Francesco Cozza, Landscape with the Angel Appearing to Hagar and Leading her to the Well, 1664, National Gallery of Denmark.

Ancient wells in Israel were not just a place to gather precious water but were a meeting place for the community and for travellers and single people to connect with each other. The biblical story of Jacob meeting Rachel and of his delight in finding her takes place at a well. Rachel was Jacob’s cousin and she was a shepherdess so Jacob watered her father’s sheep and then he kissed Rachel (Genesis 29: 1-14). Unfortunately for Jacob the situation was complicated by Laban who insisted Jacob marry Leah first and then Rachel, whom he loved, after fourteen years of service to Laban.

Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society, meaning that men held a greater degree of power by default, especially the heads of households. We see an example of this in Genesis 28 where Isaac, Jacob’s father, commands him to go to Paddan-aram where he would find his mother’s brother Laban and it was there that he found Rachel.

Isaac himself first met Jacob’s mother Rebekah in Genesis 24 as she was carrying a water jar to a spring where she filled the jar and gave Isaac’s servant some water to drink. Rebekah went on to give the camels a drink and to offer the travellers a place to rest. Isaac knew he had come to the right place to find a wife and to find his kin. So the spring was the place to stop and rest, to meet people and to establish relationships. People established households around the places of water and customs were developed around meeting and greeting, offering refreshment and hospitality. No doubt travellers followed water courses and the terrain which was carved often from the passage of water through the land over time. As for daughters of the household, they were often subject to arranged marriages and we get the impression that often they did not object (although we get this impression from texts written by men!) No doubt fathers often loved their daughters and wanted them to make good marriages. As was often the custom of the time, cousins married each other and wealth, traditions and beliefs remained in the family.

Ancient Israelite society typically contained farmers, herdsmen, fishermen, and artisans. After their nomadic period, documented in the book of Genesis, the Israelites settled in small houses, but still had sparse furniture, using a candle to light the house. They had few leisure activities but did get a day of rest on the sabbath. The Hebrew people established a place for themselves in the land of Israel, defeating the Canaanites from whom they took the land. The first five books of the bible establish their religious life and culture which was dedicated to worshipping their god Yahweh. Gender roles were strictly defined. Women were responsible for transforming raw materials into food and clothing and for guarding the resources of the household. Mothers named their children and midwives helped at births. Women were often responsible for the musical celebrations and religious offerings. Women did become prophets and judges such as Miriam and Deborah, and had powerful roles as queens and mothers in the courts of their husbands and sons. Bathsheba comes to mind. She was beautiful and powerful and was able to establish the throne for her son Solomon which is documented in the book of Kings.

The Jordan Rift or Rift Valley contained many major bodies of water like the Sea of Galilee, Jordan River, and Red Sea and provide a natural boundary to the east of Israel because of the drop on elevation. Ancient Israel was home to several major cities that were established around a source of water. The Gihon Spring was the main source of water for the city of Jerusalem from its founding more than 5,000 years ago until the 20th century. This particular channel of the Gihon is called Hezekiah’s Tunnel after the king who oversaw its construction in 701 BCE. All springs, wells and fountains were landmarks in the topography of Palestine. Abraham dug wells near Gerar. An angel found Hagar at a well in the Sinai in Genesis 16, called Beer Lahai Roi. Joseph was thrown into a pit by his brothers and left to die but there was no water in it (Genesis 37:24).

As water becomes scarcer in countries such as Israel and areas in the Middle East and perhaps my own country, who knows if a great struggle will emerge over natural resources such as water or if it has already began. Water is such a normal part of life that we are not always aware of the integral part it plays in our lives and everyday customs, as it did in ancient times.