Broken Cisterns That Can Hold No Water

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Israel during the Iron Age (started before 1000 B.C. and ended around 700 A.D.¹) is believed to have had a climate similar to today’s. It can be very hot and dry, particularly during the summer months. Jerusalem typically receives less than 22 inches (554 mm), which is significant rain for a semi-arid region, but Jerusalem receives no to trace amounts of rain on average during the months of May through September. This makes the storage of potable water vital for sustaining life. In ancient times (and modern) cisterns were cut into rock and, if necessary, lined with waterproof plaster. Cisterns could be small or large, even large enough to be classified as reservoirs. Cisterns could collect rain water directly or receive run-off water that was filtered through layers of sand, silt, and rocks. Methods of construction varied by location throughout Israel and as technology advanced. One example of a cistern found in Israel is depicted below (Figure 1). Other cisterns were open and many were small. Open cisterns, such as those that were common throughout ancient Israel, were constructed in the following manner: “Only the conduits and the upper opening of the cistern can be seen on the surface. The opening is marked by a large stone in which a hole was cut, to which a wooden or an iron door was often attached. Below the opening a bottleneck was cut, lined with well-cut and dressed stones. This neck went down to the bedrock, usually the soft chalk. Below the bottleneck the cistern widened, typically in a rounded shape achieved by cutting into bedrock.” (Rubin, 1988). Many homes had cisterns built into the foundation in order to collect rain and drainage from the roof (Figure 2).

cistern

Figure 1. From Rubin, Rehav. “Water conservation methods in Israel’s Negev desert in late antiquity.” Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Figure 2. Small house cistern. Rubin, Rehav. "Water conservation methods in Israel's Negev desert in late antiquity." Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Figure 2. Small house cistern. Rubin, Rehav. “Water conservation methods in Israel’s Negev desert in late antiquity.” Journal of Historical Geography 14, no. 3 (1988): 229-244.

Water was and is important. Cisterns had to be constructed correctly otherwise they could leak water or the water could become contaminated. Cisterns had to be lined precisely and often needed plastering for waterproofing. If this was not done or was done incorrectly, the cistern was broken and could not hold water.

The prophet Jeremiah was from a village called Anathoth, which was 3 miles (4.83 km) north of Jerusalem. He lived around 600 B.C. The Lord called Jeremiah as a prophet and Jeremiah began his ministry around 626 B.C. and continued at least until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

Jeremiah showed great courage in the face of many trials. He prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem and called the people to repentance. The prophet Lehi, who plays a prominent role early in the Book of Mormon, was a contemporary of Jeremiah. Whereas Jeremiah’s mission was to remain as a warning voice to Israel, Lehi was commanded to flee Jerusalem, running over the wall, and head to a new, promised land. How lush and bountiful the Americas were compared to the land of Israel!

Jeremiah has been referred to as the “Weeping Prophet” because of his lamentations over the destruction of Israel and the wickedness of the people: “How doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow! she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary! She weepeth sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks: among all her lovers she hath none to comfort her: all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they are become her enemies.” (Lamentations 1:1-2). The great artist Rembrandt painted lamenting Jeremiah (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Lamenting Jeremiah. Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Figure 3. Lamenting Jeremiah. Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the book of Jeremiah we read of the two great evils of the people of Israel: “For 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.” (Jeremiah 2:13). The people of Israel turned away from God. They rejected the Living Fountain. The people of Israel had forgotten the miracle of Moses – the great salvation provided by God – when their mothers and fathers wandered in the wilderness: “And the people thirsted there for water; and the people murmured against Moses, and said, Wherefore is this that thou hast brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst? And Moses cried unto the Lord, saying, What shall I do unto this people? they be almost ready to stone me. And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (Exodus 17:3-6).

The Israelites forsook the Lord. They also “hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” Broken cisterns were life-threatening, particularly during the summer months. Wells and other sources of water were available but cisterns could be built close to homes and could be more easily defended. The Lord, through Jeremiah, lamented over the poor eternal craftsmanship of the Israelites. They were more focused on the things of the world than they were on the things of God. Many Israelites made choices to worship the golden calves created by their hands rather than turn to the Lord in remembrance of His great power and salvation. The people of Israel longed for the things of Babylon while not believing that destructive Babylon was on their doorstep, about to demolish their homes and lead them away into captivity. Rather than partaking of the living waters of the Lord and remaining free, their cisterns were broken and many perished. It’s no wonder that Jeremiah lamented!

                                                                                                                                     

¹Side note on the subject of iron and carbonized iron (steel). Steel was likely first produced before 3000 B.C. There is evidence of manufactured steel dating to about 1800 B.C. found in an archaeological site in Turkey (Akanuma, H. (2005). “The significance of the composition of excavated iron fragments taken from Stratum III at the site of Kaman-Kalehöyük, Turkey”. Anatolian Archaeological Studies 14: 147–158.). Steel dating from 667 B.C. has also been found in archaeological excavations in Thebes  (Williams, Alan R., and K. R. Maxwell-Hyslop. “Ancient steel from Egypt.”Journal of Archaeological Science 3, no. 4 (1976): 283-305.). This steel was thought to be brought by an invading Assyrian army. While bronze, copper, and iron were used broadly, steel was manufactured for tools and weapons all around the Mediterranean region, particularly the near/middle east. Steel was thus produced and used during the time of Jeremiah (which was also the time of Lehi, Nephi, and Laban [who, according to the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi, owned a steel sword]).

Perceptive Moses

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1 Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.

2 And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

3 And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

4 And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.

5 And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

6 Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.

7 And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;

8 And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; (Exodus 3:1-8).

This is a rich experience between Moses and The Lord. First comes the sign of the glory of The Lord – the burning bush. Why a burning bush? Moses was out in the desert. Seeing wildfires was not uncommon. So maybe at first Moses saw the bush appearing to be on fire and didn’t think much of it. But then he realized that the bush was not being consumed – the fire was not wildfire, it was something else. So Moses turned aside, temporarily leaving his flocks, to investigate. When The Lord saw that Moses was paying attention and taking the time to approach, He spoke to Moses. Moses heard and heeded and was in turn blessed to not just see the presence of The Lord but also to see Him.

How many times in our lives does The Lord wait for us to notice Him and approach Him? How many times have we missed great blessings because we did not or would not notice the Lord’s presence? Do we put the things of the world first rather than putting God above all else? Do we take the time to see the many signs of God around us? Do we recognize His hand in our lives? Do we see and appreciate the tender mercies of The Lord?

Moses did and was richly blessed with the presence of The Lord. At first, Moses was afraid, hiding his face but Moses gained confidence at the urging of The Lord and spoke with The Lord face to face, learning the calling The Lord had for him. Moses was called as prophet, a great prophet who would go before the children of Israel and lead them out of captivity into a land of promise.

Path to the Temple

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At the start of His ministry, Jesus went out to the desert to fast. He spent 40 days fasting. After He finished His fast “he…hungered” (Luke 4:2). I would have been hungry before the end of the 40 day fasting period, but that’s just me. After His fast, the Savior had an interesting experience with Satan. It’s interesting not so much because of Satan’s intrusions but rather because of what Jesus experienced in spite of Satan.

At the end of His fast, while Jesus was still in the desert, Satan tempted Him to turn stones into bread. He who created the earth, turned water to wine, and walked upon water could have turned stone to bread. Doing so would not have been a sin. What He did not do – what would have been a sin – is follow Satan’s command. After the desert, Jesus went up to a high mountain. There He was again assailed by Satan, who this time wanted Jesus to worship him. Lastly, Jesus went to the temple in Jerusalem. There Satan tried again to tempt Him, this time quoting scripture. Jesus again cast Satan aside.

The progression of these three experiences and locations is interesting. In the first, Jesus wandered in the desert, much like the children of Israel being led by Moses out of Egypt. They searched for the promised land, a land where they could grow and prosper and build a temple. The children of Israel wandered for 40 years in similitude of the Savior’s 40 days.

In the second experience, Jesus went on top of a high mountain, as Moses did to speak with the Lord. There, like the Savior, Moses was confronted by Satan (see Moses 1:12-16) who commanded him to worship him. Moses cast Satan away, just as Jesus did.

Then in the third experience, Jesus traveled to the pinnacle of the temple, an elevated place upon that elevating building. After His visit to the temple Jesus “returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region roundabout.” (Luke 4:14). Jesus was endowed from on high and began His ministry in earnest and with great power that others now saw and recognized (see Luke 4:15). It is not coincidence that the Savior visited the temple before He started His ministry.

This progression of wandering in the desert, communing with God on the mountain, and gaining great power at the temple is the path we must all take – it is the path from natural man or woman to sanctified man or woman. This path also can be viewed as a priesthood path (I’m not saying this is what Jesus experienced it just mirrors the progression of and through the priesthood). Prior to these experiences, Christ was baptized (Luke 3); then He wandered in the desert like the children of Israel (Aaronic/Levitical priesthood); next He went to the mountain top like many of the prophets of old (Melchizedek priesthood); and lastly, He went to the temple (endowment). Satan, of course, tried to stop Him in this process, but was unsuccessful. Do we respond like the Savior and cast Satan aside when he tries to tempt us to leave to path of salvation? Do we get turned aside by baubles or false idols, or do we follow the Savior to the temple?

The Witness of the Book of Mormon, Part 2

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What is key to understand is that the Bible is a collection of individual books. These books were selected over the years, eventually comprising what we now know as the Bible. The two main divisions of the Bible – the Old and New Testaments – can be viewed as old and new covenants with the covenant people of the Lord (and with the broader world). This is not strictly true because the “new covenant” was largely the original “oldest covenant” (although there were some differences – animal sacrifice being one of them. Adam offered up sacrifices unto the Lord); when Moses was called to restore the covenant that had been lost during the years of the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt, he found that the people were slow to listen. They had grown stony hearts in Egypt, hearts that yearned too much for the deaf but permissive idols of the Egyptians. [Image source].

The Lord, understanding the hardness of His people’s hearts, restored unto them through Moses, not the covenants originally made with Adam but a new covenant of strict ordinances and laws – a covenant that would command them in many things but ultimately prepare them to receive the higher and original covenant. It was not until the coming of the Savior upon the earth that the new covenant was made (or, more closely, re-introduced). However, this new covenant was quickly lost from the earth. The priesthood, which allowed the ordinances of the covenant to be performed with true authority, was lost. The people apostatized. The covenant would not be known in its fullness until the Lord started revealing it unto His prophet Joseph Smith in 1820. That restoration took a number of years before it was complete. Our living prophet continues to receive more light from the Lord. We live in a day when we have the fullness of the gospel, a thing that never occurred before on the earth, at least not in the general and widespread manner it is today.

As Latter-day Saints we have the Bible. We revere it and love it. We follow its teachings and place it first in our canon. Elder Ballard spoke these words about the Bible at General Conference in April 2007,

“It is a miracle that the Bible literally contains within its pages the converting, healing Spirit of Christ, which has turned men’s hearts for centuries, leading them to pray, to choose right paths, and to search to find their Savior. The Holy Bible is well named. It is holy because it teaches truth, holy because it warms us with its spirit, holy because it teaches us to know God and understand His dealings with men, and holy because it testifies throughout its pages of the Lord Jesus Christ. Abraham Lincoln said of the Bible: ‘This Great Book . . . is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong’ (Speeches and Writings, 1859–1865 [1989], 628).”

We do not, however, view the Bible as the breadth, width, and depth of God’s words to His children. The Bible is a collection of the words of prophets. That is what makes it special! It is a record of the revelations given to prophets over thousands of years. Surely prophets received many other revelations that are not recorded in the books of the Bible! We know that the Savior taught many things are not contained within the Bible: “And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book” (John 20:30); “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. Amen” (John 21:25). While John was using hyperbole, the underlying meaning is true – there are many things that the Savior said and did that are neither contained in John’s writings nor the writings of the other prophets.

There are many things Jesus said and did that we do not have in the Bible. This is true for all the prophets throughout history. Scrolls and tablets and other things to write on were relatively expensive and difficult to manage. Scrolls decomposed quickly, parchment was very expensive, and tablets or plates were awkward. In addition, not every one could write. Many prophets lived in circumstances where they traveled a lot or they had other things to deal with – wars and families and employment. The words and prophecies that were recorded were selected because they were the most important or they were selected because they survived time, or both. It is a miracle we have the Bible as it is!

Link to part 1 of this essay.