Women and Wells in the Hebrew Bible by Julye Bidmead

Almost every aspect of daily life in ancient Israel involved water: agriculture, animal husbandry, cooking,  personal hygiene, and of course drinking. People would have collected water from natural sources such as free-running streams, fountains, or springs or from artificial sources such as wells, water systems, reservoirs, and cisterns. Though the Bible lacks specific descriptions of wells, they seem often to have been placed in centralized locations, especially in rural areas. They had some sort of cover (Gen 29:1-3) and may have had stone troughs nearby to provide water for animals (Gen 24:20, Gen 30:38). Well water was likely consumed by both humans and livestock, whereas water collected from cisterns was used for agricultural activities.

Young women typically had the daily chore of drawing water from wells to supply the family household. Genesis 24:11 tells us that women went out to draw water in the evening, using vessels made of either clay or animal skins attached to a rope. The woman would lower the vessel into the well to collect the water and then carry the filled vessel on either her head, her hip, or, more likely, her shoulder, as described in several passages: “Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham's brother, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder” (Gen 24:15). After going to the spring and filling her jar, Rebekah lowers “her jar upon her hand” (Gen 24:18) to offer water to Abraham’s servant.

Although the primary function of wells in ancient Israel was to supply water for the household, the centralized, open location of wells allowed them to serve as social gathering places. Travelers stopped to water their camels there (Gen 24:11, and wells could be landmarks (Num 21:16, Deut 10:6).

Wells were also places of betrothal scenes. As the young women likely went out together to collect water, young men of the village realized that this event gave them a perfect opportunity to socialize with the women away from the watchful eyes of the girls’ fathers and male relatives. The Hebrew Bible recounts several women meeting their future spouses at wells. The narratives follow a similar literary pattern: A man travels to a foreign land, where he meets a young woman who draws water for him. After meeting with the girl’s family a marriage is arranged.  Abraham’s servant stopped at a well and met Rebekah there (Gen 24:10-27). Jacob met Rachel at a well where she came to water her father Laban’s flock of sheep (Gen 29:1-11). Moses, too, met his future wife, Zipporah, at a well when she came with her sisters to water their father's flock (Exod 2:15-22). In addition to these three betrothal scenes, Saul met young women who were on their way to draw water while he was searching for his father's donkeys (1Sam 9:3-12).

Divine revelation occurred at wells, too. As water is life giving and symbolizes creation and new beginnings, it is noteworthy that God would choose water sources for places for revelation. In the Song of Songs, the woman is praised as a “garden fountain, a well of living water” (Song 4:15). After Hagar fled from Sarai, an angel of the Lord appeared to her at a well, Beer-lahai-roi, where he revealed to her the name of her son Ishmael and promised her a multitude of offspring (Gen 16:6-14). Later, when Hagar and Ishmael had been cast out into the wilderness of Beersheba and their water supply was gone, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink” (Gen 21:19).

Julye Bidmead, "Women and Wells in the Hebrew Bible", n.p. [cited 25 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/places/related-articles/women-and-wells-in-the-hebrew-bible

Contributors

Julye Bidmead

Julye Bidmead
Associate Professor, Chapman University

Julye Bidmead is associate professor of religious studies at Chapman University.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Gen 29:1-3

Jacob Meets Rachel
1Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east.2As he looked, he saw a well in the field and three flocks of ... View more

Gen 24:20

20So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.

Gen 30:38

38He set the rods that he had peeled in front of the flocks in the troughs, that is, the watering places, where the flocks came to drink. And since they bred wh ... View more

Genesis 24:11

11He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water.

Gen 24:15

15Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham's brother, coming out with her water jar ... View more

Gen 24:18

18“Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink.

Gen 24:11

11He made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water.

Num 21:16

16From there they continued to Beer; that is the well of which the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.”

Deut 10:6

6(The Israelites journeyed from Beeroth-bene-jaakan to Moserah. There Aaron died, and there he was buried; his son Eleazar succeeded him as priest.

Gen 24:10-27

10Then the servant took ten of his master's camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to ... View more

Gen 29:1-11

Jacob Meets Rachel
1Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the people of the east.2As he looked, he saw a well in the field and three flocks of ... View more

Exod 2:15-22

15When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses.
But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian, and sat down by a well.16The priest of Midia ... View more

1Sam 9:3-12

3Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul's father, had strayed. So Kish said to his son Saul, “Take one of the boys with you; go and look for the donkeys.”4He passed thro ... View more

Song 4:15

15a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.

Gen 16:6-14

6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.7The angel o ... View more

Gen 21:19

19Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

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