Bible and Beyond
David’s general may have infiltrated Jerusalem via the water tunnels, after all

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The article by Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron (“Light at the End of the Tunnel—Warren’s Shaft Theory of David’s Conquest Shattered”) on ancient Jerusalem’s water system promises to be one of the most carefully read and widely cited articles we have ever published—because of its implications for King David’s conquest of Jerusalem. Yet the authors do not pursue those implications. As they say in the last paragraph of their article, “Whether any part of this water system may be associated with the tsinnor referred to in the Bible, we leave to others.”
Never one to decline an invitation like this, let me at least begin the discussion.

There are two relevant Biblical passages-

And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the City of David. And David said on that day, “Whoever would smite the Jebusites, let him get up the tsinnor [water shaft?] to attack the lame and the blind, who are hated by David’s soul.” … And David dwelt in the stronghold and called it the City of David.

2 Samuel 5-6–9

The second Biblical description of David’s conquest of Jerusalem appears in Chronicles-

And David and all Israel went to Jerusalem, that is, Jebus, where the Jebusites were, the inhabitants of the land. The inhabitants of Jebus said to David, “You will not come in here.” Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the City of David. David said, “Whoever shall smite the Jebusites first shall be chief and commander.” And Joab the son of Zeruiah went up first, so he became chief. And David dwelt in the stronghold; therefore it was called the City of David.

1 Chronicles 11-4–7

Whatever the “lame and blind” refers to, both Biblical passages plainly reflect the confidence of the Jebusites in their defenses. And it seems clear that the tsinnor was the key to the success of the Israelite assault, that Joab was successful in utilizing it and that he was therefore rewarded by being made the commander of David’s forces.

The first question is whether tsinnor in fact refers to a water shaft. The vast majority of translations from the second century A.D. to today do translate the word this way (or by an equivalent variation, such as water channel, watercourse, tunnel or gutter). But scholars have also suggested that it refers instead to a weapon, such as a dagger or a grappling hook (used to get up the city wall). Still others argue that it refers to a part of the body—throat, joint, socket or even penis. The evidence is reviewed by an eminent linguistic scholar in a 1994 BAR article.1 There Terence Kleven also brings to bear a recent Ugaritic parallel that supports the translation as “water shaft.” All in all, I think this debate has been largely settled in favor of the traditional translation of “water shaft” or the like.

The major problem was whether Warren’s Shaft was a reasonable candidate for this water shaft. As to this, there were two issues- (1) Was it in existence in the tenth century B.C., when David conquered the city? (2) Could Joab have climbed up this 40-foot vertical chimney?

At first, Yigal Shiloh, the latest excavator in the City of David, argued that Warren’s Shaft was not in existence so early. But Shiloh’s own geological expert showed that it was a natural formation that had been in existence for thousands of years.2

Then the debate centered on whether Joab could really have gotten up this shaft to gain entrance into the city. Admittedly, it was extremely difficult, but it could be done—indeed had been done, by Charles Warren himself with the help of scaffolding, by South African climbers with the help of climbing equipment, by Shiloh with the help of a rope ladder and, reportedly, by local Arabs without the aid of anything but their bare hands.

The work of Reich and Shukron now makes this last issue moot. Joab clearly was not required to climb up a 40-foot vertical shaft to get into the city because Warren’s Shaft was never part of Jerusalem’s water system. In short, the greatest obstacle to this understanding of the key to David’s conquest of Jerusalem has been removed. The hypothesis is no longer dependent on Joab’s ability to make this extraordinarily difficult climb.

As Reich and Shukron have shown, this system of underground tunnels connected the city, not to Warren’s Shaft, but to a massive tower enclosing the Gihon Spring. It is unlikely that we will ever know precisely what installations were inside this tower. It is clear, however, that the city’s inhabitants, coming to it from the underground tunnels, could lower containers into the water, probably from some kind of wooden platform, and then return to the city via the tunnels. The approach to the tunnels from the spring tower (and from there into the city) was almost surely much easier than from the bottom of Warren’s Shaft. It would no longer require a master climber, only someone clever enough to get inside the tower.

So this theory of David’s capture of Jerusalem now has a new life. There are still problems, however. One relates to the date. Reich and Shukron have securely dated the system to about 1800 B.C., long before David’s capture of the city. Was it still being used in about 1000 B.C.? There is no direct evidence that it was, although we know that it had not been replaced at that time, so it does seem likely (unless you believe that there was no city here for David to conquer.3)
Has the hypothesis been proven? No. Is it plausible? Yes. Will we ever know for sure? Unlikely.

1. Terence Kleven, “Up the Waterspout;How David’s General Joab Got Inside Jerusalem,” BAR 20-04.

2. Dan Gill, “How They Met,” BAR 20-04.

3. See Margreet Steiner, “It’s Not There- Archaeology Proves a Negative,” BAR 24-04. But see Jane Cahill, “It Is There- The Archaeological Evidence Proves It,” BAR 24-04 and Nadav Na’aman, “It Is There- Ancient Texts Prove It,” BAR 24-04. Most people believe that Cahill and Na’aman have the far better side of this debate. Also important are the comments of Professor William Schniedewind in a letter to the editor in the November/December 1998 BAR (see Queries & Comments, BAR 24-06). Professor Schniedewind powerfully brings to bear the weight of historical geography on the issue- Why would people in the tenth century abandon such an excellent site, with a rare water supply, natural defenses and nearby agricultural land, a site that had otherwise been continuously occupied for 5,000 years?