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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Siloam Inscription

The inscription on the Siloam conduit; the earliest long ancient Hebrew inscription that has been found at Jerusalem—one may even say in Palestine—and so far the only really important one. It commemorates the digging of the waterway, which was an event in the history of Jerusalem and is mentioned more than once in the Bible. The city of Jerusalem is almost entirely surrounded by two deep valleys which unite to the southeast of the city, namely, the valley of Jehoshaphat on the east, and that generally identifiedwith Ge-hinnom, or the valley of the sons of Hinnom, on the west and the south. Between these two valleys is the Tyropœon, a depression now almost filled in, which begins in the center of Jerusalem, and extends to the point where the two valleys join, separating the upper city from the hill on which the Temple stood. The space between the Tyropœon and the valley of Jehoshaphat is called "Ophel," and is in the form of a spur projecting toward the south, and bounded on the north by the wall of Ḥaram al-Sharif. At the foot of the Ḥaram is the spring now called "The Virgin's Spring," the water from which traverses the whole length of the hill of Ophel from north to south in a subterranean channel and empties into the Pool of Siloam, whence it is drawn to irrigate the gardens on the slopes of Jerusalem. On the right wall of this conduit, about five or six meters from the Pool of Siloam, the inscription in question was found, the base of the letters being on a level with the water. Sayce, who has done more than any one else to bring this inscription to light, gives the curious story of its discovery in "Records of the Past" (New Series, 1:168-175, London, 1888; see also Ph. Berger in "Journal des Débats," April 16, 1882). The inscription was broken in an attempt made to steal it; but the fragments are now in the museum at Constantinople; and from casts that have been taken, copies of which are in Paris, London, and Berlin, it has been possible to gain an exact idea of its arrangement and to decipher it almost entirely.


The inscription occupies the lower part of a sunken, rectangular cartouche 50 cm. high and 66 cm. broad, the upper portion of which, 27 cm. high, is left blank. It consists of six lines of remarkably distinct lettering, the words being separated from each other by points. The script is similar to that found in the Moabite and various Phenician inscriptions; particular resemblance to the former is noted in the case of the letters ג, י, כ, ל, ק, ה; to the latter, in the case of ד; the most marked differences from both occur in the letters ו, ה, מ, נ. While the tops of the letters are angular, the tails are long and curved, thus presenting a characteristically more cursive appearance; this style of script is that of a people which had written much for generations.

The language of the inscription is pure Hebrew, and its general sense is clear; indeed, if the first line had not been mutilated there would be hardly a single doubtful word. The translation, resulting from the combined efforts of various scholars, is as follows:

  1. Liné 1. . . . the piercing. . . . And this is the history of the digging. When . . .
  2. the pickaxes one against the other. And when there were only three cubits more to cut through, the men were heard
  3. calling from one side to the other; [for] there was zedah in the rock, on the right and on the left. And on the day of the

    The Siloam Inscription, with Transcription.

    (From Benzinger, "Hebräiscbe Archäologie.")
  4. piercing the workmen struck each to meet the other, pickax against pickax. And there flowed
  5. the waters from the spring to the pool for a space of 200 cubits. And [100]
  6. cubits was the height over the head of the workmen.

For a detailed account of the work of decipherment see the references in Lidzbarski, "Handbuch der Nordsemitischen Epigraphik," p. 439.

The Work Described.

The noteworthy point in the narrative supplied by the inscription is that the work was carried on from both ends. An account of a similar work has been preserved in a Latin inscription of Lambèze ("C. I. L." 2728). At Lambèze, however, the two gangs of men did not meet; it was suddenly discovered that more than the breadth of the mountain had been cut through; and the engineer who had prepared the plans had to step in and bring the work to a conclusion. The workmen at Jerusalem were more successful in meeting each other, although they made many trials in groping toward the meeting-place, as the work on the waterway still shows. Robinson, who guessed at the manner in which the work was carried on, remarks: "Since then the statementsof Captain Conder have shown that toward the center of the waterway two blind alleys may be seen, which correspond to the place where the two gangs met." These facts agree very well with the text of the inscription. This, as interpreted by Joseph Halévy, seems to distinguish three stages in the construction: the first corresponds to the matter related in line 1; at the second the workmen talk with one another; and at the last stage their pickaxes meet and the last of the rock is removed. The only obscure point that remains is the meaning of the word "zedah" in line 3. This word does not occur in the vocabulary of the Bible. It has been compared with the Arabic "zada" (= "to aim correctly," "to enter a hole"); and in any case it seems to refer not to a peculiarity of the rock, but to the work accomplished by the men.

Clermont-Ganneau has brought forward an ingenious hypothesis in regard to the blank upper part of the cartouche; he concluded that it had been reserved for the date, or rather for a symbolical picture, which for some reason or other was not supplied. However, in all known inscriptions the writers began at the beginning, and the introductory formula was carved first and not afterward; and as regards the symbolical picture, representations in this style occur so seldom in Palestine, and are so little in conformity with Jewish custom, that its existence must not be assumed arbitrarily.

It is not easy to explain the choice of place for the inscription. One might have expected to find it either at the entrance of the waterway or at the point where the two gangs of men met; but instead it was engraved in an obscure position five or six meters from the end. It might be assumed, in explanation, that the tunnel was originally longer, and that the inscription was in fact at the point of junction. But this hypothesis involves such topographical difficulties that it is best to set it aside. The first word of the inscription might have furnished a clue; but as it has been obliterated, one can only guess at the reason for its obscure position.

Date of the Work.

The digging of a subterranean way more than 500 meters long was in every respect a great undertaking. As to the epoch and for what reason it was undertaken the inscription leaves one entirely in the dark: commemorating a great work of public utility, it mentions neither the originators nor the date. Fortunately the Bible gives more information on the subject than the inscription. 2 Kings 20:20, commemorating the acts of Hezekiah, relates how that king "made a pool ["berekah"] and a conduit, and brought water into the city"; and this work is referred to in 2 Chronicles 32:30 also. It seems, however, that the aqueduct of Siloam existed before the time of Hezekiah. A prophecy of Isaiah, pronounced in the days of King Ahaz, is especially characteristic in this connection. The prophet (Isaiah 8:6), reproaching the people for their infidelity, compares the paternal government of the kings of Judah to a brook of softly flowing water, in contrast to the mailed hand of the Assyrian conquerors: "Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly . . . the Euphrates . . . shall pass through Judah." "Shiloah" as a common noun corresponds exactly to the word "emissary"; and "the waters" of which Isaiah speaks are none other than those of the conduit in question. Robinson, indeed, remarked on the slow and almost imperceptible course of the water in the tunnel. The word used by the prophet for designating the water's flow () is the same as that found in the inscription. When taken in this sense the words of the prophet acquire a special meaning, and indicate the approximate date of the digging of the channel. The conduit and the inscription of Siloam belong doubtless to the period of Ahaz and Hezekiah, which was marked everywhere by great works, especially as regards the water-supply of Jerusalem, a matter of extreme importance in case of siege. And for this reason, doubtless, a subterranean way was constructed under the hill of Ophel, instead of an open one encircling the city on the east.

There are still other opinions regarding the date and the inscription. As no mention whatever is made of the existence of the kingdom, it has been assumed that the date of the digging lies within the period of the Maccabees. But as the inscriptions on earlier stones conform in their lettering to that of the Siloam inscription, the conclusions advanced above seem to be confirmed. It is therefore probable that here is a specimen of the style of writing employed by Isaiah and the Greater Prophets; and the importance of this discovery must be evident to all scholars.

  • Driver, Text of Samuel, pp. 14 et seq. (with facsimile, transcription, and translation);
  • Weir, Short History of the Hebrew Text of the Old Testament;
  • Enting, in Gesenius-Kautzsch, Hebr. Gram.;
  • Socin, in Z. D. P. V.;
  • idem, Die Siloah Inschrift, Freiburg, 1899;
  • Lidzbarski, Handbuch der Nordsemitischen Epigraphik, 1898;
  • C. W. Wilson, in Hastings, Dict. Bible, 4:516b.
E. G. H.
P. Be.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Siloam Inscription'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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