Dig a deep hole in the ground and you have a pit, a bor in Hebrew. In the bible you can use it as a dungeon, or line it with cement and use it as a cistern to store water. A bor is also part of the underworld where the souls of the dead go.
This Sunday is Tisha B’Av, the annual Jewish day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple—both the first temple, razed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.E., and the second temple, razed by the Romans in 70 C.E. On Tisha B’Av it is customary to read the book of Lamentations/Eykhah, a series of five poems which mourn the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonian army.
The first poem opens with the word Eykhah (“How can it be?”)1 and expresses the desolation of the ruins of Jerusalem. The second poem, which also begins Eykhah, calls the destruction “the day of God’s wrath” over the misdeeds of Jerusalem’s people. The fourth and fifth poems combine the two themes, with emphasis on starvation and being at the mercy of the enemy.
The third poem, however, reads like one of the personal psalms in which the ancient poets feel as if they are near death, and plead with God to bring them back to life and take vengeance against their enemies.2 Only in verse 40 does the third poem of Lamentations switch from “I” to “we”, urging all the people of Jerusalem to plead with God for forgiveness and rescue.
Let us check on our ways and cross-examine [ourselves], and turn back to God! (Lamentations 3:40)3
The first person singular returns with:
Streams of water go down from my eyes over the shattering of my people. (Lamentations 3:48)
Shortly after that, the narrator, identifying with Jerusalem, claims that the Babylonians did not actually need the city.
My enemies actually hunted me like a bird, for no reason.
They silenced my life in the bor, and in their hand was a stone against me.
The waters rose over my head. I thought: “I am ended!”
I called your name, God, from the bottom of the bor.
May you hear my voice! Do not shut your ear to my spirit, to my cry for help! (Lamentations/Eykhah 3:52-56)
bor (בּוֹר) = a pit; a cistern, a dungeon, a synonym for Sheol.
Here the bor is not a physical cistern or dungeon, but a poetic image for Sheol, the underworld of the souls of the dead. Bor is used at least 21 times in the Hebrew Bible to indicate either Sheol or the lowest region of Sheol, but this is the only such reference that includes water. Souls never drown after they are dead in ancient Hebrew mythology. Thus the narrator of this poem is not dead, but despairing of life. The poet uses the images of both stone and water, comparing the bor of Sheol to a cistern filling up with water.
The narrator, like all the citizens of defeated Jerusalem, is trapped—unable to float to the surface and escape.
A full cistern
Next week Jews read from Va-etchanan (“And I implored”), the second Torah portion of the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim. In this portion cisterns are listed as assets that the Israelites will enjoy once they conquer the land of Canaan:
… cities big and good that you did not build, and houses filled with everything good that you did not fill, excavated borot that you did not excavate, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. And you will eat and you will be satisfied. [Then] take heed, lest you forget God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. (Deuteronomy 6:10-12)
borot (בֺּרוֹת) = plural of bor.
How lovely to move into a land already dotted with cisterns that collect and store water for the dry season! Moses reminds his people not to take the cisterns for granted, since they did not excavate them. Canaanites dug them, and the Israelites will conquer Canaan only with God’s help.4
The books of Exodus through Joshua treat the conquest of Canaan as an unmitigated good, since it results in fertile land for the Israelites, not to mention pre-existing amenities such as cities, houses, and cisterns. The bible does not consider the Canaanite point of view.
But I can imagine poets from the various conquered peoples of Canaan writing laments after the Israelites besiege and loot their cities, destroy their temples, and kill many of their people. The conquest of Canaan by the Israelites under Joshua is the same story as the conquest of Judah by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar; only the names and dates change.
An empty cistern
Cisterns holding water are mentioned twelve times in the Hebrew Bible. Dry cisterns and dry pits are mentioned at least 31 times. They serve as hiding places,5 a warrior throws bodies of the slain into them,6 and large animals fall in.7 Psalm 7:16 refers to a man falling into a pit he dug himself, a fine image of being caught in your own trap.8
Since the walls of an empty cistern are covered with cement, they do not provide handholds for a human to climb out. The only escape is for someone at the top to throw you a rope.
At least thirteen times the bible mentions a dry bor, it was excavated to serve as a dungeon. Five times in Genesis, in the portion Vayeishev (“And he settled”), the bor is an empty cistern that Joseph’s older brothers use as an ad-hoc prison.
They see Joseph coming up the road to check on them, and they know he will give a negative report to their father, as usual.
And they said, each man to his brother: “Hey! Here comes the master of dreams! And now let’s go murder him, and let’s throw him into one of the borot, and we can say a wicked beast ate him. Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams!” … And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood! Throw him into this bor that is in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and return him to his father. And it happened when Joseph came up to his brothers. They stripped his tunic off Joseph, the fancy tunic that he had on, and they took him and threw him into the bor. And there was no water; the bor was empty. (Genesis 37:20-24)
It would take about two weeks for a healthy adolescent like Joseph to die of dehydration at the bottom of the pit, less if there were no shade. Before Reuben can return with a rope to rescue him, Judah sells Joseph to a caravan. The traders pull him up out of the bor and take him to Egypt as a slave.
A deep hole in the ground is beneficial when it becomes a cistern full of water, or the basement of a building.9 But when it is used as a dungeon, the captive will die unless given food and water. A prisoner in a dungeon can hope for a reprieve or a rescue, but if the bor is Sheol you can only be saved if God heeds your prayer as you go down. There is no life after death in that bor; at best the disembodied souls lie in eternal sleep.10
Today, when we are depressed we feel “down”, trapped in a mysterious place without life or meaning. In English we call it “a pit of despair”.
May everyone who sinks into a pit find a way to cry out for help and be rescued, whether the rescuer is a fellow human being or the voice of God within.
- See my post Devarim, Isaiah, & Lamentations: Desperation.
- g. Psalms 28, 30 and 88, all of which mention bor as a synonym for Sheol.
- Since the poem is an acrostic, verse 40 must begin with the letter nun, נ. When the prefix nun is attached to verbs in the perfect tense, it indicates the second person plural. However, the prefix nun can also be used to indicate the simple passive (nifal) verb stem, and there are many other words that begin with a nun, so switching to the second person plural for a word beginning with nun is a deliberate choice on the part of the poet.
- See my post Eikev, Va-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?
- 1 Samuel 13:6, 1 Chronicles 11:17-18, and Proverbs 28:17.
- Jeremiah 41:7-9 and 1 Chronicles 11:17-18.
- Exodus 21:33-34, 2 Samuel 23:20, and 1 Chronicles 11:22.
- Psalm 7:16.
- The word bor is not used for a basement in the bible; the substructure of a building is called a yesod (יְסוֹד) = foundation, base.
- Unless they are disturbed by a diviner such as the witch of Endor, who summons the ghost of Samuel to speak briefly with King Saul in 1 Samuel 28:7-20.