American Edward Robinson a former Congregationalist minister, was the first person in modern times to scientifically explore the marvel of Hezekiah’s Tunnel.
The year was 1838, the place was Jerusalem, and Robinson was lying at full length, dragging himself on his elbows through a low, narrow tunnel. He gave no thought to the fact that, at any moment, a tremendous flood could suddenly come cascading through the tunnel, trapping him and his team underwater.
The tunnel being traversed by Robinson was one of three major water systems used in ancient Jerusalem. It is commonly referred to as Hezekiah’s Tunnel, because its planner and builder was the Judean King Hezekiah (2 Ki. 18:1–2).
Near the end of the eighth century BC, the channel was cut through solid bedrock 200 feet beneath the old City of David in a section called Ophel Hill.
This channel is so impressive because, while so much of Old Testament Jerusalem has perished or still waits to be discovered, this unique rock-hewn tunnel still exists today almost as it did seven hundred years before Christ.
Hezekiah (727–698 B.C.) was king in Jerusalem when the Assyrian army was preparing to attack all the cities of Judah (2 Ki. 18:13). Anticipating a siege, the king was troubled that the city’s main water supply lay just outside the walls. He therefore planned to dig a long underground aqueduct to connect the waters from the Gihon (Gushing) Spring, located outside of the eastern wall, to a huge reservoir inside the city on the southwestern side (2 Ki. 20:20; 2 Chr. 32:2–4, 30). This reservoir later was known as the Pool of Siloam and was the place where the water ritual that was part of the Feast of Tabernacles took place (Talmud Sukkot 4:9). It was to this pool that Jesus sent the blind man to rinse his eyes in the water to be healed (Jn. 9:11).
The tunnel’s engineering was quite an astounding feat. The daring scheme proposed that two teams of cutters start from opposite ends with the hope that they would meet somewhere near the center. By listening to the sounds of the other party’s picks, each team feverishly chopped away … There are many theories concerning why the tunnel was hacked in a zigzag pattern. One contributing factor was that each party occasionally lost its way and tunneled in the wrong direction. They then would stop, listen for the other team’s pick sounds, and resume digging toward those sounds. This caused the conduit’s peculiar serpentine course with several turns and twists.
An astonishing discovery was made on a hot day in June 1880. A young Christian Arab boy, playing in the tunnel, accidentally found a commemorative inscription carved on the wall vividly describing the drama of those last moments before the two parties met. The Hebrew script is datable to Hezekiah’s day. The famous inscription is now in the Museum of Ancient Orient in Istanbul, Turkey. Depending on the political situation, it is possible it may be loaned back to Israel for the 1996 celebration of the 3,000th anniversary of the old City of David.
Today it is still possible to wade into the brown-green waters of this ancient aqueduct with candle in hand. In some sections you can stand erect with the water line around your hips. However, the tunnel becomes low in spots, and you have to walk bent double to pass through. It is usually about that time that you begin to admire the common sense of the folks who refused to come with you. The side walls are about two feet apart and clammy to the touch. It is obvious that no attention was given to uniformity of workmanship, suggesting the urgency of their task because of the impending Assyrian siege. Many marks made by the axes of the workmen can be seen clearly on the stone. The distance from end to end is 1,750 feet, or one-third of a mile.
One can well imagine the Prophet Isaiah watching its construction and rebuking Hezekiah, lest he bask in pride over his accomplishment (Isa. 22:9–11). You can almost hear the prophet’s exhortation echoing through the tunnel that, in spite of this protective measure for the city, it is God alone who will fight for Zion and deliver her from all enemies (Isa. 31:4–5)—words applicable to even our best achievements today.
Well, the water did come gushing in on Robinson and crew. What he discovered was that every 30 minutes, right down to the present day, the Gihon Spring bursts forth, causing the water level to rise slightly, although never posing any danger.