08 July 2010

Well, That's a Deep Subject. Let's Not Get Into It.

 by Timothy S. Wilkinson

               Today, if I want to relax for a bit, to learn what the people of my town are talking about, or perhaps run into some friends for a bit of conversation myself, I would probably go to a local coffee shop. Living as I do in Western Washington, these are found on nearly every street corner. They have become the social gathering place, much as taverns and pubs were throughout much of the 19th and early 20th century. Those drinking establishments used to be called “watering holes,” and this was not only because they were a good place to slake one’s thirst. They followed in a tradition that went back to the very dawn of civilization. Since the first wells were dug in ancient Mesopotamia, they have served as a center for social gatherings, a resting place for weary travelers, and a site around which marching armies could camp.
                Wells in ancient Palestine were typically covered with a flat stone of some kind, often large enough that it took several men to move it. Most were surrounded by some sort of low stone wall to prevent sand, animals, and people from falling in.
                When the well was located in a city, the woman of the house, or her oldest daughters if she had them and they were of age, went to the well early in the morning and early in the evening each day. There she met up with other townsfolk for a few minutes of relaxation and a bit of gossip. Then she would laboriously fill and carry the water in large earthenware pitchers on her head, shoulder, or hip back home.
                Some wells were located just outside a city’s walls. In these cases, some method was used to protect the well during times of siege and to provide a safe means to access it. Jerusalem, Hazor, and Megiddo all had deep wells outside their walls, and tunnels that ran under the wall and joined up with the well shaft.
                If the well was along a road, though, or in the wilderness, it became a fiercely guarded tribal property. Water was so valuable during the dry season that any town square would host several “water merchants” selling potable water for a hefty profit. In parts of the Middle East to this day, drinking from another man’s well is considered an affront by the Bedouin people; for centuries, battles have been fought over the rights to particular wells. To stop up a well was an act of open hostility. (Some scholars believe this phrase refers primarily to wells that were actually shallow pits dug in dry riverbeds to collect the water that continued running beneath the surface; these could easily be “stopped up” by filling them with debris).
                Wealthy families could afford to have their own cistern. This was essentially a water storage tank, usually dug out of the earth and lined with clay. Others were carved from solid rock; still others were more like pools on the surface of large courtyards. The cistern allowed the wealthy to avoid having to draw water every day. By the time of King Solomon, huge cisterns near Bethlehem (they look like giant, multi-tiered swimming pools carved out of stone) were connected to Jerusalem by aqueducts. Others were within the walls—to this day, a huge cistern in Jerusalem provides much of the water for gardening.
                Subterranean cisterns were bottle-shaped, but typically large enough that a man could be dropped through the opening and be unable to make his way out unassisted—especially since the pits would grow slime on their wet walls.
                In 1956 archaeologists uncovered the Pool of Gibeon referred to in 2 Samuel chapter 2. I have attached a picture to show how large and impressive this well was. It is comprised of a circular pit about 37 feet across and 82 feet deep. Over 3000 tons of limestone had to be removed to form this well shaft. It must have been an exhausting task for the women of Gibeon to descend to the bottom carrying their jars, fill them, and then climb back up the 79 steep steps with five to ten gallons water sloshing around as they walked.
                Even more impressive is the fact that a number of the wells mentioned in the book of Genesis are still being used today. That means that it is possible to stand in the very footsteps of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Lot and drink water from the same well as these ancient characters.

For more information about life in Bible times, check out my novels Prophet of Israel and Judge of Israel, available from www.timothywilkinson.net.

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