Background Bible Study

Ancient Cisterns
Ancient Manners and Customs, Daily Life, Cultures, Bible Lands

Ancient Cistern
Ancient cistern used for storing rain water

In the earliest times of the Bible were used to store water. They were usually pear shaped, and 15 to 20 feet deep, and the actual opening was only a 2 to 3 feet. There was usually a stone cover. Cisterns were either large or small, large enough to store water for the community, or small and privately owned. Cisterns were like wells of water, which could be hoisted up with ropes and a bucket. The image above is from Umm al-biyara (the mother of all cisterns) the ancient site of Edom which became the Nabataean city of Petra.

Cisterns in Biblical Times

In ancient Israel the summer months were extremely dry, and during this time people dug and carved out for themselves cisterns out of the solid rock. These cisterns were like man-made reservoirs that would contain large amounts of water from the rain falls. Many times these cisterns would be covered in some way to keep debris away, and also to prevent accidents from happening. Since much of Jerusalem had a soft layer of limestone at the surface, it was convenient for the Israelites living in Jerusalem to carve many cisterns, especially since water was scarce in Jerusalem. In fact Jerusalem had plenty of water even during their long sieges because of the abundance of water. The hill country had a much harder deposits of limestone which made their water sources more reliable without waterproofing.

Broken Cisterns

Ancient workers developed sticky lime plaster which they would use to cover the surface of the bed rock to keep the water from seeping out. But often times a cistern would develop a crack and all the water would seep out.

Jeremiah proclaimed a scathing indictment against Israel and their idolatrous ways, accusing them of worshiping false gods which were compared to cisterns which could hold no water. Only Their Lord was the true God and the "fountain of living waters":

Jeremiah 2:13 - For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, [and] hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

Purposes for Cisterns

During Bible times cisterns were not only used to store water but were also used as underground chambers, hiding places for fugitives, burial places, and even as prison cells, as in the case of Jeremiah the prophet, who was held as a prisoner in a muddy cistern which belonged to Malchaiah, the son of King Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38:6), where he was eventually hauled up with ropes:

Jeremiah 38
6 - Then took they Jeremiah, and cast him into the dungeon of Malchiah the son of Hammelech, that [was] in the court of the prison: and they let down Jeremiah with cords. And in the dungeon [there was] no water, but mire: so Jeremiah sunk in the mire.
7 - Now when Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, one of the eunuchs which was in the king's house, heard that they had put Jeremiah in the dungeon; the king then sitting in the gate of Benjamin;
8 - Ebedmelech went forth out of the king's house, and spake to the king, saying,
9 - My lord the king, these men have done evil in all that they have done to Jeremiah the prophet, whom they have cast into the dungeon; and he is like to die for hunger in the place where he is: for [there is] no more bread in the city.
10 - Then the king commanded Ebedmelech the Ethiopian, saying, Take from hence thirty men with thee, and take up Jeremiah the prophet out of the dungeon, before he die.
11 - So Ebedmelech took the men with him, and went into the house of the king under the treasury, and took thence old cast clouts and old rotten rags, and let them down by cords into the dungeon to Jeremiah.
12 - And Ebedmelech the Ethiopian said unto Jeremiah, Put now [these] old cast clouts and rotten rags under thine armholes under the cords. And Jeremiah did so.
13 - So they drew up Jeremiah with cords, and took him up out of the dungeon: and Jeremiah remained in the court of the prison.

Cisterns and Archaeology

Archaeologists have discovered many ancient cisterns throughout Jerusalem and the entire land of Israel. At the site believed by some to be that of ancient Ai of the Bible (Khirbet et-Tell), there was discovered a large cistern dating back to around 2500 BC which could hold nearly 60,000 cubic feet of water. It was carved out of solid rock, lined with large stones and sealed with clay to keep from leaking. Some sites contained over 50 cisterns (Tell en-Nasbeh).

Cisterns and Waterproofing

Waterproofing a cistern with lime plaster became extremely popular during the period of the Kings in the Old Testament. This helped immensely with farming, especially in the hill country where there were not as many rivers and springs. Yet even the plaster coated cisterns would eventually develop cracks.

Cisterns and Droughts

When the rains failed the Hebrews could depend on their cisterns, yet even their cisterns could fail them in a drought after summer. Jeremiah gave us a description of a drought:

Jeremiah 14
1 - The word of the LORD that came to Jeremiah concerning the dearth.
2 - Judah mourneth, and the gates thereof languish; they are black unto the ground; and the cry of Jerusalem is gone up.
3 - And their nobles have sent their little ones to the waters: they came to the pits, [and] found no water; they returned with their vessels empty; they were ashamed and confounded, and covered their heads.
4 - Because the ground is chapt, for there was no rain in the earth, the plowmen were ashamed, they covered their heads.
5 - Yea, the hind also calved in the field, and forsook [it], because there was no grass.
6 - And the wild asses did stand in the high places, they snuffed up the wind like dragons; their eyes did fail, because [there was] no grass.
7 - O LORD, though our iniquities testify against us, do thou [it] for thy name's sake: for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against thee.
8 - O the hope of Israel, the saviour thereof in time of trouble, why shouldest thou be as a stranger in the land, and as a wayfaring man [that] turneth aside to tarry for a night?

The Bible Mentions Cisterns Often

Proverbs 5:15 - Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.

Ecclesiastes 12:6 - Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.

2 Kings 18:31 - Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make [an agreement] with me by a present, and come out to me, and [then] eat ye every man of his own vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his cistern:

Isaiah 36:16 - Hearken not to Hezekiah: for thus saith the king of Assyria, Make [an agreement] with me [by] a present, and come out to me: and eat ye every one of his vine, and every one of his fig tree, and drink ye every one the waters of his own cistern;

Jeremiah 2:13 - For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, [and] hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

Some experts believe that Joseph, who was cast into a pit by his brothers, was actually dropped into a cistern:

Genesis 37:22 - And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, [but] cast him into this pit that [is] in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again.

They served as a table to place the sacrifice upon, and also to catch the blood of the sacrificial victim. In ancient Israel there were altars made of stone, and later a bronze altar was placed in the tabernacle of Moses. When Solomon became king he built a temple to the Lord in Jerusalem, and he created elaborate altars of bronze and gold. The animals were placed on the bronze altar, as a whole or in parts, bread was also place there, and meal, incense, and even wine was also offered. The Bible describes the most sacred part of the altar, these were the four horns on the corners which symbolized God's power and might which pointed to the four corners of the earth (Exodus 27:2. God was clear that his salvation is for everyone, providing that the approach his way. The sacrifice was a substitutionary atonement, the innocent victim would receive the full weight of God's judgment while the guilty person making the sacrifice would receive forgiveness and justification and atonement from God. The sacrifice literally became sin, and therefore was called a sin offering. The altar was the center of Israelite worship, and the unity of the altar was regarded as an ideal (II Chronicles 32:12). When Christ rose again his sacrifice was once and for all, and the altar and the ceremonial law was done away with, because Christ had "been offered once" (Hebrews 9:28). The Bible also says in Hebrews 13:10 that "Christ is our altar". For the church center of worship now becomes the gathering of the saints, or believers, who have access to the Lord and can approach him at any time, because of the shed blood of Christ.

Illustration of a Cistern

Drawing of a cistern discovered under the Temple mount
Illustration of a cistern discovered under the Temple mount 43 feet deep with storage capacity of 2 million gallons

Cistern in Smith's Bible Dictionary
A receptacle for water, either conducted from an external spring or proceeding from rain-fall. The dryness of the summer months and the scarcity of springs in Judea made cisterns a necessity, and they are frequent throughout the whole of Syria and Palestine. On the long-forgotten way from Jericho to Bethel, "broken cisterns" of high antiquity are found at regular intervals. Jerusalem depends mainly for water upon its cisterns, of which almost every private house possesses one or more, excavated in the rock on which the city is built. The cisterns have usually a round opening at the top, sometimes built up with stonework above and furnished with a curb and a wheel for a bucket. Ec 12:6 Empty cisterns were sometimes used as prisons and places of confinement. Joseph was cast into a "pit," Ge 37:22 as was Jeremiah. Jer 38:6.  Read Full Article

Cistern in the ISBE Bible Encyclopedia
The efforts made to supplement the natural water supply, both in agricultural and in populated areas, before as well as after the Conquest, are clearly seen in the innumerable cisterns, wells and pools which abound throughout Palestine The rainy season, upon which the various storage systems depend, commences at the end of October and ends in the beginning of May. In Jerusalem, the mean rainfall in 41 years up to 1901 was 25,81 inches, falling in a mean number of 56 days. Toward the end of summer, springs and wells, where they have not actually dried up, diminish very considerably, and cisterns and open reservoirs become at times the only sources of supply. Cisterns are fed from surface and roof drainage. Except in the rare instances where springs occur, wells depend upon percolation. The' great open reservoirs or pools are fed from surface drainage and, in some cases, by aqueducts from springs or from more distant collecting pools. In the case of private cisterns, it is the custom of the country today to close up the inlets during the early days of the rain, so as to permit of a general wash down of gathering surfaces, before admitting the water. Cisterns, belonging to the common natives, are rarely cleansed, and the inevitable scum which collects is dispersed by plunging the pitcher several times before drawing water. When the water is considered to be bad, a somewhat primitive cure is applied by dropping earth into the cistern, so as to sink all impurities with it, to the bottom. The accumulation often found in ancient cisterns probably owes some of its presence to this same habit.  Read Full Article

Cistern in Easton's Bible Dictionary
The rendering of a Hebrew word bor, which means a receptacle for water conveyed to it; distinguished from beer, which denotes a place where water rises on the spot (Jer. 2:13; Prov. 5:15; Isa. 36:16), a fountain. Cisterns are frequently mentioned in Scripture. The scarcity of springs in Palestine made it necessary to collect rain-water in reservoirs and cisterns (Num. 21:22). Empty cisterns were sometimes used as prisons (Jer. 38:6; Lam. 3:53; Ps. 40:2; 69:15). The "pit" into which Joseph was cast (Gen. 37:24) was a beer or dry well. There are numerous remains of ancient cisterns in all parts of Palestine.   Read Full Article

Cistern in Fausset's Bible Dictionary
Bor, a dug pit for receiving water conducted from a spring or the rainfall. (See CONDUIT.) The dryness between May and September in Palestine makes reservoirs necessary; of which the larger are called "pools," the smaller "cisterns." The rocky soil facilitates their construction. The top, with stonework and a round opening, has often a wheel for the bucket; an image of the aorta or great artery circulating the blood from the ventricle of the heart, or the wheel expresses life in its rapid motion (James 3:6; Ecclesiastes 12:6). The rain is conducted to them from the roofs of the houses, most of which are furnished with them; from whence is derived the metaphor, Proverbs 5:15, "drink waters out of thine own cistern," i.e. draw thy enjoyments only from the sources that are legitimately thine. Hezekiah stopped the water supply outside Jerusalem at the invasion of Sennacherib, while within there was abundant water (2 Chronicles 32:3-4). So it has been in all the great sieges of Jerusalem, scarcity of water outside, abundance within. Empty cisterns were used as prisons. So Joseph was cast into a "pit" (Genesis 37:22); Jeremiah into one miry at the bottom, and so deep that he was let down by cords (Jeremiah 38:6), said to be near "Herod's gate." Cisterns yield only a limited supply of water, not an everflowing spring; representing creature comforts soon exhausted, and therefore never worth forsaking the never failing, ever fresh supplies of God. for (Jeremiah 2:13). The stonework of tanks often becomes broken, and the water leaks into the earth; and, at best, the water is not fresh long. Compare Isaiah 55:1-2; Luke 12:33.   Read Full Article

Cistern in Naves Topical Bible

-Built by Noah
        Ge 8:2

-General scriptures concerning
        Isa 36:16

        Jer 2:13

        2Ki 18:31; Pr 5:15; Ec 12:6
    See WELLS

The Bible Mentions the Pool Often

Nehemiah 3:15 - But the gate of the fountain repaired Shallun the son of Colhozeh, the ruler of part of Mizpah; he built it, and covered it, and set up the doors thereof, the locks thereof, and the bars thereof, and the wall of the pool of Siloah by the king's garden, and unto the stairs that go down from the city of David.

2 Kings 18:17 - And the king of Assyria sent Tartan and Rabsaris and Rabshakeh from Lachish to king Hezekiah with a great host against Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. And when they were come up, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which [is] in the highway of the fuller's field.

Isaiah 36:2 - And the king of Assyria sent Rabshakeh from Lachish to Jerusalem unto king Hezekiah with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field.

2 Samuel 4:12 - And David commanded his young men, and they slew them, and cut off their hands and their feet, and hanged [them] up over the pool in Hebron. But they took the head of Ishbosheth, and buried [it] in the sepulchre of Abner in Hebron.

Isaiah 41:18 - I will open rivers in high places, and fountains in the midst of the valleys: I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.

1 Kings 22:38 - And [one] washed the chariot in the pool of Samaria; and the dogs licked up his blood; and they washed his armour; according unto the word of the LORD which he spake.

John 5:4 - For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

Nahum 2:8 - But Nineveh [is] of old like a pool of water: yet they shall flee away. Stand, stand, [shall they cry]; but none shall look back.

2 Kings 20:20 - And the rest of the acts of Hezekiah, and all his might, and how he made a pool, and a conduit, and brought water into the city, [are] they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Judah?

Nehemiah 3:16 - After him repaired Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, the ruler of the half part of Bethzur, unto [the place] over against the sepulchres of David, and to the pool that was made, and unto the house of the mighty.

John 9:11 - He answered and said, A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed mine eyes, and said unto me, Go to the pool of Siloam, and wash: and I went and washed, and I received sight.

Isaiah 7:3 - Then said the LORD unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field;

Isaiah 35:7 - And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, [shall be] grass with reeds and rushes.

Isaiah 22:11 - Ye made also a ditch between the two walls for the water of the old pool: but ye have not looked unto the maker thereof, neither had respect unto him that fashioned it long ago.

John 5:2 - Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep [market] a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.

Nehemiah 2:14 - Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king's pool: but [there was] no place for the beast [that was] under me to pass.

Isaiah 22:9 - Ye have seen also the breaches of the city of David, that they are many: and ye gathered together the waters of the lower pool.

John 5:7 - The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.

John 9:7 - And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.

2 Samuel 2:13 - And Joab the son of Zeruiah, and the servants of David, went out, and met together by the pool of Gibeon: and they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool.


Bible Study and Faith

"The Bible is the most priceless possession of the human race." - Henry H. Halley

"This handbook is dedicated to the proposition that every Christian should be a constant and devoted reader of the Bible, and that the primary business of the church and ministry is to lead, foster, and encourage their people in the habit."

"The vigor of our spiritual life will be in exact proportion to the place held by the Bible in our life and thoughts."

"Great has been the blessing from consecutive, diligent, daily study. I look upon it as a lost day when I have not had a good time over the word of God." - George Muller

"I prayed for faith, and thought that some day faith would come down and strike me like lightning. But faith did not seem to come. One day I read in the 10th chapter of Romans, 'Now faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.' I had closed my Bible, and prayed for faith. I now opened my Bible, and began to study, and faith has been growing ever since." - D. L. Moody

-H. H. Halley "Halley's Bible Handbook" (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1960) p. 4, 6


Archaeological Study of the Bible

"A substantial proof for the accuracy of the Old Testament text has come from archaeology. Numerous discoveries have confirmed the historical accuracy of the biblical documents, even down to the obsolete names of foreign kings... Rather than a manifestation of complete ignorance of the facts of its day, the biblical record thus reflects a great knowledge by the writer of his day, as well as precision in textual transmission."

-Norman L. Geisler, William Nix "A General Introduction to the Bible" 5th Edition (Chicago: Moody Press 1983) p. 253


Bibliography on Ancient Images

The Art of Ancient Egypt, Revised by Robins, 272 Pages, Pub. 2008

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