Irrigation | Free Online Biblical Library

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IRRIGATION. A word for which there is no Hebrew or Greek equivalent in the Bible, though the use of irrigation for watering plants and trees is frequently implied (Eccl.2.5-Eccl.2.6; Isa.58.11). There was less need of irrigation in Palestine and Syria than in Egypt and Babylonia. In Palestine it was necessary only in the summer.

IRRIGATION. It is perhaps significant that there is no Biblical equivalent for this term and that the most explicit reference to irrigation is an assertion that the Egyp. practice is irrelevant to the Palestinian hills where “the rain from heaven” would serve as a perpeutal reminder of divine approval or disfavor (Deut 11:10-17), but the contrast was relative, not absolute. From Chalcolithic times, irrigation had become widespread in the Fertile Crescent, and the exiles on the River Chebar (Khabaru Canal?) were renewing contact with a system of perennial irrigation predating Abraham. Though Egypt’s “basin system” of breaching mud walls to inundate adjacent plots was inappropriate in the hills, patches of the Jordan Valley were explicitly reminiscent of Egypt (Gen 13:10). Many a wadi of the Rift wall was channeled into flourishing fields along the escarpment base until disaster and malaria-breeding neglect supervened, while larger centers like Bethshan and Jericho with its powerful springs long remained oases of irrigated productivity.

The role of irrigation in the hill country of ancient Israel is less clear. Canaanite settlement was notably concentrated near the spring lines that margined the hills, and it is no accident that over seventy historic sites of Pal. contain the word ’ein (“spring”) and over sixty have bir (“well”). The land was arid, and the uplands that Israel colonized were largely porous limestone, droughty, yet stippled with springs and increasingly with artificial wells. With the adoption of slakedlime sealing about 1300 b.c. pool and cistern construction increased, largely for domestic and city supply, but also for stock watering and the irrigation of gardens and orchards (2 Chron 26:10; Eccles 2:4-6) for the practice increased per-acreage production tenfold.

Methods varied: spaced apertures funnelled the water of Siloam to terraced gardens, bucketfuls were splashed across riverbank and agricultural terrace (Num 24:7), canals flanked some streams such as the Kishon, while foggaras with their vertical shafts and horizontal tunnels tapped the underground seepages of Syria and Trans-Jordan. Transient flash floods were trapped in soil conserving and irrigating dams, such as the intricate engineering complex of Kurnub in the Negev, where dams, channels and cisterns were later multiplied by Nabateans and Byzantines. Herodian and Rom. times witnessed the extension of reservoir and aqueduct, but irrigation was singularly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of misgovernment and war: its subsequent decline and recent revival largely postdate the Biblical era. See Agriculture.


N. Glueck, The River Jordan (1946); M. S. Drower, “Water-supply, Irrigation and Agriculture” in Singer et al., A History of Technology, I (1954), 520-557; A. Reifenberg, The Struggle Between the Desert and the Sown (1955); N. Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (1960); R. O. Whyte, “Evolution of Land Use in South-Western Asia,” in L. D. Stamp (ed.), A History of Land Use in Arid Regions (1961), 57-118.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

ir-i-ga’-shun: No equivalent for this word is found in Biblical writings, although the use of irrigation for maintaining vegetable life is frequently implied (Ec 2:5,6; Isa 58:11). To one familiar with the methods of irrigation practiced in Palestine, Syria and Egypt, the passage, "where thou sowedst thy seed, and wateredst it with thy foot, as a garden of herbs" (De 11:10), is easily explained. The water is brought in channels to the gardens, where it is distributed in turn to the different square plots bounded by banks of earth, or along the rows of growing vegetables planted on the sides of the trenches. In stony soil the breach in the canal leading to a particular plot is opened and closed with a hoe. Any obstruction in the trench is similarly removed, while in the soft, loamy soil of the coastal plain or in the Nile valley these operations can be done with the foot; a practice still commonly seen.

The remains of the great irrigation works of the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians leave no doubt as to the extent to which they used water to redeem the deserts. In Palestine and Syria there was less need (De 10:7; 11:11) for irrigation. Here there is an annual fall of from 30 to 40 inches, coming principally during the winter. This is sufficient for the main crops. The summer supply of vegetables, as well as the fruit and mulberry trees, requires irrigation. Hardly a drop of many mountain streams is allowed to reach the sea, but is used to water the gardens of the mountain terraces and plains. This supply is now being supplemented by the introduction of thousands of pumps and oil engines for raising the water of the wells sufficiently to run it through the irrigation canals. Where a spring is small, its supply is gathered into a birket, or cistern, and then drawn off through a large outlet into the trenches, sometimes several days being required to fill the cistern. In Ec 2:6, Solomon is made to say, "I made me pools of water, to water therefrom the forest." This passage helps to explain the uses of the so-called Pools of Solomon, South of Jerusalem. In this same district are traces of the ancient terraces which were probably watered from these pools.

See Agriculture; Garden.

James A. Patch