WELL, SONG OF THE:
A poem which is quoted in Num. xxi. 17, 18. It is introduced in a list of the encampments made by Israel while crossing the wilderness. One of these camping-places was Beer. After this it is explained that Beer was the name of the well referred to when
"Spring up, O well, Sing ye to it: Thou well, dug by princes, Sunk by the nobles of the people, With the scepter, with their staves"
Budde ("New World," iv. 144 et seq.) points out that the word "midbar" (wilderness), which immediately follows, is never used as a proper name, and that in the present text it occurs awkwardly in the midst of a list of proper names. One would expect "from Beer" (they journeyed), and not "from the wilderness." He points out also that in an important group of manuscripts of the Septuagint the words "and from Mattanah," in verse 19, are omitted. He accordingly believes that "midbar" and "mattanah" were not intended as a part of the itinerary, but that they formed a part of the poem, which read:
"Spring up, O well, Sing ye to it: Thou well, dug by princes, Sunk by the nobles of the people, With the scepter, with their staves, Out of the desert a gift!"
Cheyne concurs in this view of the text (Cheyne and Black, "Encyc. Bibl." s.v. "Beer"). The song belongs to a class of ancient popular poetry of which, unfortunately, only fragments survive. This poetry consisted of short snatches sung in honor of the vine in time of vintage, and of wells and springs. Ewald thought that they were popular songs accompanying the alternate strokes of hard labor("Hist. of Israel" [English ed.], ii. 203). No complete vintage song survives, though probably a line from one is quoted in Isa. lxv. 8, and in the titles of Ps. lvii., lviii., and lix., and there are imitations of such songs in Isa. v. 1-7 and xxvii. 2-5.
The "song of the well" seems to be a complete popular song, addressed to a well. Budde and Cheyne, as is natural from their emended text, trace its origin to the Negeb, where wells were highly prized (comp. Gen. xxi. 25 et seq. and xxvi. 20 et seq.), and where indeed they were necessary to life (comp. Josh. xv. 19 and Judges i. 15). Budde believes that the song alludes to a custom by which, when a well or spring was found, it was lightly covered over, and then opened by the sheikhs in the presence of the clan and to the accompaniment of a song. In this way, by the fiction of having dug it, the well was regarded as the property of the clan. He thinks that a passage in Nilus (Migne, "Patrologia Græca," lxxix., col. 648) to which Goldziher had called attention confirms this view. Nilus says that when the nomadic Arabs found a well they danced by it and sang songs to it.
According to W. R. Smith, the use of the song was different: "The Hebrew women, as they stand around the fountain waiting their turn to draw, coax forth the water, which wells up all too slowly for their impatience" ("Brit. Quar. Rev." lxv. 45 et seq.). This would imply a Palestinian origin for the song, and suggests a use for it more in accord with Ewald's idea of the accompaniment to labor. Somewhat parallel to this conception of the purpose of the song is the statement of the Arabic writer Ḳazwini (i. 189), that when the water of the wells of Ilabistan failed, a feast was held at the source, with music and dancing, to induce it to flow again. The writer is inclined to accept Budde's view.
- W. R. Smith, Rel. of Sem. 1894, pp. 169, 183;
- Budde, in New World, 1894, iv. 136-144;
- Gray, Numbers, in International Critical Commentary, 1903, pp. 288 et seq.