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Water (מַ֫יִם, H4784; ὕδωρ, G5623), a liquid compound of hydrogen and oxygen (H2O) which is convertible by heat to steam and by removal of heat (cold) to ice. Most water is derived directly from the ocean by evaporation. It condenses to form clouds and is precipitated, as rain, snow or hail, on the earth’s surface where it either runs into rivers, lakes, etc. or sinks into the ground. Here some is used by plant life as an essential support, but much forms underground water which may reappear in springs, be brought to the surface from wells, or return to the sea.

Naturally occurring waters contain impurities in varying degrees. During the process of evaporation, the salts in the ocean are left behind but rain water acquires traces of ammonium salts and various gasses from the air. In mountainous districts lake and river water is relatively pure, but running water progressively dissolves salts and picks up suspended mineral or vegetable matter. Where the surface drainage pattern ends in an inland lake, such as the Dead Sea, the proportion of salts in the water progressively increases as evaporation takes place. Underground waters are generally clear and free from suspended matter having been filtered by the rock strata (aquifers) through which they flow. However, during their passage through rock strata they may dissolve considerable quantities of mineral salts, particularly in limestone regions where solution caves (q.v.) are formed. Some mineral salts, particularly magnesian salts, make the water unfit for consumption by humans or animals; in many cases such water has a bitter taste. Other underground water contains little dissolved material (cf. James 3:12).

The availability of water has been at the heart of the constant conflict, throughout the history of the Near East, of the tillers of ground and keepers of sheep (cf. Gen 4:2). With the progressive increase of agriculture in any region, the nomadic herdsmen have been forced out of regions with reliable water supplies. In keeping with the slaying of Abel by Cain (Gen 4:8) these nomadic peoples have consistently harried the settled people, with any hydraulic works being prime targets. And the herdsmen have fought amongst themselves for the ownership of wells (Gen 26:20).

Not only inland water but also the adjacent seas have been important. Much of the rain precipitated on the Holy Lands is water evaporated from the Mediterranean Sea, a mass of water which played an important role in trade (e.g. the Phoenicians) and transport (Acts 27). The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba also provided means of access for trade (1 Kings 9:26) with Arabia, northeastern and eastern Africa and possibly India. It also provided natural resources (onycha, pearl q.v.).

Rainfall, evaporation, run-off and infiltration

The prevailing westerly winds (1 Kings 18:42-45) over the eastern Mediterranean pick up moisture which is precipitated when the air is forced to rise over the Judean and East Jordan highlands. Most precipitation occurs as rain, although snow falls on the higher ground and there are some hail storms. This precipitation is seasonal from October to May with the greatest proportion falling from December to March. Average precipitation is greater than 1000 mm (about forty inches) on the high ground SE of Damascus and greater than 500 mm (about twenty inches) over Lebanon, parts of Syria and Israel and limited parts of Jordan (Fig. 1). However, there are wide variations from the average, the average rainfall for Jerusalem from 1850 to 1960 being 620 mm (about twenty-five inches) with a maximum of 1090 mm (about forty-one inches) and a minimum of 210 mm (about nine inches). Much of eastern Jordan and eastern Syria is in a rain-shadow region with precipitation being less than 200 mm (about 8 inches) over large areas. In the South the rainfall is even lower despite the higher elevations of the Jordan highlands compared with those further North. The low rainfall results from the winds being mainly southerly from the dry North African continent, but in these desert regions water is deposited as dew (Exod 16:13). Rainfall in the southern part of the Jordan Valley and adjacent to the Dead Sea is also very low.

A large proportion of the rain evaporates with humidities on the East bank of the Jordan River being in the order of seventy-five percent in the winter and thirty-five percent in the summer. In one part of northern Jordan where the annual average precipitation is 415 mm (about sixteen inches), an estimated eighty-one percent is evaporated, nine percent is run off into the surface drainage system and ten percent infiltrates into the underground water system. In other regions, with comparable moderate rainfall, as little as five percent or as much as fifteen percent of total rainfall infiltrates and adds to the vital store of underground water (cf. Deut 11:11). In regions where rainfall is less than 200 mm (about eight inches) there is little or no direct infiltration except from flood flow in wadis crossing outcrops of aquifers.

Underground water

The catchments for underground water as well as underground water conditions, including emergence as springs and supply in wells, are almost entirely dependent upon geological factors. These include the porosity and permeability of strata, the location of strata that form aquifers, the juxtaposition of aquifers and aquicludes (formations that do not transmit water), the inclination of the strata and the existence of structural features such as folds and faults. Much of the water that infiltrates the soil and surface rocks seeps downward to a zone where the rocks are saturated with water. The upper surface of this saturated zone is called the water table and its height at any place is given by the level at which water stands in a well there.

There are two main groups of underground water in the Holy Lands, these being the underground water in the permeable sections of the folded and faulted hill regions and that in the sediments of the main plains. In the hilly country, such as much of Judea, Samaria and Galilee, underground water is generally at a considerable depth below the surface, but the water table undulates. Where it meets the surface in the valley districts between the higher terrain, ground water emerges as springs (Deut 8:7). Many such springs occur where an inclined junction of pervious and impervious strata (aquifer and aquiclude) meet the surface (Fig. 2), or where there is a faulted junction between the two such types of strata. These springs are generally perennial, and supply pools which in turn feed streams (2 Sam 17:20). At the sides of valleys springs also occur where the water table meets the land surface. However, seasonal variations in precipitation, as well as long periods of drought, cause variation in the level of the water table with the result that some springs may cease to flow for a period (2 Kings 2:19). Other intermittent springs only flow from the sides of valleys after abnormal infiltration, following prolonged heavy rain, has caused the water table to rise and meet the land surface (Fig. 2). Where the ground elevation is not great, such as in the foothills of the Judean mountains, the depth of underground water below the surface decreases and the water can be tapped by relatively shallow wells. Underground water is also tapped by wells from aquifers below the plains, such as the Coastal Plain, Esdraelon Plain and Beersheba Plain. Here the water table is almost flat, with a very gentle inclination toward the Mediterranean Sea. The aquifers are always underlain by aquicludes with the level of the water, and hence the depth of any well, dependent upon the position relative to the sea, the situation of impervious strata, and the permeability of the aquifer.

In some cases underground water may travel for tens of m. before emerging as springs. This is the case for the relatively few and important watering places in the Southern Desert between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The water mainly infiltrates sandstone aquifers below wadis during periodic floods and then travels large distances underground.

The nature of the aquifers varies from place to place dependent upon the regional geology. However, the main sources of water on the Coastal Plain of Pal. are sandstones overlying clay beds, while the main sources of underground water in both Israel and Jordan are limestone bands in the Judean Limestone (stones, q.v.). The interbedded marls act as aquicludes preventing further downward migration of the ground water and forcing it to issue as springs. In southern Syria basalt lava flows are good aquifers and from them issue the springs that feed the Yarmuk River. In the southern desert, between the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba, sandstones act as aquifers for the little water available, e.g. the Ram Spring, while at Petra a shale acts as an impermeable bed giving rise to a small spring.

Jordan drainage system

The Jordan River, its tributaries, Lake Tiberias and the Dead Sea constitute the major surface drainage system of the Holy Lands. The Jordan River has two main sources. One is near Banias (Caesarea-Philippi; Matt 16:13) at the southern base of the Mt. Hermon range in Syria, where the Nahr Banias issues from a cave, and one at a spring in Tell el-Kadi (Dan). Two longer streams, but with less water, also form the Jordan headwaters, viz. the Nahr Hasbani which occupies the northern continuation of the Jordan Rift Valley (earthquake q.v.) and the Nahr Bareighit. The four streams unite below Banias and flow into the now drained Lake Huleth (? Merom of Josh 11:5) which was formed by the damming of the river by volcanic rock. From there a clear, fast-flowing river falls below sea level and in the nine m. to Lake Tiberias, its base drops 600 ft., with Bethsaida (Mark 6:45) and Capernaum (John 6:17) on the E and W sides, respectively, of its entrance into the lake.

Lake Tiberias, which is twelve m. long and up to seven m. across, also exists because of the damming of the Jordan River by volcanic rock while there are hot springs containing chlorides and sulphides near its shores. Its Old Testament name, Sea of Kinneret or Chinnereth results from its harplike shape. New Testament names are Lake of Gennesaret (Luke 5:1) and Sea of Tiberias (John 6:1). About three-quarters of the inflow into the lake comes from the Jordan River; the rest comes from springs, seepage of underground water, rainfall and wadi floods. The water is warm, varying from 12.5oC (55oF) to 30oC (86oF). Between February and August there is abundant plankton in the lake and fishing, which was a major industry in New Testament times (John 21:3), is at its peak. Strong, dry E winds affect the lake in winter, often causing storms, and sudden summer squalls result from strong, hot westerly winds (Mark 4:37).

The Jordan River S of Lake Tiberias becomes muddy and twists for more than 180 m. along its valley floor in traversing the 60 m. to the Dead Sea, with the base dropping only 900 ft. in that distance. In flood it fills its flood plain but in the summer it is less than 100 ft. wide and three feet deep in some places, and it has been known to have been blocked by rockfalls near Adam about twenty-four m. N of its entrance into the Dead Sea. This is prob. related to the earthquake (q.v.) activity which is common along the length of the rift valley in which the river flows and would account for the dry passage of the Israelites under Joshua (Josh 3:16). The plain of Jordan was chosen by Lot because of the abundance of water (Gen 13:10, 11). The river played an important role in the lives of Elijah (2 Kings 2:6) and Elisha (2 Kings 6:2) and its muddy waters were repugnant to Naaman, the leper who came from a district with clear rivers (2 Kings 5:12). However, because of its association with Jesus, including His baptism near Bethabara (Mark 1:9) and the baptism of John (Mark 1:5), this river has become a symbol of cleansing and purity.

The Dead Sea, also referred to as the “Salt Sea” (Gen 14:3; Josh 3:16), is fed mainly by the waters of the Jordan River which supplies an annual average of 1.2 x 109 cubic meters of water out of a total intake of 1.6 x 109 cubic meters. The remainder of the water comes largely from the Arnon and Zarqa Ma’in together with some from springs and some from seasonal floods of otherwise dry rivers. This inland lake has no outlet, is situated in the deepest part of the Jordan Rift Valley (earthquake q.v.) and is forty-four m. from N to S with an average width of eight m. The Lisan Peninsula protrudes from the eastern shore and divides the lake into a shallow southern basin and a deep northern basin which makes up about three-quarters of the total area and most of its total volume of 142 km2. There is evidence to suggest that the last flooding of the southern basin took place c. 1,500 years ago and that it was dry in Biblical times. The main part of the Dead Sea is c. 12,000 years old with older and even more extensive lakes having been formed at least one million years ago. Water temperatures vary from 19-23oC (66-73oF) in December-January to 34-36oC (93-97oF) in July-August with the extreme recorded maximum temperature being 38oC (100oF). The average specific gravity of the surface water is 1.206g/cm3 (compared with that 1.0 g/cm3 for pure water) and the average salinity is 31.5 percent.

Additional Material

Source 1

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(mayim; hudor):

(1) The Greek philosophers believed water to be the original substance and that all things were made from it. The Koran states, "From water we have made all things." In the story of the creation (Ge 1:2) water plays an elemental part.

(2) Because of the scarcity of water in Palestine it is especially appreciated by the people there. They love to go and sit by a stream of running water. Men long for a taste of the water of their native village (1Ch 11:17). A town or village is known throughout the country for the quality of its water, which is described by many adjectives, such as "light," "heavy," etc.

(3) The rainfall is the only source of supply of water for Palestine. The moisture is carried up from the sea in clouds and falls on the hills as rain or snow. This supplies the springs and fountains. The rivers are mostly small and have little or no water in summer. For the most part springs supply the villages, but in case this is not sufficient, cisterns are used. Most of the rain falls on the western slopes of the mountains, and most of the springs are found there. The limestone in many places does not hold the water, so wells are not very common, though there are many references to them in the Bible.

(4) Cisterns are usually on the surface of the ground and vary greatly in size. Jerusalem has always had to depend for the most part on water stored in this way, and carried to the city in aqueducts. A large number of cisterns have been found and partially explored under the temple-area itself. The water stored in the cisterns is surface water, and is a great menace to the health of the people. During the long, dry summer the water gets less and less, and becomes so stagnant and filthy that it is not fit to drink. In a few instances the cisterns or pools are sufficiently large to supply water for limited irrigation.

See Cistern.

(5) During the summer when there is no rain, vegetation is greatly helped by the heavy dews. A considerable amount of irrigation is carried on in the country where there is sufficient water in the fountains and springs for the purpose. There was doubtless much more of it in the Roman period. Most of the fruit trees require water during the summer.

(6) Many particular wells or pools are mentioned in the Bible, as: Beersheba (Ge 21:19), Isaac’s well (Ge 24:11), Jacob’s well (Joh 4:6), Pool of Siloam (Joh 9:7), "waters of Nephtoah" (Jos 15:9).

(8) The lack of water caused great suffering (Ex 15:22; De 8:15; 2Ki 3:9; Ps 63:1; Pr 9:17; Eze 4:11; La 5:4).

See also FOUNew TestamentAIN; PIT; POOL; SPRING; WELL.


  • G. S. Blake and M. S. Goldschmidt, Geology and Water Resources of Palestine (1947);

  • D. J. Burdon, Handbook of the Geology of Jordan (1959);

  • R. W. Fairbridge (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Geomorphology (1968), 243-246;

  • E. M. Blaiklock (ed.), The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Atlas (1969), 438-452.