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.
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.
Water sources in Jerusalem
Jerusalem needed a lot of water in Jesus' day. Besides drinking, cooking, and other household uses, ritual immersions in a mikveh required large pools of water. Vast numbers of pilgrims visiting Jerusalem for the festivals would stretch the limits on water resources. Houses in Jerusalem did have cisterns, but it was important to have a regular flow of water nearby. Where did all this necessary water come from?
in the Kidron Valley near to ancient Jerusalem, long before Jesus' day, was the Gihon spring. It had an irregular flow but produced a good source of water for those living nearby. In 2 Samuel 5:8, we see that even before David captured the city, the Jebusite people had created channels to direct the water to the southern part of the city. (Evidence of these channels can still be found.)
As a primary source of water for Jerusalem, this valuable spring had to be protected. In the time of Canaanites, there were towers built to guard the water. In the time of Hezekiah, he had the spring directed underground to end within the city walls. This created a continual source of fresh water to make things easier for the inhabitants, and also served as security in the event of a siege. (2 King 20:20, 2 Chronicles 32:30) Amazingly, in 1890, an inscription was discovered that tells of the building of this S-shaped tunnel! It describes the workers tunneling through bedrock from both sides, hearing the other group as they approached each other until they finally broke through.
The Pool of Siloam
In days of Jesus, this re-directed or "sent" water was collected in the Pool of Siloam. In 2004, during the refurbishing of a sewer line, a set of steps was discovered that archaeologists believe is the Pool of Siloam. Further excavations revealed three sets of steps with wide landings between. The entire north side of the pool is now completely exposed, and it measures 225 feet long. (That is way larger than I imagined!) Coins of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) were discovered in the plaster, which indicates that the pool was likely built at least one generation before Jesus. It probably fell into disrepair after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, gradually filled with rubble and sediment, and now there is a cultivated garden sitting atop the location. However, in the days of Jesus, this would have been a place for housewives and servants to collect water, and perhaps it was used for ritual washing.
Jesus, after declaring himself to be the light of the world and creating mud from his spit, commands a blind man to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The pool was about a half-mile south of the Temple complex where Jesus had met the blind man. The blind man, his eyes caked with the clay, had to navigate his way down a hill, descending 350 feet on what was likely a very busy road. It wouldn't be an easy journey, and likely drew a lot of curious attention. After washing in this water, he could see!
This is the only recorded occurrence where Jesus heals a blind man by sending him to wash. It seems to highlight a key message found in John that Jesus was sent by God. Jesus, the one sent to be the Light of the World, sends the blind man to the pool named "to send" to open his eyes to the light of the world. Quite the play on words!
What is "Living Water"?
While history in ancient Isreal and Jerusalem might seem far from our lives, their experience with water helps us understand the most crucial water of all: Living Water.
Jesus references living water in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4:
Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is who says to you, Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water ... Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will become a well of water springing up to eternal life.”
The woman is confused, and we might agree with the sentiment! What is this living water? Jesus may have been drawing upon a verse in the book of Jeremiah. (See Matthew 16:14, Jesus is known for quoting Jeremiah!)
“For My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me,
The fountain of living waters,
To hew for themselves cisterns,
That can hold no water.”
Who would turn from a fountain of clear, flowing water to lick a few drops from a broken cistern? It sounds crazy, but how often do we turn to our own devices for comfort or joy, rather than the lasting joy we can find in a relationship with God? (I know I am guilty of this!)
Later in the same chapter of Jeremiah 2, God is angry that the people are (figuratively) going down the road to drink of the Nile in Egypt or the Euphrates in Assyria, two powerful nations that enslaved the people of God. This verse gives rise to the question, why do we continually go back to things/attitudes/practices that harm us?
A little later in the book of John, Jesus again offers living water. He quotes from Isaiah as he says, "He who believes in me, as the scriptures said, 'From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water'." (John 7:38)
The writer clarifies this by explaining that here Jesus is speaking of the Spirit, which would come after Jesus had been glorified. (Acts 1:8) The Holy Spirit is now poured out for all who believe (Acts 2:17). This living water is for you and me!
Jesus is offering this living water to those who will accept it from him. This water springs up and results in eternal life. The mental picture is not a cistern where the collected water might run dry or grow stale, but a spring that rises out of the ground, a continuous source of life that fills up and runs over!
What do we need to do to tap into this river of living waters?
We need Jesus as our Lord and Savior. He is the one shown in the Bible as offering this water to us. When we believe in Jesus and what he has done for us, the Holy Spirit is given to us!
We need a relationship with God where we learn to lean on Him and do life the way He intended. Otherwise, we're turning from a flowing fountain to sip from a broken cistern--an empty way to live. We are not promised a life of earthly blessings and riches, but Jesus does promise us eternal life.
Among various resources, I used Lexham's Geographic Commentary on the Gospels to learn more about the geography and uses of water in ancient Isreal. It is an excellent resource for anyone, and particularly good for someone who, like me, attempts to accurately portray history through biblical fiction, as in my novel, Dividing Sword.