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CISTERN (Heb. בּוֹר, bor), a subterranean artificially hewn reservoir for storing rainwater. Common in the highland regions of Palestine, diversion channels brought surface run-off rainwater during the short rainy season to the mouth of the cistern. Silting basins sometimes were built next to the mouth of the cistern to prevent dirt from entering. A square or circular stone capped the shaft leading to the cistern (Gen. 29:3–10); a hole in its center was used for drawing the water. Pulleys made of wood were sometimes erected above the entrance. The narrowness of the shaft helped to prevent evaporation of the water. The walls of the cistern were usually rock-hewn and covered with a coat of plaster containing lime, gravel, and potsherds, to which ashes were sometimes added. The plaster was normally applied in several layers, to ensure that it was waterproof. The interior of the cistern was usually bell-shaped, but other shapes are known. Troughs made of stone were sometimes located next to the cistern openings, used for washing clothes or watering animals. Early examples of cisterns cut in chalk without the use of plaster from the Chalcolithic and Early Bronze Ages are known at Meser and in Modi'in. Bottle-shaped cisterns dating from the Middle Bronze ii and Late Bronze i are known from Hazor. On entering Canaan, the Israelites were said to have taken possession of cisterns hewed out by others (Deut. 6:11). It meant that villages and towns could be established in areas where natural springs were not available. Bell-shaped plastered cisterns were eventually a common feature in houses of Iron Age ii (8th–6th centuries b.c.e.) settlements, and many examples are known from Tell en-Nasbeh, although some of these might very well have served as vats or cellars (as at Gibeon) and not necessarily as cisterns. In contrast to en-Nasbeh, small cisterns from the Iron Age have not been found in the domestic areas of Jerusalem (e.g., the Western Hill), but large reservoirs are known in the area of the Temple Mount, particularly the bahr el-kabir (Arabic for the "great sea") located in front of the Aqsa Mosque which has a capacity of 425,000 cubic metrers of water. The cistern (bor) is referred to in the Bible (Deut. 6:11; ii Kgs. 18:31; Isa. 36:16), and some seem to have had a "cistern house" (bet ha-bor) similar to a well-house built above them, and it was in one of these that the prophet Jeremiah was imprisoned before being thrown into the cistern itself (Jer. 37: 15–16; 38:6). Jeremiah narrowly escaped death in the mire at the bottom of the cistern through the intervention of Ebed-Melech. Cisterns, unlike wells, were usually private property, although it is recorded that Uzziah dug many cisterns in the desert and the latter may have been made in order to promote animal husbandry (ii Chr. 26:10; Authorized version: "wells"). Larger storage tanks in valleys were referred to as gbym (singular gbi), though in the past they have been translated as "ditches" or "pools." ii Kings 3:16–17, however, makes it clear that the gbym were reservoirs situated in valley landscapes and that these sources of water were only to be tapped at times when water was scarce. A large reservoir connected with a water system was referred to as an aswkh in the Mesha Stele 9:28 (9th century b.c.e.; cf. Eccles. 50:3); reservoirs of this sort are also mentioned as such in the first century c.e. Copper Scroll. A complete Iron Age ii water system with a large reservoir was recently excavated near Suba, west of Jerusalem. Some cisterns were cut inside cities in preparation for a siege (Jer. 41:9). While some cisterns were provided with a small basin cut into the floor of the reservoir directly below the opening, presumably to catch impurities, they did nevertheless become extremely slimy at the bottom (Ps. 40:3; Jer. 38:6). The phrase "cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water" appears in a well-known passage contrasting the gods of the nations with Israel's God, "the fountain of living waters" (Jer. 2:13). "Drink waters out of your own cistern" (Prov. 5:15) is a figurative warning against sexual trespassing.


Aharoni, Land, 96, 219; R.A.S. Macalister, The Excavation of Gezer, 1 (1912), 268ff.; R.S. Lamon, The Megiddo Water System (1935); Dothan, in: iej, 7 (1957), 220, 227; 9 (1959), 17, 20; D.W. Thomas (ed.), Documents From Old Testament Times (1961), 198; R. Hestrin et al., Inscriptions Reveal, Israel Museum Catalog No. 100 (1972), 54–55; O. Moran and D. Palmach, Water Cisterns in the Negev Highlands (1985); Y. Shiloh, "Underground Water Systems in the Land of Israel in the Iron Age," in: A. Kempinsky and R. Reich (eds.), The Architecture of Ancient Israel (1992); S. Gibson and D.M. Jacobson, Below the Temple Mount in Jerusalem: A Sourcebook on the Cisterns, Subterranean Chambers and Conduits of the Haram al-Sharif (1996); S. Gibson and D. Amit, Water Installations in Antiquity (1998); T. Tsuk, Ancient Water Systems in Settlements in Eretz-Israel (2000); idem, "Urban Water Reservoirs in the Land of the Bible During the Bronze and Iron Ages (3000 bc–586 bc)," in: aram, 13–14 (2001–2), 377–401; A. Kloner, "Water Cisterns in Idumea, Judaea and Nabataea in the Hellenistic and Early Roman Periods," ibid., 461–85; J. Hale et al., "Dating Ancient Mortar," in: American Scientist, 91 (2003), 130–37; J.Hoftijzer and K. Jongeling, Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions. Part One (1995), 122–23, s.v. 'swh.

[Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]