Have you ever considered the water needs of the historic temple in Jerusalem? Until I visited the Holy Land, I hadn’t. This week, I invite you to join me in a brief exploration of this topic as I continue my summer reflections on water in the desert.

Jerusalem is built on Mount Zion in the southern desert lands of Israel. King David captured this city and made it his capital. His son Solomon constructed the first temple upon it—a process outlined in great detail in I Kings 5–7. That first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians around 587 BCE. After Jewish leaders returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, they built a second temple, which was then vastly reconstructed by Herod the Great from 20–18 BCE. This renovated second temple is the one that Jesus knew.

Mikveh in Jerusalem by Shirin McArthur

So, what water needs did a Jewish temple have? First of all, there was the mikveh, or ritual bath, which you can see pictured here. A number of these were built into the steps that lead from Jerusalem up to the temple itself and were used for ritual purification before entering the temple. They might have also been the best source of water for baptism on the day of Pentecost, when about 3000 people joined the first followers of Jesus.

Water flowed through channels in the steps to keep it moving and fresh. This meant the need for a steady supply. Water was also needed to clean the various altars where animal sacrifices were made by priests each day. For example, when Jesus was presented in the temple (and Mary would have “purified” herself from childbirth by bathing in a mikveh), “they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.’”

Now, the average annual rainfall in Jerusalem is similar to that here in the Sonoran Desert of Southern Arizona. A dozen inches of rain over the course of the year will not go very far to meet these water needs, as well as for drinking and cooking—no matter how many rain barrels they might set up! Instead, the ancient Israelites tapped the Gihon Spring deep within Mount Zion. King Hezekiah constructed an elaborate tunnel system beginning in 701 BCE to bring water to the city and the temple.

During our 2022 pilgrimage to the Holy Land, we were able to walk through some of these tunnels, like the one above. In other places, the water still flows—and we could have walked there if we’d been willing to get wet up to our knees on a cold November day!

I invite you to think for a moment about the human effort it would have taken to carve out these tunnels with only simple human-powered tools. Before that, just accessing water from the spring required the effort of pulling a heavy, full bucket up a forty-two-foot shaft.

Now, ponder all the ways you use water in your life today. How many water taps do you have just in your home—sinks, shower, tub, fridge door…? What about water systems outdoors?

How much do you take clean water for granted? This week, I invite you to spend some time pondering the gifts of modern technology that allow us to access water so easily, even in desert places—and how much more precious water would have been for the ancient inhabitants of Jerusalem.

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