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Bible Encyclopedias

Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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No one can read far in the sacred Scriptures without being reminded of the vast importance of water to the Hebrews in Palestine, and indeed in every country to which their history introduces us; and more particularly in the deserts in which they wandered on leaving Egypt, as well as those into which they before or afterwards sent their flocks for pasture. The natural waters have already been disposed of in the articles Palestine and Rivers of Palestine; and in Cistern and Jerusalem notice has been taken of some artificial collections. It now remains to complete the subject, under the present head, by the addition of such details as may not have been comprehended under the articles referred to.

It has been shown that the absence of small rivers, through the want of rain in summer, renders the people of the settled country, as well as of the deserts, entirely dependent upon the water derived from wells, and that preserved in cisterns and reservoirs, during the summer and autumn; and gives an importance unknown in our humid climate to the limited supply thus secured.

With respect to reservoirs, the articles to which reference has been made, will supply all the information necessary, except that we may avail ourselves of this opportunity of noticing the so-called Pools of Solomon, near Bethlehem. 'They consist of three enormous tanks,' says Dr. Wilde, 'sunk in the side of a sloping ground, and which from time immemorial have been considered to be the workmanship of Solomon; and certainly they are well worthy the man to whom tradition has assigned their construction. These reservoirs are each upon a distinct level, one above the other, and are capable of holding an immense body of water. They are so constructed, both by conduits leading directly from one another, and by what may be termed anastomosing branches, that when the water in the upper one has reached to a certain height, the surplus flows off into the one below it, and so on into the third. These passages were obstructed and the whole of the cisterns were out of repair when we visited them, so that there was hardly any water in the lowest, while the upper one was nearly full of good pure water. Small aqueducts lead from each of these cisterns to a main one that conducts the water to Jerusalem. They are all lined with a thick layer of hard whitish cement, and a flight of steps leads to the bottom of each, similar to some of those in the holy city. Where the lowest cistern joins the valley of Etham it is formed by an embankment of earth, and has a sluice to draw off the water occasionally. A short distance from the upper pool I descended into a narrow stone chamber, through which the water passes from the neighboring spring on its course to the cisterns.

'On our return to the city we followed the track of the aqueduct as far as Bethlehem, and afterwards crossed it in several places on the road. It is very small, but the water runs in it with considerable rapidity, as we could perceive by the open places left in it here and there. From the very tortuous course that this conduit takes in following the different sinuosities of the ground, being sometimes above and sometimes beneath the surface, it is difficult to persuade oneself that it does not run up hill, as many have supposed. Finally, it crosses over the valley of Rephaim, on a series of arches, to the north of the lower pool of Gihon, and winding round the southern horn of Zion, is lost to view in the ruins of the city. It very probably supplied the pool of Bethesda, after having traversed a course of certainly not less than from thirteen to fifteen miles.'


Fig. 340—Well and Bucket at Jaffa

With respect to wells, their importance is very great, especially in the desert, where the means of forming them are deficient, as well as the supply of labor necessary for such undertakings, which, after all, are not always rewarded by the discovery of a supply of water. Hence in such situations, and indeed in the settled countries also, the wells are of the utmost value, and the water in most cases is very frugally used (;;; ). We are not, however, to seek an explanation of the contests about wells which we find in the histories of Abraham and Isaac (; ) merely in the value of the well itself, but in the apprehension entertained by the Philistines that by the formation of such wells the patriarchs would be understood to create a lien on the lands in which they lay, and would acquire an indefeasible right of occupation, or rather of possession; and it might seem to them inconvenient that so powerful a clan should acquire such a right in the soil of so small a territory as that which belonged to them. Hence their care, when Abraham afterwards left their part of the country, to fill up the wells which he had digged; and hence, also, the renewed and more bitter strife with Isaac when he, on arriving there, proceeded to clear out those wells and to dig new ones himself.

It appears in Scripture that the wells were sometimes owned by a number of persons in common, and that flocks were brought to them for watering on appointed days, in an order previously arranged. A well was often covered with a great stone, which being removed, the person descended some steps to the surface of the water, and on his return poured into a trough that which he had brought up (;;; ). There is, in fact, no intimation of any other way of drawing water from wells in Scripture. But as this could only be applicable in cases where the well was not deep, we must assume that they had the use of those contrivances which are still employed in the East, and some of which are known from the Egyptian monuments to have been very ancient. This conclusion is the more probable as the wells in Palestine are mostly deep (; ). Jacob's well near Shechem is said to be 120 feet deep, with only fifteen feet of water in it; and the labor of drawing from so deep a well probably originated the first reluctance of the woman of Samaria to draw water for Jesus: 'Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep.' From this deeper kind of well the water is drawn by hand in a leathern bucket not too heavy, sometimes by a windlass, but oftener, when the water is only of moderate depth, by the shadoof, which is the most common and simple of all the machines used in the East for raising water, whether from wells, reservoirs, or rivers. This consists of a tapering lever unequally balanced upon an upright body variously constructed, and from the smaller end of which is suspended the bucket by a rope. This, when lowered into the well, is raised full of water by the weight of the heavier end. By this contrivance the manual power is applied in lowering the bucket into the well, for it rises easily, and it is only necessary to regulate the ascent. This machine is in use under slight modifications from the Baltic to the Yellow Sea, and was so from the most remote ages to the present-day. The specimen in the annexed woodcut occurs in the neighborhood of Jaffa. The water of wells, as well as of fountains, was by the Hebrews called 'living water,' translated 'running water,' and was highly esteemed (; ). It was thus distinguished from water preserved in cisterns and reservoirs.





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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Water'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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