Cistern (בּאר or בּוֹר, bor', from בָּאִר, to dig or bore, Gesenius, Thes. Heb. p. 176; Sept. usually λάκκος; Vulg. cisterna or lacus; A. V. generally "pool"), a receptacle for water, either conducted from an external spring, or proceeding from rain-fall (Jer 2:13; Pr 5:15; Ec 12:6; Jer 36:16; a pit, as often rendered; the mod. Arab. birkeh). Thus the cistern is essentially distinguished from the living spring עִיַן, a'yin; but from the well בּאֵר, beer', only in the fact that beer is almost always used to denote a place ordinarily containing water rising on the spot, while בּוֹר, bor, is often used for a dry pit, or one tha' may be left dry at pleasure (Staniley, Palest. p. 512, 514). See AIN. But the pit into which Joseph was cast by his brethren (Ge 37:24) was a beer or dry well (Thomson, Land and Book, 1, 442).
The dryness of the summer months between May and September in Syria, and the scarcity of springs in many parts of the country, make it necessary to collect in reservoirs and cisterns the rain-water, of which an abundance falls in the intermediate period (Shaw, Travels, p. 335; Jerome, quoted by Harmer, 1, 148; Robinson, 2:98; Kitto, Thys. Geogr. of Palest. p. 302, 303). See WELL. Hence the frequent mention of cisterns in Scripture, and more especially of those which are found in the open country. These were, it seems, the property of those by nwhom they were formed (Nu 21:22). They are usually little more than large pits (see Ecclesiasticus 1:3), but sometimes take the character of extensive subterraneous vaults, open only by a small mouth, like that of a well. They are filled with rain-water, and (where the climate allows) with snow during winter, and are then closed at the mouth with large flat stones, over which sand is spread in such a way as to prevent their being easily discovered (comp. the "sealed fountain" of Song 4:12). If by any chance the waters which the shepherd has thus treasured up are lost by means of an earthquake or some other casualty, or are stolen, both he and his flocks are exposed to great and imminent danger, as are also travelers who hasten to a cistern and find its waters gone (comp. Judith 7:21). For this reason a failure of water is used as the image of any great calamity (Isa 41:17-18; Isa 44:3). There is usually a large deposit of mud at the bottom of these cisterns, so that he who falls into them, even when they are without water, is liable to perish miserably (Ge 37:22 sq.; Jer 38:6; La 3:53; Ps 40:2; Ps 69:15). In cities the cisterns were works of much labor, for they were either hewn in the rocks or surrounded with subterraneous walls, and lined with a fine incrustation. SEE BETHESDA. The system which in this respect formerly prevailed in Palestine is doubtless the same that exists at present; and indeed there is every probability that most of the cisterns now in use were constructed in very ancient times. Dr. Robinson assures us that "the main dependence of Jerusalem at the present day is on its cisterns; and this has probably always been the case" (Researches, 1, 480). Both large and small cisterns are frequent throughout the whole of Syria and Palestine, and for the construction of them the rocky nature of the ground affords peculiar facilities, either in original excavations or by enlargement of natural cavities. Dr. Robinson remarks that the inhabitants of all the hill country of Judah and Benjamin are in the habit of collecting water during the rainy season in tanks and cisterns, in the cities and fields, and along the high roads, for the sustenance of themselves and their flocks, and for the comfort of the passing traveler. Many of these are obviously antique, and exist along ancient roads now deserted. On the long-forgotten way from Jericho to Bethel "broken cisterns" of high antiquity are found at regular intervals. Jerusalem, described by Strabo as well supplied with water, in a dry neighborhood (16, 760), depends mainly for this upon its cisterns, of which almost every private house possesses one or more, excavated in the rock on which the city is built. The following are the dimensions of four belonging to the house in which Dr. R. resided: 1, 15 x 8 x 12 feet deep; 2, 8 x 4 x 15; 3, 10 x 10 x 15; 4, 30 x 30 x 20. The cisterns have usually a round opening at the top, sometimes built up with stone-work above, and furnished with a curb and a wheel for the bucket (Ec 12:6), so that they have externally much the appearance of an ordinary well. The water is conducted into them from the roofs of the houses during the rainy season, and with care remains sweet during the whole summer and autumn. In this manner most of the larger houses and public buildings are supplied (ib.). Josephus (War, 4, 4, 4) describes the abundant provision for water supply in the towers and fortresses of Jerusalem, a supply which has contributed greatly to its capacity for defense, while the dryness of the neighborhood has in all cases hindered the operations of besiegers. Thus Hezekiah stopped the supply of water outside the city in anticipation of the attack of Sennacherib (2Ch 32:3-4). The progress of Antiochus Sidetes (B.C. 134) was at first retarded by want of water, though this want was afterwards unexpectedly relieved (Joseph. Ant. 13, 8, 2; Clinton, 3, 331). Josephus also imputes to divine interposition the supply of water with which the army of Titus was furnished after suffering from want of it (War, 5, 9, 4). The Crusaders also, during the siege A.D. 1099, were harassed by extreme want of water, while the besieged were fully supplied (Matth. Paris, Hist. p. 46, 49, ed. Wat.). Benjamin of Tudela says very little water is found at Jerusalem, but the inhabitants drink rain-water, which they collect in their houses (Bohn's ed. of Early Travels, p. 84). Barclay gives the most complete description of the subterranean reservoirs of Jerusalem, particularly those under the Haram enclosure (City of the Great King, p. 226, etc.). SEE JERUSALEM. The defense of Masada by Joseph, brother of Herod, against Antigonus was enabled to be prolonged owing to an unexpected replenishing of the cisterns by a shower of rain (Josephus, Ant. 14, 15, 2), and in a subsequent passage he describes the cisterns and reservoirs by which that fortress was plentifully supplied with water, as he had previously done in the case of Jerusalem and Ma1chaerus (War, 4, 4, 4; 4:6, 2: 7:8, 3). Burckhardt mentions cisterns belonging to private houses, among other places, at Sermein, near Aleppo (Syria, p. 121), El Bara, in the Orontes valley (p. 132), Dhami and Missema in the Lejah (p. 110, 112, 118). Tiberias (p. 331), Kerek in Moab (p. 377), Mount Tabor (p. 334). Of some at Hableh, near Gilgal, the dimensions are given by Robinson (Later Researches, p. 137): 1, 7 X 5 X 3 feet deep; 2, nearly the same as 1; 3, 12 x 9 x 8. They have one or two steps to descend into them, as is the case with one near Gaza, now disused, described by Sandys as "a mighty cistern, filled only by the rain-water, and descended into by stairs of stone" (Sandys, p. 150; but see Robinson, 2, 376). Of those at Hableh, some were covered with flat stones, resting on arches, some entirely open, and all evidently ancient (Robinson, new ed. 3, 137). Dr. Olin (Travels, 2, 84) describes something of a better sort near Hebron: "Just without the city are some cisterns, which probably belong to a very early age. A large basin, forty-seven paces square, stands outside the gate by which we entered thee city. It was nearly full of greenish water, and. has been repaired at a period apparently not very remote. It is of very solid workmanship, built of hewn limestone, and may be eighteen or twenty feet deep. The descent is by flights of stairs situated at the four corners, by which the water is brought up in vessels and skins, and poured into troughs for the flocks, or carried away for domestic uses. It was not at this time fit for drinking. Another pool, of smaller dimensions, occupies higher ground on the north side of the city. These reservoirs are filled by the rains, and are unconnected with any perennial fountain." Vitravius (8, 7) describes the method in use in his day for constructing water-tanks, but the native rock of Palestine usually superseded the necessity of more art in this work than is sufficient to excavate a basin of the required dimensions. The city of Alexandria is supplied with water contained in arched cisterns supported by pillars, extending under a great part of the old city (Van Egmont, Travels, 2, 134). SEE POOL.
Empty cisterns were sometimes used as prisons and places of confinement. Joseph was cast into a "pit" (בּוֹר, Ge 37:22), and his "dungeon" is called by the same name (Ge 41:14). Jeremiah was thrown into a miry though empty cistern, whose depth is indicated by the cords used to let him down (Jer 38:6). To this prison tradition has assigned a locality near the gate called Herod's gate (Hasselquist, p. 140; Maundrell, Bohn's ed. of Early Travels, p. 448). SEE PRISON. According to Thomson (Land and Book, 2, 262-4), dry cisterns are often used in Palestine for granaries, and are very liable to be plundered of their wheat by ants. SEE GRANARY.
Various allusions by way of figure are made to cisterns in Scripture. The breaking of the wheel at the cistern — the wheel that was used to send down and pull up again the bucket which drew water from the larger cisterns — is used in Ec 12:6, as an image of the- breaking up of the- animal economy, which perpetually sends, while it is at work, the flow of vital blood from the heart to the extremities. To drink waters out of one's own cistern is a proverbial expression (Pr 5:15) for confining one's self to the legitimate sources of pleasure which God has associated with our state, as contradistinguished from those which are the property of others. But the merely human and artificial nature of cisterns, which are of man's workmanship, and have no living spring within them, serve as a fit emblem of the insufficiency of creature confidences, and of the folly of preferring these to the infinite and everflowing fullness of God as in the solemn charge of the prophet, "My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water" (Jer 2:13). SEE WATER.