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Plowing through History from the Aleph to the Tav

Topics Manners & Customs

Excerpts from Manners and Customs of Bible Lands
By Fred H. Wight

Water supply

Wells, springs, or fountains
WELLS AND THEIR LOCATION. In many cases wells have been depended upon for water in Palestinian towns through the years. Often the well is located outside the city walls, but sometimes the people are fortunate to have the well inside their town. Archaeologists have discovered at least two ancient cities in addition to Jerusalem, that brought water inside their city through a tunnel. The city of Gezer had such a tunnel that led from within the city to a water supply beneath. And the Canaanites at Megiddo, rather than go outside their city for water, sunk a shaft straight down to the level of the spring, and then dug a tunnel horizontally until they reached it.

Securing water for home use
We have already seen (Chapter 8, pp. 88-90) that it is the duty of the women to go to the well to get the family supply of water. This is carried by them in pitchers of earthenware either upon their shoulder or head. If larger supplies of water are needed, then the men carry such in sheepskin or goatskin "bottles."

Famous wells and fountains of scripture
Wells were dug by the early patriarchs in various places in the land of Canaan. The town of Beersheba was named after an event that happened at the time Isaac's servants dug a well there. The name means "The Well of the Oath," commemorating the covenant made between Isaac and Abimelech, which followed soon after the trouble over possession of wells at Gerar (Genesis 26).

Jacob's well at Sychar was made famous by the incident of Jesus talking with the woman of Samaria there. There is nothing left at these wells that may be used for drawing water from a depth. Each woman who comes for water brings with her, in addition to the pitcher in which to carry the water, a hard leather portable bucket with a rope, in order to let it down to the level of the water The Samaritan woman had brought all this with her, but Jesus had no such equipment with him. Hence she said to him, after he had asked her for a drink: "You have no bucket, sir, and the well is deep" (John 4:11, Twentieth Century N. T.). In response to his request she drew from the well and gave him a drink.

It was water from a Bethlehem well for which David in the wilderness longed. To appreciate his desire, one needs to know what thirst in the wilderness means, and also be acquainted with the cool water of the Bethlehem wells and cisterns. In the hillsides around Bethlehem are terraced vineyards, and most of these have a rockhewn cistern located in them, which collects rain water in the winter months and preserves this water in a delightfully cool condition in the hot summer months. The men of Bethlehem boast of their cool water. One man was given a drink, but expressed a longing for water out of his father's vineyard, saying that it was so cold that he couldn't drink an entire glassful without taking it away from his lips at least three times. Thus David, stationed at the cave of Adullam, and living in the parched wilderness, and weary from fighting, said: "Oh that one would give me drink of the water of the well of Bethlehem, which is by the gate" (2Sam. 23:15). When three of his men risked their lives in fighting Philistines in order to secure for him some of this cool Bethlehem water, David "poured it out unto the Lord" (2Sam. 23:16). This was according to the ancient custom of a libation offering, or the pouring on the ground as an act of worship, wine, or oil, or milk, or honey, or water. Sometimes these drink offerings were poured by the Hebrews on the animal sacrificed to the Lord. In doing what he did, David was giving to the Lord the drink of water that had cost so much for the men to secure for him.

Throughout the centuries the town of Nazareth has had but one main source for its water supply, a well or fountain that is located at the northwest extremity of the town. We may be fairly certain that Mary came here with her pitcher to draw water for her household use, and that here the boy Jesus often quenched his thirst.

One of the most important springs in Palestine is the one at Jericho . Its water comes from the Judean wilderness mountains located behind the town. This spring contributes to a pool of water adjoining the excavated mound of old Jericho, and this is now called "Elisha's Fountain." It is believed to be the waters healed by the prophet long ago (2Kings 2:21). Although the level of this water gets quite low in the hot weather, it seldom dries up entirely, and is a source of water for men, animals, and the oasis of banana, fig, and date palms of the vicinity.

The word "well" to the average native of Palestine has meant "spring" or "fountain," but in the Bible account it often means "cistern." Actually the cistern has been a more common source of Palestine's water supply than has the well. To drink water out of the family cistern was the proverbial wish of every Jew, and such was the promise that King Sennacherib of Assyria used to try and tempt the Jews into making peace with him. He said to them: "Make an agreement with me by a present, and come out to me, and then 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" (2Kings 18:31; cf. Isa. 36:16). These family cisterns were often dug in the open courtyard of houses as was the case of "the man which had a well [cistern] in his court." At the time of year referred to this cistern was dry and so two men could easily be hidden therein (2Sam. 17:18-19). During the rainy season the rain water is conducted from the houseroofs to these cisterns by means of troughs. Usually the water is drawn up by means of a rope that runs over a wheel, and a bucket made of animal skins is fastened to the rope. Jeremiah used the picture of a cistern that leaked water, to illustrate one of his sermons: "For my people have committed two evils"; the prophet said of the Lord, "They have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" (Jer. 2:13).

Pools of water in and around the city
Throughout most of its history, the Holy City has depended largely upon private cisterns which its inhabitants have maintained to catch rain water. The city itself has had through the years no living fountain or spring within its walls. The spring of Gihon now called "The Virgin's Fountain," is located in the Valley of Kidron just outside the old city of the Jebusites or the City of David. King Hezekiah constructed a conduit or tunnel from this spring through the rock underneath the city to a place in the Tyropean Valley, where a reservoir was constructed to receive the water (2Kings 20:20). This reservoir has gone by the name of The Pool of Siloam . This water project was undertaken mainly to give the city a water supply in time of siege. The pool has been an important source of water for Jerusalem through the centuries. Here the Arab women of the old city often come to wash their clothes, or their vegetables, or their children. And farther in the pool or mouth of the tunnel, they get their pitchers filled with the family supply of water. And at this pool also an occasional shepherd will come to wash his sheep.

Other pools located in and around the city that have supplied water include the Pool of Hezekiah , located inside the walls and fed with water through an underground conduit from the Pool of Mamilla. This latter pool lies 2000 feet to the west of Jaffa Gate outside the walls, and is in the Valley of Hinnom and receives drainage water coming down that valley. The Pool of the Sultan lies just outside the Southwestern corner of the wall in this same valley. The Pool of Bethesda is to be found just inside the Eastern wall, between St. Stephen's Gate and the Northern, wall of the temple enclosure. It was here that many sick ones bathed in Christ's time, believing its waters had healing properties. It was here Christ healed the impotent man (John 5).

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