Pride and Water Pools: The Siloam Inscription

By Mark Mayberry

Jerusalem occupies a rather unique position, at least for a city serving as a national capital. Most capital cities are situated near a lake, a river, or with easy access to the sea. However, Jerusalem, located atop the spine of a mountain range in the central highlands of Palestine, is far removed from any significant body of water. 

Water, or the lack thereof, always has a major impact upon man’s ability to live in a particular area. This is particularly true of the city of Jerusalem. The original city of David was easily defended, surrounded on three sides by valleys: the Kidron to the East, the Hinnom to the South, and the Tyropeon to the West. Commanding heights provided strategic superiority. Nevertheless, despite strong fortifications, Jerusalem had no permanent water supply within her protective walls. There are, and have been, various reservoirs, wells and pools. However, all depend upon the rains or aqueducts to fill them. The ancient city had only one reliable, perennial water source — the Gihon Spring, located in the Kidron Valley, outside and below the defensive walls.

The Jebusites, the original inhabitants of Jerusalem, cunningly overcame this limitation. Channeling water from the Gihon Spring back under Mt. Zion, into a pool at the bottom of a shaft that rises to join an inclined tunnel, the Jebusites were able to provide for secure access to a permanent water supply from behind their fortress walls. 

The Gihon Spring plays a role in two renowned Bible stories, both of which, incidentally, well demonstrate the problem of pride. During the time of David, the Jebusites arrogantly boasted of their ability to defend Jerusalem. During the time of Hezekiah, the Assyrians arrogantly boasted of their ability to destroy Jerusalem. In both cases, pride went before destruction (Prov. 16:18; 18:12). Therefore, let us study both incidents, discovering such historical, archaeological and ethical lessons as the text may hold.

Jebusite Arrogance

Along with the other Canaanites, the Jebusites were placed under God’s curse because of their sins (Gen. 15:18-21; Exod. 23:23). Joshua conquered southern Palestine, defeating the five allied kings of Canaan, including Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem (Josh. 10). However, the Israelites were unable to drive the Jebusites from their fortified stronghold (Josh. 15:63). Later, the sons of Judah captured and burned the city of Jerusalem (Judg. 1:8), but even then, the rout was incomplete and the victory only temporary. The Jebusites soon recovered, and continued to inhabit the hill country of Judah (Judg. 1:21). Four hundred years passed before David captured the stronghold of Zion. The Jebusites arrogantly boasted in their ability to defend Jerusalem, saying, “You shall not come in here, but the blind and lame will turn you away.” Nevertheless, David’s men entered the city of Jebus by stealth, climbing up through the aforementioned water tunnel (2 Sam. 5:6-10; 1 Chron. 11:4-9). The pride of the Jebusites brought them low.

Assyrian Arrogance

In 701 B.C., Sennacherib, king of Assyria, invaded the Levant. Marching down through Phoenicia and Palestine, his armies wrecked havoc, destroyed numerous cities, carrying away many captives, and much spoil. After the siege and capture of Lachish, Sennacherib sent envoys to Jerusalem, demanding tribute and capitulation. Then, surrounding the city, the Assyrians prepared to lay siege to Judah’s capital (2 Kings 18-19; 2 Chron. 32; Isa. 36-39). 

Anticipating this very threat, Hezekiah had strengthened the defenses of Jerusalem and provided for a more secure water supply. He stopped the Gihon Spring from flowing into the Kidron Valley, and redirected its waters into the Pool of Siloam, located on the Western side of the city of David (2 Chron. 32:30). In a remarkable demonstration of masonic craftsmanship and engineering skill, Hezekiah’s workmen dug a tunnel through a continuous mass of solid rock. The actual length of this channel, with its twists and turns, is 1750 feet, although the direct distance is only 1100 feet. The completion of this project accomplished two goals: (1) it prevented the invading Assyrians from having easy access to water, and (2) it insured a stable and secure water supply for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, even during times of siege (2 Chron. 32:1-8, 30; 2 Kings 20:20). 

Hezekiah carried Sennacherib’s ultimatum into the temple, spread it out before the Lord, and prayed, “Incline Your ear, O Lord, and hear; open Your eyes, O Lord, and see; and listen to the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to reproach the living God” (2 Kings 19:14-19). The prophet Isaiah brought a message of divine comfort and consolation unto this righteous king. Then it happened that night that the angel of the Lord went out and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men rose early in the morning, behold, all of them were dead (2 Kings 19:35). 

In antiquity, official scribes were normally very selective in what they chronicled, giving a detailed accounting of great victories, but omitting any reference to crushing defeats. As would be expected, no mention is made of this disaster in the Assyrian annals. Yet, sometimes silence speaks louder than words. Sennacherib boasts of having defeated 46 towns and imprisoned Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage.” Yet, he never claims to have conquered the city of Jerusalem, nor do the official accounts tell of the end of the siege. If he had been successful, would he have shown such modest reserve? Certainly not. Calamity had overtaken him. With his army annihilated, Sennacherib returned to his palace in Nineveh. Some years later, he was assassinated by two of his sons. The boastful pride of the Assyrian king led to his downfall.

Modern Arrogance

In 1880, a youth, while wading up this very water channel, accidentally discovered an inscription cut into the wall, located about nineteen feet back from where it opens into the Pool of Siloam. Written in a script used in the days of Hezekiah, this inscription commemorates the monumental task workmen faced in excavating the tunnel through solid rock; it celebrates the moment that two gangs, working from opposite ends, using wedge, hammer, and pickax, finally met: 

This is the story of the boring through: whilst [the tunnellers lifted] the pick each towards his fellows and whilst three cubits [yet remained] to be bored [through, there was heard] the voice of a man calling his fellow, for there was a split in the rock on the right hand and on [the left hand]. And on the day of the boring through, the tunnellers struck, each in the direction of his fellow, pick against pick. And the water started to flow from the source to the pool, twelve hundred cubits. A hundred cubits was the height of the rock above the level of the tunnellers” (Kathleen Kenyon, Royal Cities of the Old Testament 139).

Completing their task without any of the elaborate equipment on which modern engineers would rely, theirs is truly a remarkable accomplishment. Furthermore, it serves as a call to humility for those who arrogantly boast in modern technological superiority. It is a subtle rebuke to chronological snobbery. Hezekiah’s triumph is a reminder that contemporary man does not have an exclusive claim to genius (Ps. 75:5; Prov. 8:13; 30:13). 

Some wonder at the curiously winding course of Hezekiah’s tunnel, as it carries water down the eastern flank of the hill, and then across the tip of the hill into the Tyropoeon valley. Various explanations have been given for this circuitous route. However, the simplest and most obvious explanation is that the tunnel diggers went astray, and did not follow a straight line. Yet, despite their meandering course, they made the necessary corrections, enabling the two crews to finally meet. The spiritual lesson is clear: We often get off course, but if we correct our mistakes, and press toward the goal, success will be ours in the end (Phil. 3:12-14; 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Sadly, the aforementioned inscription was surreptitiously cut from the wall of the tunnel in 1891 and broken into fragments. These were, however, recovered by the efforts of the British Consul at Jerusalem. The Siloam inscription is now housed in the Museum at Istanbul in Turkey.

David’s conquest of the Jebusite stronghold, and the deliverance that Hezekiah experienced from the hands of Sennacherib share two points of reference: both illustrate the perils of pride, and both are connected with the same pool of water — the waters which flowed from the Gihon Spring. In both cases, water served as a means to victory. Herein, one can see a comparison to the waters of baptism — crucifying the old man of sin, repudiating the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, we are saved through the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost (Rom. 6:3-4; Tit. 3:5-6; 1 Pet. 3:21). 

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLV: 1  p8  January 4, 2001