Water’s Effect on Civilization Development – Part 2

A Historic Water Collection and Distribution Facility
(Photo Courtesy World Bank Group)

Read Part 1 by clicking here.

Water in Canaan

In Canaan, most towns were built on hills, away from the sources of water. Thus the inhabitants of Canaan depended on rains, the morning dew, springs, wadis, brooks, and other sources of water to supply the physical needs of people, flocks, and land. The people who lived in Canaan developed several ways of supplementing the amount of water available to them.

Springs. Common throughout much of the Holy Land, springs are a natural source of water. In fact the land of Canaan is described as “a land with streams of water, springs, and deep water sources, flowing in both valleys and hills” (Deut. 8:7 HCSB). The source of most spring water was the rainfall that seeped into the ground. The amount of water available in a spring varied with the time of the year and the amount of rainfall. Springs furnished sufficient water to be used for drinking, irrigation, and watering their flocks. Some cities build canals running from the source of water located outside the city that would bring water into the city.

Pools. In the form of natural or artificial reservoirs, pools collected rainwater used for drinking, irrigation, and watering the flocks. The Bible mentions several pools: the pools of Gibeon (2 Sam. 2:13), Hebron (4:12), Samaria (1 Kings 22:38), Siloam (Neh. 3:15 NIV), and others. Although the pools held an abundant supply of water, their being open meant evaporation worked against long-term water storage.

Water Tunnels. Some cities built tunnels that went from inside the city, under the walls, to a source of water located outside the city. Archaeology has confirmed the existence of water tunnels in Jerusalem, Megiddo, Gibeon, and Hazor. The tunnel in Jerusalem was designed to reach the water at the Gihon Spring.

These tunnels were built in a rudimentary fashion by the Canaanites before Israel conquered the land and were vastly improved and expanded during the time of the United Monarchy and following. After David became king of Judah, he conquered Jerusalem after Joab used the water shaft (2 Sam. 5:8; 1 Chron. 11:6) to enter the Jebusite city. The Jebusites cut the water shaft in the limestone rock by the Jebusites in the Late Bronze Age to provide access to the Gihon Spring from within the city. The Gihon was the only perennial source of water in Jerusalem.

When Hezekiah, king of Judah, made preparations for war against Sennacherib, king of Assyria, he dug a tunnel under the hill of Ophel, the hill on which David built his city after he conquered Jerusalem (see 2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chr. 32:30). The tunnel served to bring water from the Gihon Spring to a pool inside Jerusalem (Neh. 3:15). After the project was completed, an inscription was carved on the rock marking the completion of the project.

The water shaft of Megiddo was built initially by the Canaanites and was improved many times during the period of Israel’s monarchy. During Ahab’s time, (874-853 B.C.), workers expanded the water system to include an underground passage that led from inside the city to the spring, which was outside the city wall. This water shaft had a flight of steps that led into a tunnel that continued as far as the source of the water. The passage was later expanded and deepened so that the water flowed back into it and thus provided the city with an underground reservoir that served as a permanent water source for the citizens. [1]

Wells. Another way by which people who lived in arid areas tried to obtain fresh water was by digging wells. After Isaac left Gerar, he dug five wells and all of them produced water (Gen. 26: 18-25, 32). People would dig wells in order to collect water from a subterranean spring. Some cities built deep wells inside the city walls, down into underground aquifers. The depth of the well dictated the size, as deeper wells required a wider opening at the top to prevent collapse of the walls.

Because of the scarcity of water in arid places, the discovery of water became an occasion for celebration. When the Lord gave water to Israel, the people sang this song:

“Spring up, well—sing to it!
The princes dug the well;
The nobles of the people hollowed it out
with a scepter and with their staffs”
—Num. 21:16-18 HCSB

Wells were located near major roads and the water was sold to travelers (Deut. 2:6, 28). People also dug in the wilderness (Gen. 16:14), outside a city (Gen. 24:11), near a city gate (2 Sam. 23:16), in a field (Gen. 29:2), and in a courtyard (2 Sam. 17:18). At Beth-Shemesh the Canaanites dug a well that remained in use until the end of the Northern Kingdom. At Gezer, a well dated from the second millennium B.C. was dug by the Canaanite and was still in use by the time of the Israelites. At Gibeon a large circular well was reached by a flight of steps into a cave where the water dripped from the rock. [2]

Wells were protected by a well head (Gen. 29:1-3) or a covering (2 Sam. 17:19) to keep people and animals from falling into the wells. People used leather containers to draw water from the wells (Gen. 21:19), jars (Gen. 24:20) or buckets (John 4:11). The use of rope and the development of rollers and pulley wheels helped people bring well water to the surface.

Cisterns. Natural sources of waters such as rivers and springs are not generally found in most areas and digging for underground water is limited. People who settled in desert areas had to develop the ability to collect and store potable water from runoff during the rainy season. Cisterns provided the solution for storing that rainwater.

Cisterns are artificially constructed reservoirs. Typically bell or bottle-shaped,they differ from wells in that cisterns are filled “by drainage from roofs, streets, or the surface of a slope, or by water channeled from some other source. Wells, on the other hand, might be fed directly from underground springs.” [3]

In Canaan, most cisterns were cut into limestone bedrock, which was always porous. Building better cisterns became possible after the discovery during the Early Iron Age (1200 B.C.) of plasters made of burnt slaked lime that could make the cisterns impermeable. The development of better cisterns contributed to the construction of villages and cities away from the sources of flowing water. [4]

In Canaan the rainy season, on which the cisterns depended, began at the end of October and ended in the beginning of May. Toward the end of summer, springs and wells, either dried up or reduced their flow. When that happened, cisterns and open reservoirs became the only sources of water. Cisterns were fed from surface and roof drainage. Many cisterns were built beside individual houses. The discovery of waterproofing materials allowed the Israelites to build more cisterns, and as a result, the number of houses and public buildings increased. Private cisterns were smaller and were sunk in the rocks within private boundaries, each owner having his own cistern (2 Kings 18:31; Prov. 5:15). [5]

An Impressive Solution

From the earliest days of civilization, having an adequate supply of potable water was a constant struggle. The harsh conditions of people who lived in the desert and arid areas were made easier through various methods of water management. These methods developed over time. Although other societies eventually copied Israel’s water works projects, the complex systems of tunnels, underground storage reservoirs, wells, and individual cisterns was originally an Israelite innovation. These systems were “an extraordinary achievement of local engineers who were well acquainted with hydrological conditions and were capable of carrying out outstanding projects requiring skill, sagacity, and organization of manpower.” [6]

Such a complex system wasnot in place, though, in the early days of Israel’s history. Isaac and his clan were able to survive in the dry area of the Negev because the God of Israel blessed him and because he and his people had the ability to find water in the desert.


[1] Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible (New York: Doubleday,1992), 479-80.

[2] James B. Pritchard,”The Water System at Gibeon,” The Biblical Archaeologist 19 (1956), 66-75.

[3] Archibald C. Dickie and Dorothea W. Harvey, “Cistern,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W.Bromiley,vo.1 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979),702.

[4] John P. Oleson, “Water Works, The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 6:887.

[5] See “Water Supply,” in The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, ed. Avraham Negev (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986), pp. 394-396.

[6] Mazar, 485.

NOTE: For other articles on archaeology, archaeological discoveries, and how they relate to the Bible, read my post Can Archaeology Prove the Bible?.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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