An article published in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (the research journal widely known as BASOR) proposed a new understanding and dating of Jerusalem’s famous Siloam Tunnel, perhaps better known as “Hezekiah’s Tunnel.”The study by geologists Amihai Sneh, Eyal Shalev and Ram Weinberger, all with the Geological Survey of Israel, was titled “The Why, How, and When of the Siloam Tunnel Reevaluated.”1 Having examined the ancient water tunnel, the three authors suggest that it was excavated following existing karstic cavities (hollows that form through the dissolution of natural bedrock by mildly acidic ground waters). An important statement made in the article is that it would have taken the ancient workmen about four years to dig the 533-meter tunnel.
In a surprising departure from prevailing thought, the authors assert that the water tunnel could not have been constructed during the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah, in the late eighth century B.C.E., and particularly not in preparation for the Assyrian attack on Judah in 701 B.C.E. According to their understanding, there was not enough time to quarry out the impressive water system during Hezekiah’s preparations for the Assyrian onslaught. Accordingly, they suggest that the Siloam Tunnel was constructed later, in the seventh century B.C.E., by Hezekiah’s son Manasseh. 2
In marshaling evidence to support their model, however, the authors entirely ignore the only contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous textual sources that shed light on Jerusalem in the Iron Age II (and that specifically mention aspects of the city’s water system)—namely the narrative passages in Isaiah 7–8 and the historical allusions in Isaiah 36 and 2 Kings 18. The only reference to Biblical material in the article is the authors’ after-the-fact quotation of the single verse in 2 Chronicles 32:30, which recalls that Hezekiah stopped the upper watercourse of Gihon and brought it down to the west side of the City of David. This, the authors insist, refers not to the Siloam Tunnel (as it is usually interpreted), but to the watercourse generally referred to as the Siloam Channel.
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So if Sneh, Shalev and Weinberger are to be believed, “Hezekiah’s Tunnel” (the Siloam Tunnel) was not constructed by Hezekiah, but later, by his son Manasseh. And the Siloam Channel, usually attributed to a much earlier king of Judah, was actually the watercourse that 2 Chronicles 32 attributes to Hezekiah.
We see a number of problems with this model but will only comment on two. The first is the failure of the authors to acknowledge or deal with textual evidence that suggests that the Siloam Channel actually existed prior to Hezekiah’s reign. Specifically, the contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous allusions in Isaiah 7:3 (to “the conduit of the upper pool”) and 8:6 (to “the waters of Shiloah,” a.k.a. Siloam) strongly suggest that the Siloam Channel was already in existence prior to 732 B.C.E., early in the reign of king Ahaz, and well before the reign of Hezekiah. In fact, most scholars date it to much earlier than Ahaz. If so, how could Hezekiah have been the builder of the Siloam Channel?
The second problem we see is that the authors have skipped over a major piece of historical evidence that relates directly to the timing they propose. Based on the Assyrian historical records, there were four years between the beginning of the revolt against Assyria (both in the east and in the west) in 705 B.C.E. and the attack on Judah in 701 B.C.E. This is the same amount of time—four years—that Sneh, Shalev and Weinberger say was necessary to have quarried out and constructed the Siloam Tunnel! Yet they do not even mention this obvious chronological similarity.
Why would it be necessary, based on the authors’ own model, to propose a later date for the Siloam Tunnel’s construction when the window of time during Hezekiah’s revolt (705–701 B.C.E.) is the exact amount of time they propose was necessary? The failure to address this issue, or even acknowledge the four-year duration of the revolt, is a major shortcoming in the study.That the revolt of Hezekiah began in 705 B.C.E., directly after the death in battle of Sargon II, king of Assyria, is an accepted historical fact. Similar revolts by other Assyrian vassals in other parts of the empire occurred at the same time. Sargon’s successor, Sennacherib, was occupied quelling the revolts in the east during the first three years after Sargon’s death. It was only four years after Sennacherib’s coronation in 701 B.C.E. that he was able to turn west and conduct his ferocious campaign against Judah.
In the four years between the commencement of Hezekiah’s revolt and the arrival of Sennacherib in Judah, Hezekiah made ready for the inevitable Assyrian response. He put together a coalition of western kings to form a united front against Assyria (this alliance quickly fell apart when the Assyrians actually arrived in the Levant). In addition, he made all kinds of material preparations at home in Judah (see 2 Chronicles 32:2–8), including fortifying Jerusalem and various towns in the kingdom, preparing weapons, storing food and supplies (for which LMLK storage jars were probably utilized) and, of course, improving Jerusalem’s water system (2 Chronicles 32:30). Most scholars accept that the Siloam Tunnel (“Hezekiah’s Tunnel”) was part of this effort.
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To be sure, there is no specific inscription or other epigraphic proof that it was Hezekiah who had this unique water system constructed, or that it was actually done in the preparation for the siege (or earlier or later). Several verses separate the reference to the watercourse in 2 Chronicles 32:30 from the war preparation descriptions in 2 Chronicles 32:2–8. Maybe this is because the water project was not undertaken at the same time as the war preparations; perhaps it was earlier in Hezekiah’s reign, which began in 715 B.C.E. It can hardly have been later in Hezekiah’s reign, after 701 B.C.E., given the traumatized economy and weakened condition of Jerusalem in the aftermath of Sennacherib’s campaign in Judah.
Or perhaps the water project did indeed occur at the same time as the war preparations, and the author of Chronicles has only mentioned it as an afterthought. We cannot know for sure. But while we cannot state with certainty exactly when and how these events played out, a critical review of the study by Sneh, Shalev and Weinberger raises two questions:
(1) How could the authors not have addressed the obvious issues pointed out above, namely the textual allusions to existence of the Siloam Channel prior to Hezekiah’s reign and the historical evidence for the four-year period of Hezekiah’s revolt? Even if we allow that geologists might not be familiar with relevant historical or Biblical sources, these issues appear in just about any book describing the events leading up to Sennacherib’s attack. Was there any formative review involved in the production of this article?
(2) More important, how did the editors at BASOR and the peer reviewers who examined the article before its publication not catch these shortcomings and see to it that they were addressed prior to the article’s appearance in print?
Aren M. Maeir is professor of archaeology in the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and is director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.
Jeffrey R. Chadwick is Jerusalem Center Professor of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies and associate professor of religious education at Brigham Young University, and he serves on the senior staff of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archaeological Project.
1. BASOR 359 (2010), pp. 57–65.
2. It should be noted that, most recently, Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron have suggested that the Siloam Tunnel was excavated before the reign of Hezekiah (Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron, “The Date of the Siloam Tunnel Reconsidered,” Tel Aviv 38 (2011), pp. 147–157). This, though, is another issue and requires a separate discussion. See Hezekiah’s Tunnel Reexamined in the BAS Hezekiah’s Tunnel scholar’s study page.