WELL (Heb. be’ēr, Gr. phrear). A pit or hole dug in the earth down to the water table, i.e., to the level at which the ground is permanently saturated with water. For both safety and permanence, the well was generally surrounded by a wall of stone, and in the case of some famous wells, like that of Jacob at Sychar (John.4.1-John.4.54), the walls were beautifully constructed with dressed stone. A well is to be distinguished from a cistern (which was merely for storing water, Jer.2.13), a spring (which is found at the surface of the ground), and a fountain (from which water actively flows, Josh.15.9).

WELL. Since the rains in Pal. are concentrated in the winter months, water is a problem through much of the year. Natural sources are springs, streams, rivers and the Sea of Galilee. Artificial sources are wells and cisterns. The latter were a problem until after the discovery of waterproof plaster shortly before the Exodus.

The usual Heb. word for a spring which bubbles up out of the ground is עַ֫יִן, H6524. The word for a well which was dug to reach the underground water table was בְּאֵר, H931. Sometimes the terms were used interchangeably so one must watch the context for the exact meaning.

The usual Gr. word for a spring which provides a constant flow of water is πηγή, G4380, (James 3:11). The term for the shaft constructed to reach the underground water table is φρέαρ, G5853, (John 4:11). Again the terms are too often used interchangeably.

The ownership of wells was so important that feuds over them were settled at times only by a unique covenant service as with Abraham and Abimelech (Gen 21:25ff.). This value placed upon wells was in part due to the expense of digging them. Rivals would fight over a well rather than dig a second one. Notice that in Deuteronomy 6:11 wells are listed with other costly items, such as olive groves and vineyards, both of which are very slow growing. The value of wells is seen also in the fact that some bore specific names (Gen 26:20-22). Cities, in turn, were sometimes known by their wells such as Beer-sheba.

Wells were of special concern in warfare. The ancients normally went to war in the summer, for then they could live off the crops of their enemies. Summer was also the season when there was the least water available. Therefore the defenders would stop up their wells with stones and then cover them over with soil so the enemy could not use them. Hezekiah had the Siloam tunnel dug to deprive the Assyrians of a water supply at Jerusalem. If special vengeance was handed out to an enemy his wells were destroyed (2 Kings 3:25). See Cistern.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)


Use of Terms

1. General

2. Wells or Cylindrical Cisterns

3. Private Cisterns

4. Public Cisterns

5. Pools and Aqueducts

6. Figurative Uses


Several words are rendered by "cistern," "well," "pool," the relations of which in the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American) are as follows:

Use of Terms:

"Cistern," bo’r (Jer 2:13, etc.), or bor (2Ki 18:31). The latter word is frequently in the King James Version translated "well." the Revised Version (British and American) in these cases changes to "cistern" in text (De 6:11; 2Ch 26:10; Ne 9:25) margin (Jer 14:3), rendered "pit" in the King James Version are changed to "cistern" the Revised Version (British and American) (the latter in the American Standard Revised Version only).

1. General:

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 (see Glaisher, Meteorological Observations, 24). 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.

2. Wells or Cylindrical Cisterns:

It is necessary to include wells under the head of cisterns, as there appears to be some confusion in the use of the two terms. Wells, so called, were more often deep cylindrical reservoirs, the lower part of which was sunk in the rock and cemented, the upper part being built with open joints, to receive the surface percolation. They were often of great depth. Job’s well at Jerusalem, which is certainly of great antiquity, is 125 ft. deep (see Palestine Exploration Fund, "Jerus," 371).

3. Private Cisterns:

Private cisterns must be distinguished from public cisterns or wells. They were smaller and were sunk in the rocks within private boundaries, each owner having his own cistern (2Ki 18:31; Pr 5:15). Ancient sites are honeycombed with these cisterns. A common type in Jerusalem seems to have been bottle-shaped in section, the extended bottom part being in the softer rock, and the narrow neck in the hard upper stratum. Many irregularly shaped cisterns occur with rock vaults supported by rock or masonry piers. Macalister tells of the discovery at Gezer of a small silt catchpit attached to a private cistern, and provided with an overflow channel leading to the cistern. It is an early instance of a now well-known method of purification. The universal use of cement rendering to the walls of the cisterns was most necessary to seal up the fissures of the rock. The "broken cisterns" (Jer 2:13) probably refer to insufficiently sealed cisterns.

4. Public Cisterns:

Besides private cisterns there were huge public rock-cut cisterns within the city walls. The great water caverns under the Temple area at Jerusalem show a most extensive system of water storage (see Recovery of Jerusalem, chapter vii). There are 37 of these described in Palestine Exploration Fund, "Jerus," 217 ff, and the greatest is an immense rock-cut cavern the roof of which is partly rock and partly stone, supported by rock piers (see Fig. 1, Palestine Exploration Fund). It is 43 ft. deep with a storage capacity of over two million gallons and there are numerous access manholes. This cistern is fed by an aqueduct from Solomon’s Pools about 10 miles distant by road, and is locally known as Bahar el Kebir, the "Great Sea." One of the most recent and one of the most interesting rock-cut reservoirs yet discovered is that at Gezer. (See Palestine Exploration Fund Statement, 1908, 96 ff.) In this example, the pool of spring water is reached by a great rock-tunnel staircase which descends 94 ft. 6 inches from the surface. The staircase diminishes in size as it descends, and at its greatest, it is 23 ft. high and 12 ft. 10 inches wide. These proportions may seem unnecessarily large, but may be accounted for by the necessity for providing light at the water level. As a matter of fact, the brink of the pool receives the light from above. The work dates back to pre-Israelite times.

5. Pools and Aqueducts:

Open pools were common in every city. They were cut out of the rock and were built and cemented at points where occasion demanded. They were often of great size. The pool outside Jerusalem known as Birket es Sultan measures 555 ft. x 220 ft. x 36 ft. deep, and the so-called Hezekiah’s Pool within the walls, is 240 ft. x 144 ft. x about 20 ft. deep. The latter probably owes its origin to the rock-cut fosse of early Jewish date. The Birket es Sultan, on the other hand, probably dates from the time of the Turkish occupation. They may, however, be taken as examples, which, if somewhat larger, are still in accord with the pool system of earlier history. Pools were usually fed by surface drainage, and in some cases by aqueducts from springs at some distance away. They seem to have been at the public service, freely accessible to both man and beast. Pools situated outside the city walls were sometimes connected by aqueducts with pools within the city, so that the water could be drawn within the walls in time of siege. The so-called Pools of Solomon, three in number (see Fig. 3), situated about 10 miles by road from Jerusalem, are of large proportions and are fed by surface water and by aqueducts from springs. The water from these pools is conveyed in a wonderfully engineered course, known as the lower-level aqueduct, which searches the winding contours of the Judean hills for a distance of about 15 miles, before reaching its destination in "the great sea" under the Temple area. This aqueduct is still in use, but its date is uncertain (see G. A. Smith, Jerusalem, 131, where the author finds reason for ascribing it to the period of Herod). The course and destination of another aqueduct known as the high-level aqueduct is less definite. These aqueducts are of varying dimensions. The low-level aqueduct at a point just before it enters the Temple area was found to measure 3 ft. high x 2 ft. 3 inches wide, partly rock-cut and partly built, and rendered in smooth-troweled cement, with well-squared stone covers (see Palestine Exploration Fund, Excavations at Jerusalem, 53 ff). There are many remains of rock-cut aqueducts throughout Palestine (see Fig. 4) which seem to indicate their use in early Hebrew times, but the lack of Old Testament references to these works is difficult to account for, unless it is argued that in some cases they date back to pre-Israelite times. The great tunnel and pool at Gezer lends a measure of support to this hypothesis. On the other hand, a plea for a Hebrew origin is also in a measure strengthened by the very slight reference in the Old Testament to such a great engineering feat as the cutting of the Siloam tunnel, which is doubtless the work of Hezekiah. The pool of Siloam was originally a simple rock-cut reservoir within the walls, and was constructed by Hezekiah (2Ch 32:30). It measures 75 ft. x 71 ft. It is the upper pool of Isa 7:3. A lower overflow pool existed immediately beyond, contained by the city wall across the Tyropoeon valley. The aqueduct which supplies the upper pool takes a tortuous course of about 1,700 ft. through the solid rock from the Virgin’s fountain, an intermittent spring on the East slope of the hill. The water reaches the pool on the Southwest of the spur of Ophel, and it was in the rock walls of this aqueduct that the famous Siloam inscription recording the completion of the work was discovered.

Herod embellished the upper pool, lining it with stone and building arches around its four sides (see Palestine Exploration Fund, Excavations at Jerusalem, 154 ff), and the pool was most likely in this condition in the time of Christ (Joh 9:6,7). There are numerous other pools, cisterns and aqueducts in and around Jerusalem, which provide abundant evidence of the continual struggle after water, made by its occupants of all times (see G. A. Smith, Jerusalem, chapter v, volume I).

See also PIT; WELL, etc.

6. Figurative Uses:

Good wives are described as cisterns (Pr 5:15 ff). "The left ventricle of the heart, which retains the blood till it be redispersed through the body, is called a cistern" (Ec 12:6). Idols, armies and material objects in which Israel trusted were "broken cisterns" (Jer 2:13, see above) "soon emptied of all the aid and comfort which they possess, and cannot fill themselves again."


G. A. Smith, Jerusalem; Palestine Exploration Fund Memoirs, Jerusalem vol; Wilson, The Recovery of Jerusalem; Macalister, Bible Sidelights; Palestine Exploration Fund Statement; Bliss and Dickie, Excavations at Jerusalem; Josephus.

Arch. C. Dickie

(1) (be’er; compare Arabic bi’r, "well" or "cistern"; usually artificial: "And Isaac’s servants digged (dug) in the valley, and found there a well of springing (margin "living") water" (Ge 26:19); some times covered: "Jacob .... rolled the stone from the well’s mouth" (Ge 29:10). Be’er may also be a pit: "The vale of Siddim was full of slime pits" (Ge 14:10); "the pit of destruction" (Ps 55:23).

(2) (bor), usually "pit": "Let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits" (Ge 37:20); may be "well": "drew water out of the well of Beth-lehem" (2Sa 23:16).

(3) (pege), usually "running water," "fount," or "source": "Doth the fountain send forth from the same opening sweet water and bitter?" (Jas 3:11); may be "well"; compare "Jacob’s well" (Joh 4:6).

(4) (phrear), usually "pit": "the pit of the abyss" (Re 9:1); but "well"; compare "Jacob’s well" (Joh 4:11,12): "Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a well" (the nodetitle "pit") (Lu 14:5).

(5) (krene), "wells" (Sirach 48:17), Latin, fons, "spring" (2 Esdras 2:32).

(6) ayin), compare Arabic `ain "fountain," "spring": "the fountain (English Versions of the Bible) which is in Jezreel" (1Sa 29:1); "In Elim were twelve springs (the King James Version "fountains"] of water" (Nu 33:9); "She (Rebekah) went down to the fountain" (the King James Version "well") (Ge 24:16); "the jackal’s well" (the English nodetitle "the dragon’s well," the King James Version "the dragon well") (Ne 2:13).

(7) (ma`yan), same root as (6); "the fountain (the King James Version "well") of the waters of Nephtoah" (Jos 18:15); "Passing through the valley of Weeping (the King James Version "Baca") they make it a place of springs" (the King James Version "well") (Ps 84:6); "Ye shall draw water out of the wells of salvation" (Isa 12:3).

(8) (maqor), usually figurative: "With thee is the fountain of life" (Ps 36:9); "The mouth of the righteous is a fountain (the King James Version "well") of life" (Pr 10:11); "make her (Babylon’s) fountain (the King James Version "spring") dry" (Jer 51:36); "a corrupted spring" (Pr 25:26).

(9) (mabbu`), (nabha`, "to flow," "spring," "bubble up"; compare Arabic (nab`, manba`, yanbu`) "fountain": "or the pitcher is broken at the fountain" (Ec 12:6); "the thirsty ground springs of water" (Isa 35:7).

(10) (motsa’), "spring," (yatsa’), "to go out," "the dry land springs of water" (Isa 41:18); "a dry land into watersprings" (Ps 107:35); "the upper spring of the waters of Gihon" (2Ch 32:30).

(11) (nebhekh), root uncertain, reading doubtful; only in Job 38:16, "Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea?"

(12) (tehom), "deep," "abyss"; compare Ge 1:2; translated "springs," the King James Version "depths" (De 8:7).

(13) (gal), (galal), "to roll"; compare Gilgal (Jos 5:9); "a spring shut up" (So 4:12).

(14) (gullah), "bowl," "basin," "pool," same root: "Give me also springs of water. And he gave her the upper sprigs and the nether springs" (Jos 15:19); compare Arabic (kullat), pronounced gullat, "a marble," "a cannon-ball."

As is clear from references cited above, wells and springs were not sharply distinguished in name, though be’er, and phrear are used mainly of wells, and `ayin, ma`yan, motsa’, mabbua` and (poetically) maqor are chiefly used of fountains. The Arabic bi’r, the equivalent of the Hebrew be’er, usually denotes a cistern for rain-water, though it may be qualified as bi’r jam`, "well of gathering," i.e. for rain-water, or as bi’r nab`, "well of springing water." A spring or natural fountain is called in Arabic `ain or nab` (compare Hebrew `ayin and mabbua`). These Arabic and Hebrew words for "well" and "spring" figure largely in place-names, modern and ancient: Beer (Nu 21:16); Beer-elim (Isa 15:8), etc.; `Ain

(a) on the northeast boundary of Palestine (Nu 34:11),

(b) in the South of Judah, perhaps = En-rimmon (Jos 15:32); Enaim (Ge 38:14); Enam (Jos 15:34), etc.

Modern Arabic names with `ain are very numerous, e.g. `Ainul-fashkhah, `Ain-ul-chajleh, `Ain-karim, etc.

See nodetitle; Fountain; PIT; POOL.