddo, leading down to a tunnel through which water was brought into the city from a spring outside the walls. This water system dates back to the time of Solomon.

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The Testimony, March 200686

WellsA well can be a vertical shaft dug down to the level of the water table so that the bottom of the well fills up with water seeping in, or it can be a vertical shaft dug down to reach the flowing water of an underground stream. Wells are usually dug in plains and valleys rather than through solid rock. However, a well has been discovered in the Kidron Valley south of Jerusalem, dug to a depth of 125 feet through solid limestone. This is considered to be the place referred to in the Bible as En-rogel (see panel below).

A typical area for digging wells was the Negev (south), where Ab-raham and Isaac spent much of their time. The importance of wells in this dry area is shown in the disputes between Abraham, Isaac and their servants on the one hand and the Philistine King Abimelech and his servants on the other (Gen. 21:25-31; 26:15-25).

There are many occurrences of the word ‘well’ in the AV translation of the Old Testament. These represent four different Hebrew words (plus one occurring just once). However, the translation ‘well’ is not always accurate. The Hebrew mayan, translated ‘well’ five times, is usually translated ‘fountain’, and bor, translated ‘well’ nine times,

is usually translated ‘pit’ or ‘cistern’. The most common word for ‘well’ is beer (as in Beer-sheba, meaning ‘Well of the oath’), and the other is ayin. They seem to be used interchangeably, notably in Genesis 24, and seem to be capable of applying to both still and running water.

CisternsCisterns that collected the rain were a common way of securing water supplies in the limestone hills of the land of Israel. The Hebrew word for cistern is bor, which occurs sixty-six times, and is variously translated ‘cistern’, ‘dungeon’, ‘pit’ and

Ancient well excavated at Tell es-Seba, ancient Beer-sheba.

En-rogelA place called En-rogel is mentioned four times in the Bible. It occurs twice in Joshua in con-nection with the boundary between Judah and Benjamin (15:7; 18:16). In 2 Samuel 17:17 it is referred to as the place where Jonathan and Ahimaaz lodged in order to receive information as to what was going on in Jerusalem during Absalom’s rebellion. In 1 Kings 1:9 it is mentioned as the place where an attempt was made to crown Adonijah king instead of Solomon. The place was situated where the Kidron Valley joins the Hinnom Valley south of Jerusalem. The En part of the name indicates a spring, but all there is now is an ancient well (see main text).

There are two theories as to what might have happened to the spring that was presum-ably here originally. The first is that the topography was altered by the great earthquake that occurred in the time of King Uzziah (Amos 1:1; Zech 14:5). The second is based on the fact that, in limestone country, streams come to the surface, then disappear, then reappear further down a valley. The spring of En-rogel was where water from the Gihon Spring re-emerged after flowing down the Kidron Valley for a short way, then disappearing. From Solomon’s time onwards the water from the Gihon Spring was diverted into artificial channels for drinking water and irrigation, leaving insufficient water to emerge at En-rogel. It is noteworthy that En-rogel is not mentioned after 1 Kings 1. At a later time, local people, knowing that water once emerged there, sunk a shaft down until they found it.

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Page 3: How did the Israelites get their water - Testimony · PDF fileHow did the ancient Israelites get their water? ... place where Solomon was crowned king, ... How did the Israelites get

The Testimony, March 2006 87

‘well’. Not all these occurrences refer to cisterns, but most do.

Cisterns had a narrow opening and broadened out below, thus limiting the exposure of the collected water to evaporation. They were con-structed to collect the winter rainfall running off slopes, which would provide sufficient water for the six months without rain, running from April to October. Individual houses would have their own cisterns, as referred to by the Rabshakeh in 2 Kings 18:31: “eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his cistern”.

The Israelites relied heav-ily on cisterns, as they initially occupied mainly the hill country. Because cisterns cut in the limestone rock tend to develop cracks, they developed a method of plastering the walls of their cisterns to prevent the stored water seeping away. Besides the Gihon Spring as a source of water, New Testament Jerusalem had many cisterns, with a com-plex system of drains and runoffs to collect as much water as possible.

The Hebrew word bor is used in Genesis 37 for the “pit” into which Joseph was put, which we are told “was empty; there was no water in it”. It was evi-dently a cistern, with the water having been used up during the summer months, or else having seeped away through cracks. Bor is also used in Jeremiah 38 of the “dungeon” into which Jeremiah was put, evidently a cistern from which the water had gone, leav-ing only mud behind.

ReservoirsAnother method of collecting water was by damming wadies (streams flowing only in the rainy season) in order to collect the water in reservoirs. The Hebrew word for this is berekah, translated

‘pool’. There are references to pools in the cities of Gibeon, Hebron and Samaria (2 Sam. 2:13; 4:12; 1 Kgs. 22:38). The Preacher in Ecclesiastes refers to the fact that he had made “pools of water, to wa-ter therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees” (2:13), evidently reservoirs used for irrigation. In New Testament times there were about fifteen pools in and around Jerusalem, including the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed a paralysed man, as recorded in John 5.

Reconstruction drawing of the Pool of Bethesda, in fact two pools divided by a portico. The four porticoes round the

outside and the central one are thought to make up the “five porches” of John 5:2

Reconstructed dam at the site of the ancient Nabatean city of Mamshit. It was built to catch the winter rains for storage in a covered reservoir or for transference by jars to cisterns under houses.

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The Testimony, March 200688

AqueductsWe think of an aqueduct as being an elevated water channel, as famously built by the Romans in many places, or as being a bridge carrying a canal. However, it can mean any artificial chan-nel for carrying water from one place to another. Such a channel is referred to in Isaiah 7:3, “the conduit of the upper pool”, and in 8:6, “the waters of Shiloah that go softly”. This is not the tunnel built by Hezekiah to channel the waters of the Gihon Spring, for the conduit is mentioned in con-nection with the reign of Ahaz, Hezekiah’s father and predecessor. The reference seems to be to a channel constructed earlier to direct the waters of the Gihon Spring along the western edge of the Kidron Valley. This channel was partly in the open and partly just inside the rocky wall of the valley. It provided water to the lower end of the city of Jerusalem and irrigated the Kidron Valley.

There do not appear to be any further refer-ences to aqueducts in the Bible, but in New Testa-ment times there were a number over the country. The city of Caesarea was supplied with water by means of two aqueducts, one taking water from springs on the southern slope of Mount Carmel, eight miles north, and the other bringing water from the Crocodile River, six miles north. The temple at Jerusalem was supplied with water not only from large underground cisterns but also from an aqueduct that brought water from the Hebron hills. This aqueduct is forty-two miles long, and precisely graded to ensure a gentle flow of water, winding its way round hills in order to

Proverbs 5:15,16

This passage mentions, in a figurative context, several ways of obtaining water supplies:

“Drink waters out of thine own cistern,and running waters out of thine own

well.Let thy fountains be dispersed abroad,and rivers of waters in the streets”.

“Well” here evidently refers to one which goes down to an underground stream, rather than just to the water table. “Foun-tains” refers to springs. “Rivers” here in-dicates artificial watercourses rather than a natural stream, and the reference to “streets” indicates that they were channels along the side of streets to carry rainwater to underground cisterns, or above-ground pools, for storage.

do so. It can still be traced today; I managed to find it on a rocky hill slope between Abu Tor and Talpiot, though the lining of the channel dates to more recent times, and it is now dry. It could provide sixty cubic metres of water an hour. Large amounts of water were required in the temple for cleansing purposes, and at feast times, when the population of the city was augmented by many thousands of pilgrims.

Remains of one of the two Roman aqueducts that brought water to Caesarea.

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