In what is considered to be one of the engineering marvels of the world, beneath Jerusalem lays the connecting tunnel from the Spring of Gihon to the Pool of Siloam. The events that pushed a king in Judah to do the unimaginable in order to secure his people are recorded by both the king and his encroaching enemy from Assyria. To accomplish the task will require none other than the literal guiding hand of God.
King Hezekiah is one of the few kings in the history of Israel (Judah, in this case of the divided kingdom) that is recorded as “doing right in the sight of the Lord.” The irony of this is that he was born of King Ahaz, who was an abundantly wicked man (2 Kings 16, 17). Not only did he (Ahaz) desecrate the temple, have his own altar built (and placed before the actual altar of the Lord in the temple), encouraged idol worship and depended on the nations to defend him, but he also offered human sacrifice of his own children to idols. It is incredible how the heart of a son can be so different than the heart of his father.
Because of Ahaz’ wickedness (and north Israel’s king Hoshea), enemies plundered the land of Israel. Despite God’s warnings through His prophets (i.e. Hosea, Isaiah, Micah and Obed), Scripture states that they “stiffened their neck like their fathers, who did not believe in the Lord their God.” By this time, Ahaz has already cut a deal with Assyrian king, Tiglath-pileser and bribed him with Temple treasury to defend him against his enemies.
An important side note here is that Pekah, King of north Israel, is one the enemies attacking Ahaz (Jerusalem, in particular). This means that the nation of Israel as a whole is fully engaged in civil war.
Also of note is, during this period, the Assyrians had a well-known reputation as being the most brutal nation in warfare. The mere notion of any contact, let alone chance of loss, would cause kings and their nations to tremble, because Assyria used the nobles to make an example. They would decapitate the political and religious figures in the cities conquered and stack their heads in pyramid form in the center of the town square. No one was allowed to dispose or bury the remains. This was to remind all who would see what would happen to them as well, if they contested.
Hezekiah is 25 years old when he takes the throne of Judah. He purges Israel of every idol he can find. In one case, it was something of antiquity that was never intended to be idolatrous. In fact, the object was quite the reverse when fashioned (cf. Numbers 21). The bronze serpent that Moses made for the rebellious nation of delivered Israelites to gaze upon had been kept for nearly 800 years. Hezekiah destroyed it because of their idolatrous worship. However, Judah was apparently burning incense to it in worship. Cleansing the nation, Hezekiah is described in Scripture as one who “trusted in the Lord” and who “clung to the Lord.” There was none like him, neither before, nor after (2 Kings 18:5).
Assyria had burned through north Israel, but their appetite was not yet satisfied. A new Assyrian king had arisen by the name of Sennacherib and he had his sights on Jerusalem. It would be there that he could take complete control of the land and within the Temple, would be treasures unspoken. Sennacherib is in the process of taking all the fortified cities of Judah as he makes his way towards Jerusalem. But Hezekiah was not one who would be considered a valiant king of war. Nevertheless, he knew he had to take some sense of defensive action to secure the city from such a ruthless foe. More shields and weapons were added. Plans were assembled and fortifications were reinforced (2 Chronicles 32:5). But something additional and substantial would be needed.
No matter how fortified a city’s walls might be against the battering rams of an invader, there are two things that can work together to bring a city to its knees over time – food and water. Of these two resources, water is the most valuable and it was typically brought in from the outside of the city walls (*see note on Warren’s Shaft at the end of this article). All Sennacherib would have to do is wait them out on thirst and starvation. Hezekiah knew this. So he made a plan and rapidly went to work. Time would be of the essence, because this project will literally require chiseling through solid rock. Secondly, with a spring of fresh water outside the city walls, the enemy would have a constant supply of water for its troops (2 Chronicles 32:2-4). To cut off the spring outside and divert it to the inside was a twofold plan.
The primary source of water for the city of Jerusalem is the Spring of Gihon (or “En-gihon” meaning “gushing” – see map). This is the same Gihon where Zadok anointed Solomon as king of Israel (1 Kings 1:38ff). Somehow, water would have to be routed from the spring into the city without giving an external enemy the opportunity to dam or redirect the stream. The only option would be to channel it underground. In 701 BC, Hezekiah employed his workers, who would cut through 1,748 ft of solid rock to connect the spring to the Pool of Siloam in the city walls. Workers started on opposite ends of the project and met in the middle upon completion. The tunnel has a number of curves in it that are presently unverifiable in intent. Many believe they were directional mistakes while others think it had to do with the stone density (otherwise known as “karst,” which is a natural fault line of sorts). Speculation regarding the engineering also suggests a possible method of sounding from the rock above to the chiselers below for direction.
An inscription was posted in the tunnel commemorating the event of the two teams meeting in their dig. The partial rendering reads, “The tunneling was completed… While the hewers wielded the ax, each man toward his fellow… there was heard a man’s voice calling to his fellow… the hewers hacked each toward the other, ax against ax, and the water flowed from the spring to the pool, a distance of 1,200 cubits.” The inscription was discovered in 1880 and removed in 1890. It is presently stored at the Imperial Museum in Istanbul.
The tunnel height starts at 5 ft high at the entrance and deepens to 16 ft at the end. However, the Ophel, which is the highest point in Jerusalem, is 130 ft above the tunnel. For 2,700 years, water has poured through the channel in the rock. The gradient is 12 inches from spring to pool, causing the water to continuously flow. Pick marks of the chiselers remain in the tunnel rocks today.
The traditional Pool of Siloam site has recently (in terms of archaeology) been contested. In 2004, a sewer system was being installed in the city when the excavator hit precut stones. Archaeologists continued the dig and discovered what many believe to be the actual Pool of Siloam of Hezekiah’s time. This location clearly predates the previous site, which dates closer to the Byzantine period. However, the Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR) group believes this “new” discovery to be a second pool (as the Byzantine is considered third). It is estimated that an older pool is directly located under the newest discovery. A notable point is that over half of the most recent site remains covered in rock and stone. This is because the remaining surface area is owned by an individual that refuses to allow any further digging. BAR experts believe this new discovery to be the actual place where Jesus healed the blind man (Luke 9:7ff).
As for the result of the confrontation between Sennacherib and Hezekiah, there are two main sources for reference. Scripture states that Sennacherib surrounded Jerusalem and taunted them to abandon Hezekiah and surrender. Meanwhile in the city, Hezekiah led the people in prayer to the Lord for deliverance. That night, an angel of the Lord went out into the Assyrian army and killed 185,000 of the soldiers. The next morning, Scripture states that they literally “woke up dead.” Subsequently, Sennacherib leaves and goes to his capitol home of Nineveh, located in Assyria. Eventually, while Sennacherib is worshipping the Nisroch in its temple, two men kill him that are identified as his children.
However, upon returning home, Sennacherib records a different slant on what has been called the “Taylor Prism,” which now resides in the British Museum. For centuries, marauding kings would return to their homes and spectacularly document their victories, even in some occasions when they were technically defeated. The Taylor Prism is one such example. Sennacherib stated that he had Hezekiah “shut up like a caged bird.” While this is technically true, it does not fully represent the net result of his resounding defeat at Jerusalem and of course, his subsequent death at the hands of his own children.
In recent years, revisionist historians have attempted to alter the renderings and have deemed the Scriptures to be incorrect. However, the basis on which they mount their positions is largely assumptive and subjective.
*Warren’s Shaft – A 45 ft tunnel with steps down to a water access point that comes from the Spring of Gihon. The dates of when the shaft was dug are in dispute. However, many biblical scholars believe that this is where David gained access to Jerusalem with his mighty men when he took the city. The shaft ties into the front end of Hezekiah’s tunnel. Some have questioned the account of the construction and purpose of the tunnel if the shaft already existed within the city walls. However, the proximity of the shaft to the edge of the city walls did not necessarily offer the security of water supply in the event of the initial wall being breached. Two towers (1800 BC) were built at the entrance by the Canaanites to protect the water supply. As well as the base of the shaft and tunnels connecting, ruins of the towers have been preserved and are open to view.
- Numbers 21
- 1 Kings 1:38ff
- 2 Kings 16-17; 18-20
- 2 Chronicles 32
- Luke 9:7ff