Water in Israel, Jerusalem, and the Pool of Siloam

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

I'll admit, I take the presence of water in my life for granted. I know I need to drink water (or at least, coffee!) to stay alive, but there is another kind of water I need even more. Read on to learn about water in biblical-era Israel and Jerusalem, what it meant to the people, and how water featured in Jesus' ministry.

Water is not something I think about very often. I mean, I do love water. I see it everywhere. I turn on the tap and there it is. I enjoy a hot shower in the morning. I like the sound of a fountain or a burbling stream. Within 150 km of where I live, I can visit multiple lakes, ponds, streams, and a large river. Every springtime, we have puddles that overflow the roads and my rubber boots. We are blanketed in snow every winter and drenched with rain every summer.

Water in the Bible

In biblical Israel, water was not so plentiful, and they handled this limited resource with care. The shepherds would know the location of every local wadi—a ravine or valley that temporarily held water after a rain. We see squabbles in the Old Testament over rights to wells that were needed not only to sustain the people, but also the flocks of animals. The people created cisterns from stone and plaster to collect rainwater to tide them over in the dry season. As the water level in the cisterns began to get low and stale, we can imagine the people counting the days until the return of the rain.

Across most ancient cultures, natural water sources, like springs of water, were seen as gifts from the gods and were considered sacred. Deep or large bodies of water were associated with chaos, or the land of the dead, and were feared. In Caesarea Philippi, where water gushed from an immeasurably deep pool and created rivers that fed into the Sea of Galilee, pagans had worshipped fertility gods for millennia before Jesus visited with his disciples.

The people of God knew that the water they needed came from the Lord. They saw rain as a life-giving blessing from God for His people if they would only love and serve the Lord. In the Shema, a daily prayer, the people recited a portion of Deuteronomy 11:

“It shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil.”

The early rains (September to Mid-December) softened the ground so it could be plowed and seeded. The late rains (March to May) gave the crops the necessary moisture to finish their growing cycle. When the spring rains came, the land burst into life with lush grass and flowers.

With summer came the dry season. (Late May to September) The fresh spring grass would turn brown, and the flowers withered. Even when dry, there were sufficient nutrients in the brown grass to support sheep and goats.

If the early rains didn't come, planting was extremely difficult and the people couldn't refill their cisterns. If the late rains didn't come, the crops would shrivel and die, the grass wouldn't grow, and drought and starvation were imminent. It seems as if God placed His people in a land where they could see how dependent they were on Him.

The Gates of Hades
The "Gates of Hades" today. Within that cave is a pool of deep water. Due to an earthquake, the flow has changed since Jesus' day. Photo by Stacey Franco on Unsplash

Water is mentioned often in the New Testament and we see it associated with Jesus' ministry.

As we enter into the gospel era, baptisms were booming, and Jesus himself was baptized. Jesus's first miracle is turning water into wine. Jesus challenged the pagan superstitions surrounding water and showed his authority by calming storms, walking on water, and healing the man who was waiting by the pool of water for supernatural healing. Jesus is declared by Peter to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, near the “Gates of Hades”, a source of water in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus criticizes those who placed ritual washing as of higher importance than obeying the word of God. He also washes his disciples' feet, something servants did for their masters after a long day of walking on dry, dusty roads.

Everyone in Jesus' day knew the importance of water, and they had likely experienced what it felt like to go without it.