Wells, Camels and Pitchers of Water – Rebekah’s Story
I was intrigued when my wife, Kathleen, read the following passage to me in The Old Testament Study Guide, Thomas R. Valletta, ed.,1 “On a long journey, camels can drink between twenty and fifty gallons of water…(Muhlestein, Essential Old Testament Companion, 50-51).” That statement was made in reference to Abraham’s eldest servant being sent out to find a wife for Isaac. We read in Genesis 24:10-11; 19-20; 45 “And the servant [of Abraham] took ten camels of the camels of his master, and departed; for all the goods of his master were in his hand: and he arose, and went to Mesopotamia, unto the city of Nahor. And he made his camels to kneel down without the city by a well of water at the time of the evening, even the time that women go out to draw water…And …Rebekah came forth with her pitcher on her shoulder; and she went down unto the well, and drew water…And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking. And she hasted, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels.” According to Muhlestein, as quoted by Valletta, that’s as much as two to five hundred gallons of water that Rebekah ran again and again to the well, drawing water with her pitcher, and pouring it into a trough for the camels! If her pitcher held a maximum of five gallons (and that would be a very heavy pitcher), that would make her running back and forth between the well and the trough around forty to one hundred times – apparently while all the men sat around and watched. Such activity seemed to me to be rather extreme.
The ten camels that Abraham’s servant took to Nahor would have been dromedary camels, typical of Africa and the Middle East. According to the Library of Congress website,2 camels “…drink large amounts of water – up to 20 gallons at a time. This water is stored in the animal’s bloodstream.” Water is not stored in the camel’s hump, which is a fat storage reserve. Even though camels can drink up to 20 gallons at a time, no one with any sense would drive an animal to the point of complete water loss unless he couldn’t avoid it. Therefore, Abraham’s servant, as a good husbandman, would likely have given the camels in his charge as much water as possible along the way. So Rebekah likely would have made somewhat less than forty trips down unto the well and back up – apparently while the men were still sitting around watching.
But how many trips did she likely make? The Library of Congress website is a secondary source no matter how reliable, so I decided to check the primary literature. A study published in 2011 by Bekele et al. in the Journal of Dairy Science found that although a camel deprived of water for sixteen days can drink 23.25 gallons, the normal daily intake of water is around 4.49 gallons.3 Furthermore, camels are able to supplement their water intake by the food they eat – even dry food can provide a camel with supplemental water.
So maybe Rebekah only made ten trips down unto the well, one for each camel, carrying around 4 ½ gallons of water in the pitcher on her shoulder. There is still no indication in the scripture suggesting that the men offered to help. My drawings below are based on a pen and ink by Domenico Gargiulo, called Micco Spadaro, Italian (1609 – 1675) of a woman carrying a pitcher of water on her shoulder and from a modern photo of a water delivery man carrying a five gallon jug of water on his shoulder. Comparison of these two drawings suggests that a woman could carry a water pitcher on her shoulder containing around three to five gallons. Therefore, Rebekah carrying a water pitcher on her shoulder with four to four and one half gallons is not unreasonable to imagine. That volume of pitcher is quite consistent with Herold Copping’s painting of Rebekah by the Well, pictured at the beginning of this essay.
The scripture (Genesis 24:45) specifies that Rebekah “went down unto the well, and drew water.” Genesis 24:16 makes this even more clear: “…she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up.” Many wells at the time (Isaac perhaps lived from around 1896 BC to 1716 BC) apparently had a staircase leading from the surface down to the water level of the well. Notice that the painting at the beginning of this essay,Rebekah at the Well by Harold Copping, shows Rebekah coming up some stairs out of the well, carrying an earthen pottery jar that would hold probably four to five gallons of water. So, it appears that on each trip “down unto the well” and back “up,” Rebekah traversed the stairway in addition to the distance from the well to the trough – as Abraham’s eldest servant and the men with him (c.f. Genesis 24:32) continued to watch passively.
Drawing water for the family apparently was the work of young women. We are told in Genesis 24:11 and 13 that in, “…the evening…women,…daughters of the men of the city…go out to draw water.” I have been unable to find references other than those in Genesis 24 concerning the exclusive roll of young women in drawing water. It is interesting in this story that neither Abraham’s eldest servant nor the men with him, also apparently servants, offered to help Rebekah carry water for their camels. It is as though there was some apparently unspoken prohibition against men drawing water, at least from this particular well.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
1. The Old Testament Study Guide, Thomas R. Valletta, ed., Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2021
2. Library of Congress website; loc.gov/everyday-mysteries/item/how-much-water-does-a-camels-hump-hold