The availability of water was the most important survival factor in the desert. Several biblical images about searching for water came from the Israelites’ experiences of wilderness wandering. One such example is conveyed in Psalm 63:1, where the need for God is compared to a thirst like that of someone lost in the desert.

Winter rains in the north and west of the Negev were heavy. Because the soil of the mountains could not absorb all the water, it ran off into the arid wilderness. The enormous runoff created deep canyons, called wadis.

Floods in the desert occurred unexpectedly. The sky would be clear, the sun shining, and suddenly a wall of water roared through the narrow canyon. Anyone unfortunate enough to be in the wadi was washed away. The raging waters left behind refreshing pools, and it was the task of the shepherd to determine if they were the safe and “quiet waters” referred to by the psalmist (Ps. 23:2).

A significant part of the shepherd’s life was finding water for the sheep. Sheep lacked discernment and would sometimes choose dangerous water. That is why the shepherd had to lead the sheep. The good shepherd knew the safe and dangerous times to enter a wadi, and he knew where to find quiet pools. Knowledge of both was essential to ensure the flock’s survival.

In settled conditions, or in places where many shepherds gathered, a well was often dug to water the flocks. The shepherds’ responsibilities thus increased to include drawing water for the flock. Sometimes sharing a well created conflict among shepherds. Conflict over scarce resources forced Abraham and Lot to separate (Gen. 13:5-11).


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