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Wells in Scripture

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It is difficult for inhabitants of a more humid climate to realize the importance which a country like Palestine attaches to any source of fresh water. The Litâny and the Jordan are the only rivers of any size; perennial brooks are very scarce and the wadis, while numerous and impetuous in the rainy season, are dry during the rest of the year. Job (6:16-17) aptly compares faithless friends to these torrent-beds, swollen in the spring, but vanishing in the hot weather. Five months of parching summer heat pass without rain, and when the hot sherkiveh, the Arabian sirocco, blows from the desert, life itself seems a burden. Nothing will save the shepherd and his flock, the farmer and the caravan from perishing with thirst, but unfailing springs and reservoirs of uncontaminated water. Hence the Son of Sirach twice enumerates water as the first among the "principal things necessary for the life of man" (Song of Songs, 29:27; 39:31). From time immemorial, to own a well and to possess the surrounding country were synonymous terms (Proverbs 5:15-17). On the other hand, so serious might be the disputes arising out of the use or claim of a well that the sword was appealed to as the sole arbiter (Genesis 26:21; Exodus 2:17; Numbers 20:17). If the approach of an enemy was feared, his progress might be seriously hampered, if not altogether frustrated, by stopping or destroying the wells along his route (2 Chronicles 32:3). The enemy, in his turn, might reduce a city to starvation and submission by cutting off its water supply, as Holofernes did when besieging Bethulia (Judges 7).

Springs and fountains were the centres of ancient Hebrew life. To the wells, the shepherd of the sun-baked hillside would lead his flock of sheep and goats out of the thirsty stretches of rock and prickly shrubs. Long caravans, legions of soldiers, and solitary wayfarers would hasten to wells towards sunset to refresh their weary limbs and forget the blazing heat of noon. Here the women of the neighbourhood would gather to gossip and to replenish their jars. Wells and springs and cisterns have inspired the Hebrew poets with some of their choicest images, and Christ Himself used them to illustrate His own truths. They have become landmarks in the topography of Palestine and links in its varied history extending from Abraham, who dug wells near Gerara some 4000 years ago, down to Christ, Who, sitting on the brim of Jacob's Well, taught the Samaritan woman the passing of the Old Covenant.

A spring, (pede, fons) is the "eye of the landscape", the natural burst of living water, flowing all year or drying up at certain seasons. In contrast to the "troubled waters" of wells and rivers (Jeremiah 2:18), there gushes forth from it "living water", to which Jesus aptly likened the grace of the Holy Ghost (John 4:10; 7:38; cf. Isaiah 12:3; 44:3). How highly these natural springs were valued is clear from the number of towns and hamlets that bear names compounded with the word Ain (En) — for example, Endor (spring of Dor), Engannin (spring of gardens), Engaddi (spring of the kid), Rogel or En-rogel (spring of the foot), Ensemes (spring of the sun), etc. But springs were comparatively rare, and the dense population was compelled to have recourse to artificial sources. Holy Writ is always careful in distinguishing the natural springs from the wells (psrear, puteus), which are water pits bored under the rocky surface and having no outlet. Naturally, they belonged to the person who dug them, and he alone could give them a name. Among the Arabs of today they are the property of tribes or families; a stranger desiring to draw water from them is expected to give a bakshish. Many names of places, too, are compounded with B'er, such as Bersable, Beroth, Beer Elim, etc.

Cisterns (lakkos, cisterna) are subterranean reservoirs, sometimes covering as much as an acre of land, in which the rainwater is gathered during the spring. Their extreme necessity is attested by the countless number of old, unused cisterns with which the Holy Land is literally honeycombed. They may be found along the roads, in the fields, in gardens, on threshing-floors, in the hamlets, and above all in the cities. Jerusalem was so well supplied with them that in all the sieges no one within its walls ever suffered from want of water. Cisterns were hewed into the native rock and then lined with impervious masonry and cement. As their construction involved great bodily labour, it is easily understood why Jehovah promised to the children of Israel, when coming out of Egypt, the possession of cisterns dug by others as a special mark of favour (Deuteronomy 6:11; Nehemiah 9:25). If the cement of the cistern gave way, the reservoir became useless and was abandoned. It was then one of the "broken cisterns, that could hold no water" (Jeremiah 2:13). The mouth of wells and cisterns was generally surrounded by a curb or low wall and closed with a stone, both to prevent accidents and to keep away strangers. If the owner neglected to cover the cistern, and a beast fell into it, the Mosaic law obliged him to pay the price of the animal (Exodus 21:33-34; cf. Luke 14:5). Sometimes the stone placed on the orifice was so heavy that one man was unable to remove it (Genesis 29:3). When dry, cisterns were used as dungeons, because, narrowed at the top, like "huge bottles", they left no avenue open for escape (Genesis 37:24; Jeremiah 38:6; 1 Maccabees 7:19). They also offered convenient places for hiding a person from his pursuers (1 Samuel 13:6; 2 Samuel 17:18). The methods used for raising the water were the same as those in vogue all through the ancient East (cf. EGYPT).

About this page

APA citation. Cotter, A. (1912). Wells in Scripture. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Cotter, Anthony. "Wells in Scripture." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Marie Jutras.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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