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Women and Wells in the Hebrew Bible

In addition to being sources of water for drinking and agriculture, wells were also social hotspots.

Camille Corot
Camille Corot

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

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