On Wednesday, I went on a tour of ancient Gibeon. It is a fascinating site, and one that I had not visited before.
Gibeon is a biblical site that first appears in the book of Joshua. The Gibeonites, fearing that Joshua and the Israelites would conquer them, tricked Joshua into making a treaty with them by making him believe that they had come from a far country. When Joshua realized that they actually lived close by, he kept the treaty and defended Gibeon against a coalition that attacked it, but he made the Gibeonites work for the Israelites as wood cutters and water carriers (Joshua 9–10).
Later, Gibeon also appears in the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Jeremiah. Two passages mention a pool at Gibeon. In 2 Samuel 2:12–32, Abner and Joab met at the pool of Gibeon and started a battle there. Additionally, Jeremiah 41:12 mentions the great pool that is in Gibeon.
Archaeological Excavations at Gibeon
Excavations at Gibeon revealed two water systems. One is a gigantic pool with a winding staircase descending into it. Perhaps this is pool mentioned in the two texts. The excavator, James Pritchard, dated the construction of the pool to the IAI, which means that it could have been in use at the time of both Joab and Jeremiah.
The other water system is a stepped tunnel leading down to a natural spring. According to Pritchard, the construction of this water system occurred after that of the great pool. This water system consists of steps leading down to a small pool that contained water bubbling up from the spring. An entrance opens from the pool to the fields outside the city of Gibeon. Perhaps this allowed for the watering of flocks or for irrigating fields. In times of war, it could serve as a secret entrance into the city, although it might also be a weak point in the fortification system, should the enemy discover it.
Another interesting find from Gibeon is a winery dating to the Iron Age II. Pritchard discovered 63 cellars carved into bedrock at the site. They have round entrances from the surface, widening into larger cylindrical storage spaces. Pritchard estimated that each cellar could hold 1500 gallons of wine stored in jars. Additionally, numerous other smaller basins carved into the bedrock probably functioned in the wine-making process, as well. Apparently, winemaking was a major industry at Gibeon, and they probably exported wine to surrounding areas.
The Tour of Gibeon
We hiked up the hill to Gibeon, stopping along the way for the guide to offer explanations of what we were seeing. The tour was in Hebrew, so I didn’t understand much, but I had done my homework in advance, so I knew what to expect at the site. The hillside was lush with grasses and flowers blossoming. Springtime is so beautiful here in Israel!
When we reached the top of the hill, the great pool was the first thing that caught my attention. It is certainly impressive with its winding staircase. It is 80+ feet deep and 37 feet in diameter. At the bottom of the pool, the steps continue as if to go deeper yet, but then come to an end. It is as if those who constructed the pool left it unfinished.
Nearby, the winery cellars are visible, the ground polka-dotted with holes leading into the cellars. These are the two main features plainly visible at the site, but then, near the great pool, an unobtrusive dip in the ground caught my eye. I went closer for a look and found steps leading down into a dark hole in the ground. I glanced at the tour guide. “The pool is very nice,” I told him, “But I suspect that this is even more interesting.” “Yes,” he responded. “You have found the entrance to the spring. Wait a few minutes. We will go down soon.”
Satisfied, I waited while he spoke in Hebrew to the group, explaining to them about the great pool and the spring tunnel. Then, we all changed into sandals, put on headlamps, and descended into the tunnel. Below the small entrance, the tunnel opened out and became quite large, with the ceiling high overhead. The steps were well-worn and a bit slippery. We carefully made our way downward until we came to a small pool of water at the bottom. Part of the group declined to enter the frigid water and retraced their steps up through the tunnel. The rest of us proceeded onward. The water came up to my waist at the deepest point. We crossed the pool, carefully feeling our way through the dark waters.
At the far side was a modern-looking retaining wall. We climbed over it. I had brought my phone but had to hold it in my hand since my pockets were underwater. I handed it to someone while I clambered over the wall. It quickly became known that I had brought it along. Apparently, I was the only one brave (or foolish) enough to bring a phone, and it quickly became public property. Everybody wanted a picture in the tunnel, and my phone passed from hand to hand. Thankfully, it survived the ordeal and was returned to me safe and sound by the time we returned to daylight.
After climbing over the wall, we proceeded through a tunnel in ankle-deep water. The floor was flat and even, but along one side ran a deeper channel. Finally, we came to a point where the tunnel widened out into a small chamber. The tour guide stopped there to give an explanation in Hebrew. Somebody, who had caught on to the fact that I didn’t understand Hebrew, whispered to me that this was the point where the water disappeared into a fissure in the rock.
After the explanation we turned around and retraced our steps back to the small pool. We climbed the wall a second time, and recrossed the water, this time to a point where daylight streamed through a small opening. This was the secret entrance to the city that I mentioned above. We clambered out through the opening and stood on the slopes below the ancient city. Above us, carved into in the rock face of the hillside, were ancient tombs. I peeked into one, which looked to me like an Iron Age tomb. We climbed the hillside to rejoin the others who had not gone through the water with us.
After this, we assembled at the winery for another explanation in Hebrew. Of course, I couldn’t understand it, but it was nice to sit, basking in the sunshine, while my clothes dried. This was the end of the tour, and we hiked back down the hill to where we had left our vehicles.
Pritchard, James B. 1962. Gibeon, Where the Sun Stood Still. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Pritchard, James B. 1964. Winery, Defenses, and Soundings at Gibeon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.